This story will help you save your own life. That's because one in four deaths in the U.S. each year are caused by heart disease, making it the number one killer of women. But right here is where you'll learn how to outsmart the condition. Just a few simple swaps in your day-to-day routine can lower your odds of cardiovascular disease by more than 80%. “It’s empowering to know that our lifestyle choices can eradicate the top risk factors,” says Suzanne Steinbaum, DO, a cardiologist and a spokesperson for the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women. So in honor of February being Heart Month, we asked Steinbaum to share her best strategies for avoiding leading risk factors for the disease.
Danger zone: Obesity How to dodge it: Catch more shut-eye
Getting those coveted seven hours of zzz’s isn’t only important for being alert the next day—it’s vital for your physical well-being too. People who don’t get enough sleep have a higher risk of being overweight or obese. Make it easy to doze off in your room by removing the TV and computer, cleaning up any clutter and making a to-do list for the next day, then leaving it in another room. Also, give yourself ample time to relax before closing your eyes.
Danger zone: High blood pressure How to dodge it: Get zen
“There’s an important link between our mind and our heart,” says Steinbaum. “How we feel affects our cardiovascular status.” Wind down by incorporating stress management into your daily schedule. Mindfulness techniques, such as meditation and yoga, have been shown to lower blood pressure, but you can also squeeze in simple breathing exercises. That could be as easy as taking a few minutes to focus on inhaling and exhaling while waiting for your kids at school. All these practices help decrease stress hormones (adrenaline and cortisol) and inflammatory markers in the body that are released during a stress response and temporarily cause your heart to beat faster and your blood vessels to constrict.
Danger zone: Diabetes How to dodge it: Make moves Several studies have shown that one mega-beneficial workout method for those with diabetes is high-intensity interval training (HIIT). This involves short bursts of difficult exercise followed by brief periods of active rest. “A big mistake people make when doing HIIT is letting their heart rate drop too low at the recovery intervals,” says Steinbaum. Track your numbers by wearing a monitor, like the FitBit Charge HR ($150) or Garmin Forerunner 15 ($140). To find your maximum heart rate, subtract your age from 220. Don’t let your heart rate fall below 75% of max during the less-intense intervals; you should be at 90% to 95% during the rigorous ones. Fitness novices take note, though: HIIT can be hard on your joints, so ease into it. The more in shape you get, the longer and more extreme the intervals should become.
Danger zone: High cholesterol How to dodge it: Revamp your diet
In general, aim for 1,800 to 2,000 calories a day of primarily fruits, vegetables, fiber-filled legumes and nuts, which provide good-for-you fats. Opt for fish rich in omega-3s to help lower your bad LDL cholesterol. Limit items loaded with saturated fat, like full-fat dairy products, butter and red meats, and cut back on trans fats, found in many processed and fast foods. Also, keep your salt intake to no more than 2,300 milligrams a day. (For a full refresher on what your plate should look like, go here.)
Danger zone: Smoking How to dodge it: Quit ASAP
Smoking is the most preventable risk factor for heart disease, one that every woman can and should avoid. Stop cold turkey, chew gum, wear a patch or head to cessation seminars—whatever method works for you. (Also, encourage your kids to never pick up a cigarette, even electronic ones. A study published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics found that teens who used e-cigarettes were more likely to smoke the conventional type.) To stop for good, it’s also essential to avoid any triggers that make you want a puff, like a morning coffee break or post-work happy hour with friends.
Suzanne Steinbaum, DO, is a cardiologist and the director of Women's Heart Health at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. She's also the mother of a son and author of Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum’s Heart Book: Every Woman’s Guide to a Heart-Healthy Life—Reduce the Effects of Stress, Promote Heart Health, and Restore the Balance in Your Life. You can learn more about her at srsheart.com.