Not to freak you out or anything, but cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. So in honor of February being Heart Disease Awareness Month, we want to help you put your best heart forward and boost your odds for a long and healthy life.
To do that, here are five scientifically proven ways to improve your heart health:
1. Bring on the chocolate. Chocoholics, rejoice! According to a study from the University of Adelaide in Australia, dark chocolate (sorry, milk chocolate lovers) may reduce blood pressure. That’s because cocoa contains antioxidant compounds called flavanols, which are responsible for the formation of nitric oxide in the body. Nitric oxide causes blood vessel walls to relax and open wider. The result? Lower blood pressure. What’s more, daily consumption of dark chocolate has also been linked to lower incidents of heart attacks and stroke in people at high risk due to metabolic syndrome. Just enjoy a few small pieces to ward off those pesky calories.
2. Ditch the salt. Too much salt can damage blood vessels and increase your risk of developing hypertension (aka high blood pressure). And because the average American consumes more than twice the American Heart Association’s recommended 1,500 milligrams of sodium every day, this is a major heart health concern. If you think the solution is simply nixing the salt shaker on the table, it’s not. More than 75 percent of our sodium consumption comes from processed foods and meals at restaurants. All the more reason to cook at home and eat fresh, whole foods as much as possible.
3. Let’s get physical. Like any muscle in your body, the heart grows stronger with exercise. And if you’re a runner—or thinking about becoming one—here’s one more reason to love this sport: Research shows that running improves cardiovascular fitness by increasing the flexibility of the coronary arteries. This flexibility helps boost blood flow to the heart, reducing the chances of atherosclerosis, a hardening of the arteries that can lead to a heart attack. But you don’t need to be a kick-butt marathon runner to reap these heart-healthy benefits. The American Heart Association says as little as 30 minutes a day, five times a week, of aerobic exercise—including walking—can reduce your risk of heart disease. (Bonus: It may also whittle your waistline and reduce your odds for other diseases, such as cancer.)
4. Pump up the volume. We already know that music can make us feel good. But did you also know it has been linked to lowering blood pressure? Specifically, listening to music can decrease both systolic and diastolic blood pressure as well as your heart rate. But before you start blasting your iPod at the gym, just know that not all music is created equal when it comes to heart health. According to a study published in the journal Heart, what matters most is the tempo. Researchers noted that faster music—whether classical or rock—caused an increase in blood pressure and heart rate, while slower tempo music had a calming effect. A little Beethoven, anyone?
5. Drizzle some olive oil. There’s a reason for all of the fuss over olive oil—it’s good for your heart. According to a Portuguese study, one of the major antioxidants in this Mediterranean crop, DHPEA-EDA, was found to protect red blood cells from damage. Cellular destruction is partly responsible for heart disease, heart attacks and stroke, and red blood cells are particularly susceptible to oxidative damage because they are the body’s oxygen carriers. To protect your precious heart, break out the extra virgin olive oil. The DHPEA-EDA in there can comprise up to half of the total antioxidant component of the oil. If you’re cooking with olive oil, just be sure to heat it below its smoke point: 310 degrees Fahrenheit for extra virgin olive oil and 375 degrees Fahrenheit for virgin olive oil. Higher heat can cause the oil to break down into free radicals, which only contribute to more cell damage. Or simply drizzle some on whole wheat pasta or use it for a tasty salad vinaigrette.