Want to make your New Year’s resolutions really count this year? Some of the vows you make — to eat healthier, exercise more, reduce stress or quit smoking — really get to the heart of the matter.
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“Common New Year’s resolutions often come down to boosting heart health, even if that’s not necessarily your initial intention,” says interventional cardiologist Leslie Cho, MD.
Sticking to these goals can help you improve your heart health for the long haul.
Dr. Cho recommends making seven heart-healthy resolutions that will serve you well all year — and beyond.
Getting a physical is important for everyone — and yes, that means you. Why? Because heart disease is the No. 1 cause of death of American men and people assigned male at birth, while women and people assigned female at birth are more likely to experience less obvious signs of heart disease that only a healthcare provider can identify.
“Going in for a checkup is always a good thing,” says Dr. Cho, who sees many patients who haven’t been to a doctor in years. “It’s an opportunity for you to talk with your healthcare provider about any health concerns you have.”
They’re trained to spot and manage health issues, including chronic diseases like heart disease, that don’t always come with visible symptoms. During a physical, they’ll track important data related to your heart, like your:
They’ll also ask about your health habits, like how often you’re physically active, what your diet looks like and whether you drink, smoke or use drugs — all activities that play a major role in heart health.
You already know that exercise is good for you, but while you may typically associate exercise with a toned figure and stronger muscles, it also does a world of good inside your body.
“Exercise lowers your cholesterol and your blood pressure, which are both important risk factors for heart disease,” Dr. Cho states. “It’s also great for your mental health and has a dramatic impact on your likelihood of developing diabetes.”
But don’t let yourself be overwhelmed or put off by the idea of increasing your activity levels. Small steps can have a big effect on your heart health.
“Maybe exercising means you get off the elevator one floor before your destination and walk up that extra flight of stairs,” Dr. Cho illustrates. “Maybe it means parking farther away from the entrance to your office and walking a little bit extra. These little things make a very big difference.”
What you eat plays an enormous role in your risk of heart disease, but Dr. Cho doesn’t want you to think about it as dieting.
“Truly embracing healthy eating habits isn’t a diet, it’s a lifestyle,” she says. “You’re not just eating for each individual day; you’re eating for longevity and for a better quality of life.”
Look into the elements of a heart-healthy diet, and figure out where you need to make changes. Whether you resolve to go fully vegetarian in the new year, to start incorporating more plant-based foods or to finally tackle your sweet tooth, dietary changes can go a long way toward improving your heart health.
“Diet really makes a humongous impact,” Dr. Cho reiterates.
When you’re feeling overwhelmed and frazzled, it’s not just your mental health that suffers.
“Stress is a really potent risk factor for heart disease,” Dr. Cho warns. “Highly anxious people tend to have more heart attacks and strokes.”
Stress produces the hormone in your body that causes your blood pressure and heart rate to skyrocket, which can lead to heart attack and stroke. Stress also affects your entire lifestyle, causing you to eat more food, get less sleep and maybe even drink more alcohol.
This year, resolve to make time in your day to do things that help you relax. Try meditation, talking with friends, getting outside for a walk or reading a book. And, of course, as we mentioned, there’s always exercising, which releases the stress-reducing hormones known as endorphins.
Need a little extra help? The internet can sometimes increase your stress levels (take a social media break!), but it also has the potential to be a tool for good. There are lots of websites and apps that can help you keep calm by embracing practices like meditation, reflection and breathwork.
Shorting yourself on sleep can cause all kinds of problems for your heart.
“Consistently getting less sleep can increase blood pressure and cause inflammation,” Dr. Cho explains. “That part of the brain that activates during sleep deprivation is near the part where hunger is, so we know that if you don’t sleep, you eat more.”
Not getting enough sleep can also contribute to hypertension, atrial fibrillation and heart failure.
To get more ZZZs:
If you smoke or use other products that contain nicotine, resolve to quit the habit in the new year. Doing so is great for your entire body, including your heart.
“Smoking is so bad for your heart,” Dr. Cho stresses. “Truly, it’s one of the worst things you can do, not just for your heart but also for your overall health, including your lungs and brain.”
She also cautions that the risks associated with smoking are additive, building on top of any existing risk factors you may have.
“If you smoke and you have high cholesterol, you have now doubled your risk,” she says. “The same is true if you smoke and have high blood pressure, or if you smoke and have high cholesterol.”
Quitting can significantly lower your blood pressure and heart rate and do wonders for your overall health and quality of life.
Alcohol has undeniable effects on your heart. It can:
Drinking a lot of alcohol can also raise your triglycerides, a type of fat in the body.
“Alcohol is made of sugar, so people who drink a lot of alcohol have very high triglycerides,” Dr. Cho notes. “High triglyceride levels increase your risk for diabetes and pancreatitis, and high triglycerides in women increase your risk for stroke.”
Plus, drinking less alcohol can help you sleep better and reduce stress. It may even help you lose weight by reducing amount of the empty calories you consume.
“The No. 1 goal for most Americans is to lose weight,” Dr. Cho relays, “and often, that resolution is the first they break.”
But there’s a reason this list of heart-healthy resolutions doesn’t include “Resolve to lose weight” as a standalone resolution on its own: When you resolve to do the other things on this list, you put your body in a better position to reach its healthiest weight.
This can lower your risk of:
“Losing five to 10 pounds can have a significant impact on your blood pressure, your risk of diabetes, your cholesterol level and more,” Dr. Cho adds.
Losing weight is often a natural byproduct of eating healthy, moving more and otherwise tending to your health, so Dr. Cho reinforces focusing on lifestyle modification instead of dieting (and definitely staying away from fad diets).
Need a little help? There are many apps for your phone or tablet that can help you track your food intake and exercise.
If you resolve to make yourself healthier this year, talk to a healthcare provider about your goals. They can provide guidance, resources and support to get you headed in the right direction and help you follow through on your New Year’s resolutions.
“Making these lifestyle changes can have a dramatic impact on your heart health,” Dr. Cho encourages. Happy New Year!