The Five Best Worst Habits to Break

(So You Won’t Break Your Heart)

  1. Smoking

You already know how bad this is for you.  And even if you don’t smoke, if you’re around others who do, you’re being exposed to chemicals that contribute to the build-up of plaque in your arteries. Bad, bad, bad.

Don’t do it, and stay away from those who do. Yes, quitting is hard, very — ask anyone who’s done it, especially those who’ve done it many times. But it can be done, and more than a million people do it every year. You can be one of them (or you can get that friend that’s blowing smoke in your face to be one). It used to be the only way to quit was cold turkey. But now there is all kinds of help. Nicotine patches don’t require a prescription and, if you follow the protocol, can ease you through the withdrawal and “I’d like to kill someone” phase. There are prescription pharmaceuticals available as well – talk to your doctor. You’ll breathe easier and your heart will be so relieved. And, you won’t have to sneak out to the parking lot for a smoke during your coffee break.

  1. Sloth

Get off your butt and move. Of course you should be getting at least 30 minutes a day of intentional, aerobic exercise (like walking, biking, etc.). You know that. Exercise is good for your bones, your muscles, your weight management, your lungs, your mood, and your heart. But in addition to that minimum, it’s important to keep moving throughout the day. You’ve probably heard that “sitting is the new smoking.” Maybe not quite as bad, but studies show that people who sit for most of the day have a huge increase in cardiovascular events (think heart attack), as well as an increased chance of dying from such an event.

Try not to ever go a full hour without getting out of your chair and taking a quick spin around your office, neighborhood, house, or yard. Pace off a route that is 250 steps and set your Fitbit, iWatch, or smartphone to remind you to get up and take those steps before each hour is up. A 250 step walk will not even take three minutes (really, try it). That’s so little to ask for a heart that does so much for you.  And that quick walk will lift your spirits and clear your head, too.

  1. Snoring and Too Little Sleep

More and more is being learned about the benefits and importance of a good night’s sleep for your overall health, weight, cognitive functioning (immediate and long-term) and well-being — and the happiness of your heart is no exception. You need sleep, and probably more than you are getting. And you need good sleep. One way to figure out how much sleep you, personally, should be getting is to go to bed one night without setting an alarm and see how many hours later you wake up on your own feeling rested. Initially you might be surprised at how many hours you can sleep, but that’s probably because you’re sleep deprived. Within a few days, though, you’ll settle into a reasonable pattern. On average, that should be between seven and eight hours of good sleep.

What’s “good” sleep? Well, if your mate (or worse, your neighbor two doors down) complains that you snore like an elephant all night, you might have sleep apnea – a very serious condition that disrupts your sleep all night long and can lead to a stroke or heart attack. If even after seven or more hours of sleep you wake feeling tired and then spend a lot of your day yawning and daydreaming about napping, consider talking with your doctor about having a sleep study done. It could save your life.

Other ways to make sure your sleep is good is to practice good “sleep hygiene.” Whole books have been written on this subject, and if you have trouble falling and then staying asleep, it will be worth your time to do further study on this. But if you are like most people, so busy that you feel you can’t spare two extra hours to sleep, experiment for a few nights with getting at least seven hours. You might be very surprised to find that because you feel better, have more energy, and are mentally sharper, you get a lot more done in fewer hours during the day and don’t need the time you thought you couldn’t spare to sleep. And you’ll have done your heart a big favor.

  1. Alcohol Consumption

You don’t have to be a teetotaler to be kind to your heart, but be smart. You probably remember the headlines from a few years ago: Two Glasses of Red Wine a Day Can Be Good for Your Heart! Oh, didn’t we love hearing that? But come on, no one needs to drink alcohol, certainly not in the same way you need to quit smoking, get plenty of exercise, or eat and sleep well. Almost none of the smart people, and that includes the CDC, the American Heart Association, Harvard Medical School, and your mother, think you should drink for your health – just to your health, and only now and then. The recommendations, if you drink at all, are one drink per day for women and two for men – but you know the truth. None is better. Or, enjoy the occasional cocktail at a party, beer at a ballgame, and glass of wine with dinner on the weekends. Deprivation makes you cranky, and that’s not good for anything. So go ahead and raise a toast, just not too often.

  1. Junk Food / Fast Food / Processed Food

Trans-fats, the kind you get a load of with that tasty, salty, delicious basket of French fries from your favorite fast-food restaurant or in that bucket of movie theater popcorn are so, so bad for your heart. It’s a shame because, really, who doesn’t love something fried in oil? But don’t treat your heart that way, or —as with that margarita, just do it once in a while and you will be forgiven. Also avoid any packaged, processed supermarket food that includes “partially hydrogenated oil” as one of its ingredients. That’s just another name for trans-fats.

You need fat, and there are plenty of healthy ones that enhance the taste of food and are good for you to boot. Olive, canola, nut, and avocado oils to name a few. Avoid lard, non-dairy creamers (read the ingredient list – ick), hydrogenated margarine and shortening, coconut, palm, cottonseed, and palm-kernel oils.

And the other part of quitting the junk food habit is, of course, developing good healthy eating habits: Enjoy a lot of salads made with dark leafy greens, tomatoes, avocado, and other veggies (with an olive oil and lemon or vinegar dressing); choose a piece of fruit over a packaged confection for dessert; try to eat fish as often as you eat other kinds of (lean) meats – especially omega-3 cold water fish like salmon, trout, and sardines; and avoid refined carbohydrates. In other words, eat low on the food chain – but not so low that you are overemphasizing carbohydrates. Make sure the carbohydrate-heavy foods you eat (like bread) don’t include added sugar, trans-fats, or lots of ingredients you can’t pronounce.  Choose whole grains and seeds over refined and processed foods.  The less that’s been done to a food, the better it is for you.  So choose real food.

The added benefit of avoiding all the foods that are bad for you in favor of healthy, whole foods is weight management. Being overweight puts unnecessary strain on your heart, so if you can maintain (or achieve and then maintain) a healthy weight, this is an extra kindness for your heart. Have you ever felt winded or stressed after carrying something heavy from your car to the house? When you’re overweight, that’s how your heart feels all the time.

The things you do (and quit doing) to protect your heart will also benefit your other organs, your bones, your skin, and your state of mind.  So there’s nothing but upside to all of this. And, of course, without your heart beating strong, all that other stuff is just for show.

Take good care.

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