50 Everyday Habits That Slash Your Risk For Heart Disease
Heart doctors from across Canada reveal how they keep their *own* tickers in top condition.
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Shop for local food
“Local fruits and vegetables are fresher and have fewer preservatives. They also taste better, so you’re more likely to eat them and get more of the nutrients—dietary fibre and vitamins C and A—that have been proven necessary for cardiovascular wellness.” — Dr. Andrea Lavoie, Regina Cardiology Associates
“There’s a lot of sugar in our food, including virtually every cereal. Same with granola bars for kids—you might as well give them candy bars. We have an epidemic of type 2 diabetes directly related to the level of obesity in the population. More fat tissue requires more insulin, and at some point your pancreas cannot secrete enough of it to compensate for the elevated blood glucose. That’s when diabetes develops. Diabetics have a higher incidence of hypertension, high cholesterol and kidney disease, all of which accelerate hardening of arteries.” — Dr. David Bewick, New Brunswick Heart Centre, Saint John, N.B.
Here’s how to read nutrition labels like a pro.
“I was a bit overweight a few years ago. I used a smartphone app to track all my calories, which taught me what I was doing to myself. You wouldn’t realize that a small cookie has 400 calories! My patients say to me, ‘I don’t eat much.’ But it’s not the amount that matters. It’s what’s inside.” — Dr. Imad Nadra, Royal Jubilee Hospital, Victoria
Follow a Mediterranean-style diet
“I enjoy lots of fish, we only use olive oil for our cooking, and I have a handful of nuts for snacking.” — Dr. Jiao Yang, Live Well Exercise Clinic, Surrey, B.C.
Discover 20 foods that can lower blood pressure.
Avoid saturated fats
“Saturated fat, like that in desserts and red meat, accumulates as plaque in the arteries, which is a cause of heart attacks and stroke. I use healthy oils, like grapeseed, which is higher in polyunsaturated fats.” — Dr. Amin Aminbakhsh, Royal Columbian Hospital, New Westminster, B.C.
Eat complex carbohydrates
“I try to make meals that include whole wheat, hummus, quinoa, seven-grain rice, black beans or kidney beans. Complex carbs are absorbed more slowly in the small intestine and don’t cause significant fluctuations in glucose levels.” — Dr. Bewick
Stick to low-fat dairy
“This provides calcium, vitamin D and protein with no or minimal saturated fat. In large population studies, low-fat dairy has been associated with optimal weight maintenance and reduced cardiovascular disease. I eat Greek yogourt, always plain, and have skim milk, mainly in lattes. At bedtime, I have hot skim milk with a teaspoon of Ovaltine, which helps me sleep!” — Dr. Sharon Mulvagh, Maritime Heart Centre Women’s Heart Health Clinic, Halifax
Learn to spot the signs of a calcium deficiency.
Get your fries fix in a healthier way
“I cut potatoes, toss them into a bag with olive oil, salt and pepper, and bake them. You can add whatever seasonings you want, like garlic and cayenne pepper.” — Dr. Catherine Kells, Halifax Infirmary
Stay away from fried foods
“Recycled cooking oil converts into trans fat, which is a heart-clogging fat.” — Dr. Anmol Kapoor, Advanced Cardiology Consultants and Diagnostics Inc., Calgary
Find out the worst foods for your heart.
Don’t keep unhealthy food in the house
“I avoid bringing home junk food from the grocery store. If it’s around, I’ll probably eat it. If I’m out for dinner I may indulge as a treat, but not on a daily basis.” — Dr. Christopher Labos, co-host of the Body of Evidence podcast, Montreal
Don’t miss our ultimate guide to healthy grocery shopping.
Don’t skip breakfast
Avoid high-salt products
“In Canada, our bodies don’t need a lot of salt, because we don’t sweat a lot here. So we have to watch how much of it we’re consuming, especially if we have borderline high blood pressure. Salt causes fluid retention and raises blood pressure, which increases the risk of cardiovascular disease.” — Dr. Haissam Haddad, Head of Medicine at University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon
Here’s what happens to your body when you eat too much salt.
