10 ways to make your heart healthier

There is no better thing that you can do for yourself than to ensure a happy, healthy heart. Heart disease is one of the leading causes of death in the United States, yet there is so much we can do to protect our hearts.

According to the Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention (CDC), 610,000 Americans die from heart disease each year — that's one in four deaths. Another 735,000 suffer a heart attack each year. For millions, a few lifestyle changes might have prevented an early death.

"Heart disease is the leading cause of death for people of most ethnicities in the United States, including African Americans, Hispanics, and whites. For American Indians or Alaska Natives and Asians or Pacific Islanders, heart disease is second only to cancer," the CDC says. To put it into perspective, someone in the United States has a heart attack every 42 seconds.

Your heart has been very good to you. You may think you have years before you have to worry about heart disease, but early prevention is essential for a healthy heart later on. "It's like finding the fountain of youth," Donald Lloyd-Jones, MD, of Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine, told WebMD. "People who follow these steps not only live longer, but they also spend a lot more time healthy, without cardiovascular disease."

Here are a few recommendations to keep your ticker ticking well.

Get moving

Many of us exercise to help keep the pounds off, but getting your body moving will also do wonders for your heart.

You don't have to go crazy, but exercising for about 30 minutes each day, five days a week, will help you take care of your heart. It doesn't matter what type of exercise you choose, but it should be strenuous enough to break a slight sweat, Lloyd-Jones says. "If you're doing nothing, do something. And if you're doing something, do more," he noted.

He also recommends moving throughout the day. "We now know that even if you exercise for 30 minutes a day, being sedentary for the other 23 1/2 hours is really bad for your heart," Monika Sanghavi, MD, assistant professor of cardiology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, says.

As a writer, I spend most of my day sitting. I find it really difficult to get up and move around. If it's in your budget, you might consider investing in an exercise device like a fitbit or iwatch. I have one, along with an app that alerts me every hour, reminding me to get up and walk around. It has been wonderful for me because without it, I forget to get up from my desk.

I also aim to get 10,000 steps in each day. I find that having a step counter really motivates me each day to keep moving. Also, think about getting up and walking around as you speak on the phone or while watching TV; and remember to take those stairs at every opportunity.

Stop smoking now

This is one of those recommendations that is a no brainer, but a bad habit that can be very difficult for many to break. However, smoking greatly increases your risk for heart disease, says the CDC, and is the leading cause of preventable death.

While E-cigarettes are becoming more popular by the day, that doesn't mean they don't come without risk. "They don't contain the harmful chemicals in cigarette smoke, and they can help some people wean themselves off of smoking," Lloyd-Jones says. "But they still do contain nicotine, so your goal should be to quit completely, not just switch to a less toxic version." When you do quit, you'll be happy to know that your risk for coronary heart disease will diminish quickly.

Also avoid second-hand smoke as if your life depended on it because that may literally be the case. Studies show that the risk of developing heart disease is about 25 to 30 percent higher for people who are exposed to secondhand smoke at home or work. The American Heart Association notes that exposure to tobacco smoke leads to about 34,000 premature heart disease deaths and 7,300 lung cancer deaths each year.

So put those cigarettes down. Your heart will thank you for the sacrifice.

Watch your weight

Another way to ward off problems with your ticker is to keep an eye on your weight. The CDC says being overweight or obese increases your risk for heart disease. Doctors use your body mass index (BMI) to determine if your weight is in a healthy range. If you know your weight and height, you can calculate your BMI at the CDC's Assessing Your Weight website.

Excess weight can lead to elevated blood pressure, blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels, while lowering HDL (good) cholesterol levels. "It can make diabetes more likely to develop, too. Lifestyle changes that help you maintain a 3-5 percent weight loss are likely to result in clinically meaningful improvements in blood glucose, triglycerides, and risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Greater weight loss can even help reduce BP and improve blood cholesterol," the American Heart Association says.

There are many reasons to keep the weight off, but your heart health should be a priority.

Fuel your heart

What you put into your body can literally mean life or death later on.

I recently had a physical and learned that my cholesterol is slightly elevated. Since heart disease is prevalent in my family, I am very sensitive to anything that might indicate I'm headed down that path, so I have made quite a few changes to my diet. I refuse to let genetics solely determine my fate and consequently, I feel really good about taking control of my health.

In fact, I no longer worry about fitting into a size 6. All the fad diets have become a thing of the past. Instead, I am eating what is best for my body, especially my heart.

Today, I follow the recommendations of the American Heart Association by eating a variety of healthy fruits and vegetables, lots of whole grains, low-fat dairy products, skinless poultry and fish, nuts and legumes and non-topical vegetable oils. "Limit saturated fat, trans fat, sodium, red meat, sweets and sugar-sweetened beverages," says the association. "If you choose to eat red meat, compare labels and select the leanest cuts available."

My doctor suggested I follow the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) eating plan or the Mediterranean Diet, which is also suggested by the Mayo Clinic. "Research has shown that the traditional Mediterranean diet reduces the risk of heart disease," notes the Mayo Clinic. "The diet has been associated with a lower level of oxidized low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol — the 'bad' cholesterol that's more likely to build up deposits in your arteries."

Don't forget to incorporate omega-3 fatty acids, which can help ward off heart disease. Many fish, such as salmon, tuna, sardines, and herring, are rich sources of omega-3 fatty acids. Try to eat fish at least twice a week, suggests the AHA. Also, watch your alcohol intake. While some studies suggest that a glass of red wine is heart-healthy, excessive alcohol actually weakens the heart.

