10 Steps to a Happier Heart

Undertaking major lifestyle changes to improve your heart health, such as quitting your job or losing 40 pounds, can seem daunting, if not impossible. But these 10 baby steps are easy to embrace and share, so you can make your heart a little happier.
1. Plant a petunia. “Gardening is considered a moderate aerobic activity,” says Nieca Goldberg, MD, a spokeswoman for the American Heart Association’s Go Red campaign. “Raking leaves is even considered a more vigorous activity.” Riding on a lawn mower? Not so much.
2. Phone a friend. Friendships and social support can help reduce stress and improve heart health. Having someone to talk to is great; even better is having someone join you for a healthy meal or a sweat session. Health-conscious friends can be great motivators.
3. Veg out. On your plate, that is. To simplify healthy eating, Dr. Goldberg says, always start your meal by filling half your plate with fresh vegetables. This helps you load up on vitamins and nutrients as well as heart-healthy (and cancer-fighting) antioxidants.
4. Shake up your dressing. Dr. Goldberg, author of The Women’s Healthy Heart Program, says she always makes her own salad dressing, using olive oil, vinegar, Dijon mustard and pepper. It’s a great way to add flavor without too many fatty calories.
5. Hug Harley. Owning a pet, especially a dog, helps your heart stay healthy for several reasons. A dog can motivate you to be more active and take walks; snuggling a pet can help lower stress; and the likelihood of high blood pressure, high cholesterol and obesity all tend to be lower in pet owners.
6. Sip a syrah. The antioxidants in red wine have heart-health value, as long as you don’t drink more than one glass of red wine daily for women and two for men. If you’re not a drinker, this is not an incentive to start. “You could also drink grape juice,” Dr. Goldberg says. “The [grape] skin has the antioxidant benefit.”
7. Pare your to-do list. This, Dr. Goldberg says, is one simple way to reduce stress and improve your heart health. Cut out tasks that aren’t essential or enjoyable.
8. Hit the sack. “The reason we’re concerned about sleep,” Dr. Goldberg says, “is that if you lack enough sleep, there is an increase in stress hormones, which is associated with higher blood pressure.” Aim for seven to nine hours of shut-eye a night.
9. Upgrade your grains. White flour and processed grains aren’t doing your heart any favors. Look for whole grains instead, Dr. Goldberg says. “Quinoa is a better option than spaghetti,” she advises. Quinoa, steel-cut oatmeal, whole-wheat pasta and brown rice are superior to white bread, pasta and rice.
10. Chomp dark chocolate. Though experts say more research is needed to confirm their true benefits, cocoa flavanols have been shown to help lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of heart disease. Look for chocolate with at least 65 percent cocoa, and try to avoid processed milk chocolate candy, which is full of sugar and fat and low on flavanols. “A small amount of dark chocolate is better than a lot of milk chocolate,” Dr. Goldberg says.

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