Shun processed food
“Processed red meats and sandwich meats are high in salt, so they’re a cardiovascular risk. Cooking a chicken and eating sandwiches made with it tastes the same. Processed sauces have a lot of hidden sodium, too.” — Dr. Alex MacLean
These are the best sources of protein, according to Canada’s Food Guide.
Make homemade energy snacks
“I don’t like the sugary, packaged energy snacks, so I make balls out of granola and nut butter with fruit stuffed inside. I stash these in my lab coat, my commuter backpack, my office and the fridge in the lunch room, so there’s never an excuse for me to have an unhealthy snack.” — Dr. Helen Bishop, Maritime Heart Centre Women’s Heart Health Clinic, Halifax
Never buy fruit juices
“Juice from fruit is high in sugar. And when we make juice, the fibre—which is the good stuff—is thrown away. Soluble fibre helps to keep the heart healthy, particularly by acting like a sponge that absorbs LDL—the ‘bad’ cholesterol—and then moves it out of the body.” — Dr. Anmol Kapoor
Find out 12 high fibre foods worth adding to your cart.
Avoid trans-fatty acids
“Even though I love potato chips, they’re deadly. I tell patients, if your fingers look shiny or feel slippery after eating something, that means it is trans fatty or has saturated fats.” — Dr. David Bewick
Having a snack attack? Nutritionists never eat these foods late at night.
Take a nutrition course
“Some doctors in my hospital actually joined the same cardiac nutrition classes that the patients took. We did it with our spouses. It was fun and we got some useful tips; one is to stock your workplace fridge with healthy snacks from home instead of going to the coffee shop and buying a muffin.” — Dr. Catherine Kells
Run as often as you can
“Physical activity reduces blood pressure and increases the health of the cells that line the blood vessels. It also lowers bad cholesterol and is one of the only interventions that increases good cholesterol. I usually like to run in the morning and see the sun rise. When it’s very cold or icy, I use a treadmill.” — Dr. Paula Harvey, Women’s College Hospital Cardiovascular Research Program, Toronto
Here are the signs you need to move more.
Wear a fitness tracker
“I aim for over 10,000 steps a day, which burns 500 calories, and 12 hours of standing. When I’m travelling for work and will be sitting in meetings all day, I visit the exercise room.” — Dr. Sharon Mulvagh
Try to get in more steps
“I take stairs instead of the elevator, or I park a little farther away from where I’m going and walk. When I’m doing rounds, I don’t sit; I stay on my feet. When you’re sedentary, there’s a greater chance of developing risk factors for cardiovascular disease.” — Dr. Colin Yeung
Hire a personal trainer
“He pushes me to do more than I would do otherwise. He also helps me try new exercises and keeps it fresh.” — Dr. John Vyselaar, North Shore Heart Function Clinic, North Vancouver, B.C.
These are the best exercises for seniors to build strength, improve balance and boost heart health.
Exercise first thing in the morning
“It’s a good way to start the day, and it helps me focus once I get to work. My days are quite unpredictable and busy, and I’m often too exhausted in the evening to even think about exercise.” — Dr. Sayeh Zielke, author of One Heart, Five Habits, Lethbridge, Alta.
Get a dog
“Walking him gives me extra steps! He gets me out in the morning and evening.” — Dr. Anmol Kapoor
Discover the surprising health benefits of owning a pet.
Make being active as easy as possible
“A simple walk, preferably a brisk one, is good for the heart. Or you can set up a stationary bicycle or treadmill in front of the TV. The less onerous the activity, the more likely you are to do it.” — Dr. Michael Froeschl, Director, Adult Cardiology Postgraduate Training Programs, University of Ottawa
Find out how to make walking less boring.