Get enough sleep

Getting enough sleep is an essential element in keeping your heart healthy. One study looking at 3,000 adults over the age of 45 found that those who slept six to eight hours per night had a healthier heart. Researchers believe sleeping too little causes disruptions in underlying health conditions and biological processes, including blood pressure and inflammation.

"It's not completely clear why less sleep is detrimental to heart health, but researchers understand that sleeping too little causes disruptions in underlying health conditions and biological processes like glucose metabolism, blood pressure, and inflammation," the Sleep Foundation says. Try to get seven to eight hours of sleep most nights. Studies show that getting enough sleep at any age is important for heart health.

"Recent research has shown that too little sleep earlier in life could take its toll as well," the foundation notes. "For example, in one study, adolescents who didn't sleep well were at greater risk for developing cardiovascular problems. Those teens had higher cholesterol levels, a higher body mass index, larger waist sizes, higher blood pressure, and an increased risk of hypertension. It's easy to see how these alterations in childhood health could snowball into major concerns later on, and why it's important to protect sleep at every age." If you suffer from sleep apnea, you should be treated as this condition is also linked to heart disease and arrhythmias.

Take care of your teeth

This one may come as a surprise, but a healthy mouth can determine your risk for heart disease. People who suffer from periodontal (gum) disease often end up suffering from heart disease.

"Studies continue on this issue, but many have shown that bacteria in the mouth involved in the development of gum disease can move into the bloodstream and cause an elevation in C-reactive protein, a marker for inflammation in the blood vessels, notes The Cleveland Clinic. "These changes may in turn, increase your risk of heart disease and stroke."

To keep your teeth and gums — and your heart — healthy, floss and brush your teeth daily. And visit your dentist every six months for a check-up and cleaning.

Learn to manage your stress

Stress is a killer, yet for many of us, learning to manage stress is a real challenge. I am not a patient person, so trying to meditate or incorporating breathing techniques into my daily routine is really hard. This is when my health device comes in handy. I use an app that reminds me every hour to take a minute from my day to incorporate some deep breathing. It really helps me relax and carry on with my day refreshed.

I do this because I know that stress is brutal on my heart and can contribute to a variety of other health issues, as well. "When stress is excessive, it can contribute to everything from high blood pressure, also called hypertension, to asthma to ulcers to irritable bowel syndrome ," said Ernesto L. Schiffrin, M.D., Ph.D., physician-in-chief at Sir Mortimer B. Davis-Jewish General Hospital, and professor and vice chair of research for the Department of Medicine at McGill University in Montreal.

When you are under stress, your body releases adrenaline, a hormone that temporarily causes your breathing and heart rate to speed up and your blood pressure to rise. If you remain in constant stress, the toll can be great on your heart and overall health. You can help alleviate your stress by exercising, maintaining a positive attitude, not smoking, not drinking too much coffee, enjoying a healthy diet and maintaining a healthy weight.

Love your way to a healthy heart

This might be one of the more enjoyable heart-healthy activities you can incorporate into your health regimen. Frequent sexual activity is not only fun, it can be very good for your heart.

According to research published in the American Journal of Cardiology, a lower frequency of sexual activity is associated with higher rates of cardiovascular disease. "People in a loving relationship can enjoy the many health benefits of sex, in addition to the emotional connection and a shared feeling of well being," notes the Cleveland Clinic.

Physical touch also relieves stress and can lower blood pressure, according to researchers. In one study, couples who held each other's hands for 10 minutes followed by a 20-second hug had healthier reactions to subsequent stress, such as public speaking.

Another study of 10,000 men found that those who felt "loved and supported" by their spouse experienced a reduced risk of angina, even if they had other risk factors like being older or having raised blood pressure. So feel free show a little love to your partner. It's good for your heart.

Laughing is always good medicine

We've heard the old saying, "laughing is good medicine." Turns out, laughing truly is good, especially for your heart. Don't just LOL on Facebook. Find opportunities to laugh out loud for real.

According to the AHA, research shows that laughing can lower stress hormones, decrease inflammation in your arteries and can raise your levels of high-density lipoprotein (HLD) — the good cholesterol. So make it a habit to watch your favorite comedy show on TV (while you walk around your living room to get moving) or browse the internet to find those funny videos. Spending time with good friends, while sharing a couple of giggles, is always a good option for your heart, as well.

Have regular physicals

Keeping tabs on your health by having a yearly physical is essential in the longterm. It's much better to practice a preventative health program than to wait for problems to arise. This is true for your overall health but even more so for your heart because healthy lifestyle changes can make all the difference.

I know that having a physical alerted me to my elevated cholesterol, and I'm grateful that I found out now and can do something about it. Learn the healthy levels for your blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol and triglycerides and incorporate the changes in your life to ensure that you will keep those numbers in check.

"Regular cardiovascular screening is important because it helps you detect risk factors in their earliest stages," said Barry A. Franklin, Ph.D., director at William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Mich., and an American Heart Association volunteer. "This way, you can treat the risk factor with lifestyle changes and pharmacotherapies, if appropriate, before it ultimately leads to the development of cardiovascular disease."

Be heart smart

Don't break your own heart. The earlier you incorporate the lifestyle changes recommended by scientists and physicians, the better is your likelihood that you will live a long and healthy life.

Remember the three Es: exercise, eat well and enjoy life. Your heart will thank you for it.