Exercise in short bursts
“I tell my patients, if you don’t have the time to do continuous moderate exercise, just try getting 10 minutes here and there. Try to do at least 150 minutes a week this way; it’s shown to prevent heart disease.” — Dr. Colin Yeung
Here are five winter workouts you didn’t know you were doing.
“Beginning a workout dehydrated will mean you start with an elevated resting heart rate. The exercise doesn’t go as well, and the muscles don’t feel good, either. That said, it’s also important to avoid overhydration, which can be dangerous, as well, due to a shift in sodium levels.” — Dr. Helen Bishop
This is how much water you should drink to stay hydrated.
Bike to work
“My office is about four kilometres away, so it’s far enough to get my heart rate up. It’s a great way to incorporate exercise into your day, because you have to go to work. I treated myself to a nice bicycle.” — Dr. Imad Nadra
Need a new set of wheels? Here’s expert advice on how to buy a bike.
Find people to motivate you
“I’ve always tried to stay active, but I’m not a person who loves exercise. I used to take group exercise classes. These days, I do things with family and friends, like skiing, hiking and dog walking. I’ll even do activities I don’t particularly enjoy, like running, if it’s with other people!” — Dr. Catherine Kells
Distance yourself from toxic people
“Negative discussions make your heart rate and blood pressure go up, and the stress causes a greater secretion of hormones—cortisol, norepinephrine and adrenalin—that damage your cardiovascular system. When you’re happy, your vessels relax, so it’s good to be around positive people as much as possible.” — Dr. Haissam Haddad
Check out these tips on how to break up with a friend.
“As a doctor, you’re pulled in a lot of different directions, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed. I find that doing even 10 minutes of guided meditation in the morning helps to calm the mind.” — Dr. John Vyselaar
Here’s what can happen when you start meditating every day.
Read to unwind
“I started reading biographies of famous people. It brings me a different perspective, and it’s quite interesting to read about those who have made an impression on the world. I find that relaxing.” — Dr. David Bewick
Find out why you should always read before bed.
Hit the links
“Stress is a silent killer. I find golfing is a good treatment for it because you forget about everything except your game, no matter what level you’re at. And I walk when I play.” — Dr. Haissam Haddad
Discover more healthy habits to cope with stress.
Look for humour
“I work around a lot of funny people. In fact, one of my surgeons happens to be a stand-up comedian! (I’m more of a straight man.) Laughter improves overall heart health because it lowers stress and improves blood flow by dilating the vessels.” — Dr. Peter Fong, New Brunswick Heart Centre, Saint John, N.B.
Read up on the surprising health benefits of laughter.
Spend time in the woods
“My husband and I have property on the Niagara Escarpment. It’s our sanctuary. There, we connect with nature and get away from pollution, which has been shown to have adverse effects on the health of the cells along our blood vessels. In fact, the World Health Organization has shown that even small green spaces in cities are good for cardiovascular health and reduced mortality.” — Dr. Paula Harvey
Get a full night’s sleep
“There appears to be a higher inflammatory state caused if you don’t get enough reparative sleep. Between six and eight hours seems to be the sweet spot in terms of cutting down on that problem and repairing oxidative stress—the disturbance in our balance of free radicals and antioxidants.” — Dr. Andrea Lavoie
Could you use some quality shut-eye? Adopt these habits for a good night’s sleep.
Practise sleep hygiene
“I don’t have a television in my bedroom and never keep my phone there, either. I don’t drink caffeine at night and I minimize alcohol. To wind down, I’ll step out onto the back deck with an herbal tea and look at the stars for a few minutes. And always, I read a book before I sleep.” — Dr. Paula Harvey
Consult our handy sleep hygiene checklist.
“Instead of sitting around with our electronics, my kids and I go for a hike together. Recent studies show that you have improved mood and overall wellness when you spend more time in an oxygen-rich environment.” — Dr. Andrea Lavoie
Looking for inspiration? Check out the 10 greatest hiking trails in Canada.
Stay in the moment
“I realized that sometimes I was with my wife and kids but my mind was on work. Not paying attention to the family at important times can create stressful situations, which increases the risk of cardiovascular events. Leave work behind sometimes and focus on family and friends.” — Dr. Laurent Macle, Montreal Heart Institute
Ready for a digital detox? Here are practical tips on how to quit social media.
Monitor your mood
“Depression and anxiety have a huge impact on cardiovascular wellness—they can cause constricted blood vessels and an elevated heart rate, among other things. Any time we can improve our mental health, it has a counter-effect on our cardiovascular risk.” — Dr. Andrea Lavoie
Learn to spot the signs of high functioning depression.
“A Swedish study of over 20,000 men looked at five low-risk health factors, including not smoking, regular exercise and healthy diet. Accomplishing all of them led to a relative 86 per cent lower risk of heart attack. Another study found that the behaviours that decreased the likelihood of coronary heart disease the most were regular exercise and quitting smoking.” — Dr. Colin Yeung
Find out the most effective ways to quit 10 bad habits.
Limit your drinking
“There’s evidence that alcohol, in moderation, can be beneficial to the heart. But if you have too much, it can be harmful. When a patient comes in with atrial fibrillation, we always screen for alcohol overuse. If it turns out they consume more than what is recommended in Canada’s Low-Risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines, I suggest they cut back. I personally enjoy a drink with supper, but I don’t have more than that.” — Dr. Colin Yeung
Helping others can boost your heart health
“When you help someone, you can see the appreciation in their eyes. It’s a huge de-stressor. When someone says you’re fantastic and gives you a hug, that’s a magic pill. It’s juice for the soul!” — Dr. Anmol Kapoor
Read more on the health benefits of performing acts of kindness.
Get a heart scan
“The value of screening for coronary calcium in the general population is still up for debate. (There is evidence that it’s useful for people who have already had a heart attack, but those patients should still discuss this with their family doctor.) It’s a quick CT scan, it involves a low dose of radiation and it’s predictive of premature coronary artery disease. I’m 41 and plan to get this test in the next couple of years.” — Dr. John Vyselaar
Find out how to measure blood pressure accurately.
See a physician
“Sometimes you can have high sugar or high blood pressure and not know it. If you visit your primary-care physician regularly, you can get these things checked. If you have an elevation in your blood sugar, you may be able to make changes to your lifestyle and normalize it before it becomes diabetes.” — Dr. Sayeh Zielke
Check out the latest research on how to beat diabetes.
Pay attention to risk factors for women
“Women have unique risk factors because of our reproductive life stages and because certain conditions, like autoimmune disorders, are more prevalent in women. Also, when we transition into menopause, we lose the beneficial effects of estrogen on blood vessels—including a better cholesterol profile. If you’re in perimenopause and haven’t already discussed risk factors with your doctor, this is a critical time to start.” — Dr. Paula Harvey
Watch out for the heart attack symptoms that are frequently misdiagnosed.
Look at your family history
“More than 80 per cent of North Americans will develop high blood pressure in their lifetime, but if one or both of your parents had it, you’re likely to develop it earlier. By adjusting your lifestyle, you can delay the onset of hypertension by decades or make it a much more manageable disease.” — Dr. Eugene Crystal, Sunnybrook Hospital Schulich Heart Centre, Toronto
Check out these natural remedies for high blood pressure.
Take a statin
“My cholesterol is high because my father’s, mother’s and grandmother’s was high. I have a strong family history of heart disease, so I take medication that lowers my cholesterol levels.” — Dr. David Bewick
Find out how to improve heart health in six easy steps.
Get a flu shot
“The wave of seasonal flu in society actually goes in parallel with, and slightly in front of, an increase in acute cardiovascular events. The correlation is not extraordinarily strong, but it does make sense: if your body is trying to fight the flu and you have a pre-existing heart condition—whether known to you or not—there’s a risk that it will surface.” — Dr. Eugene Crystal
Next, discover how it’s actually possible to reverse heart disease.