We’ve all heard it before: To improve your heart health, you should watch what you eat, move more, and manage stress. But putting these tips into practice isn’t always easy.
For advice, we asked doctors from NYU Langone Heart to share their best life hacks for keeping their own cardiovascular health in tip-top shape. A common theme emerged: No matter where you are on your heart health journey, there are plenty of small changes you can make that actually make a difference.
“It’s true that cardiovascular health is greatly shaped by genetics,” says Doris Chan, DO, a general and interventional cardiologist at NYU Langone Hospital—Brooklyn. “And while you cannot escape the genes you inherit, you can choose how you live—what you eat, whether you exercise, when you see a doctor—and those lifestyle choices can be life-changing.”
Here are six life hacks from our cardiologists and cardiac surgeons from NYU Langone Heart.
Reach for the Olive Oil
Confused about which oil to cook with? For Harmony R. Reynolds, MD, there’s only one answer: olive oil. “I nearly always use olive oil in place of butter and other vegetable oils,” says Dr. Reynolds, director of the Sarah Ross Soter Center for Women’s Cardiovascular Research at NYU Langone. “A stick of butter lasts a very long time in my house because I hardly ever use it. I even use olive oil for baking, and the cakes taste great.”
Why? Recent studies suggest that replacing 2 teaspoons of margarine or butter per day with olive oil leads to a 5 to 6 percent lower risk of heart disease and death. Butter is high in artery-clogging saturated fats. Margarine is no better, studies show, although it’s not entirely clear why. Olive oil contains monounsaturated fats, which are healthy and can lower your LDL, or “bad” cholesterol.
Stock your pantry with multiple types of olive oil. “I use extra virgin olive oil when I cook at low or medium temperatures, like sautéing chicken or making stir fries. I use virgin olive oil for cooking eggs or cooking at higher temperatures, like frying fish,” says Dr. Reynolds.
Grab the Leash
Do you have a canine companion? Taking your dog for a walk won’t necessarily prevent heart disease, but it can benefit overall heart health. “I have a 2-year-old dog named Moose who keeps me heart-healthy and happy,” says Kinjan Parikh, MD, a cardiologist at NYU Langone.
Here’s how: First, dogs need to be walked, which keeps us active. “Going for brisk, daily walks can help lower your blood pressure and keep your blood sugar and LDL cholesterol levels in check. This, in turn, can lower your risk of heart attack and stroke,” says Dr. Parikh.
Second, dogs need petting and belly rubs, which is a win–win for dog and owner alike. “I’m just naturally happier when I’m with Moose, which means my endorphins are higher,” she says. Endorphins are the body’s feel-good hormones, which help reduce stress. Stress reduction over time has significant cardiovascular benefits.
Grab the leash and go. Dr. Parikh enjoys long walks along the waterfront in New York City or hikes upstate with her 50-pound lab mix.
Start the Day with a Workout
Lots of people have trouble fitting physical activity into the hustle and bustle of life—even heart experts. “I have always loved playing sports and working out,” says Chirag R. Barbhaiya, MD, a cardiac electrophysiologist at NYU Langone’s Heart Rhythm Center. “But with a busy work schedule and young kids at home, finding a consistent time to exercise was difficult.”
Difficult, yes, but not a deal-breaker—and definitely nonnegotiable. “For all its benefits—maintaining a healthy weight and keeping blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol levels in check—few things are as beneficial for cardiovascular health as regular exercise,” says Dr. Barbhaiya. “Making exercise a habit by creating a routine is one of the best things that you can do to keep your heart healthy.”
Map out a routine that works for you. “By establishing a consistent sleep schedule, I am now able to wake up early enough to get a quick workout in before anyone else is awake and before going to work,” says Dr. Barbhaiya. “Getting in 20 to 30 minutes of biking, strength training, or yoga early in the morning helps me start my day on a positive note.”
Whenever stressful feelings surface, Dr. Chan focuses on something simple: her breath. “Taking intentional, deep breaths has helped lower my blood pressure and heart rate. It also helps me focus,” she says.
Just deep breaths, in and out? “It sounds too easy, right?” she adds. “But the benefits are incredible.”
Deep breathing boosts nitric oxide, a molecule that research shows helps widen blood vessels, Dr. Chan says. Wider blood vessels do a better job of moving blood through the body. Every focused inhale and exhale also reduces inflammation, which is connected to coronary artery disease. “Even just 30 deep breaths per day, when performed consistently over a 6-week period, is enough to improve blood pressure and protect the heart.”
Give diaphragmatic breathing a try. Here’s Dr. Chan’s how-to: Close your eyes. Focus on taking slow, deep breaths. Fill your lungs, puff out your belly, and hold for a count of five before slowly releasing your breath. Force your remaining breath out by strongly contracting the abdominal muscles. You can repeat this process as often as needed. “Focusing on these breathing motions can help people be in the moment and, if practiced regularly, can yield long-term benefits,” she says.
Get Fit with Your Friends
A message for the non-athletes: You don’t have to be a fitness aficionado to get the most from your workout. “I’ll be the first to admit I don’t love exercise,” says Shaline D. Rao, MD, director of heart failure services at NYU Langone Hospital—Long Island. “But it’s too important not to do it.”
As encouragement, Dr. Rao pairs exercise with an activity she enjoys, such as catching up with her cousin in a hot yoga class. “Exercise can be a great way to connect with family and friends,” says Dr. Rao. “So much of entertainment involves eating and drinking, but I like the idea of exercise as a way of socializing.”
Having a routine is also really important. It helps you commit to exercise, especially if it’s not your favorite thing. Dr. Rao’s weekly regimen includes a group rowing class for aerobic fitness and Pilates for muscle tone and bone health. “I exercise because of all the health benefits: physical, mental, and social,” says Dr. Rao. “But exercising also allows me to reflect on my day or distract myself from any annoyances.”
Turn exercise into a group activity. Dr. Rao encourages friends to join her for yoga or dance classes. “Engaging your friends, family, and colleagues in similar exercise routines can make it easier for everyone to get in the physical activity they need.”
Manage Stress with Meditation
As a surgeon with the Adult and Pediatric Congenital Heart Program, stress comes with the job. But T.K. Susheel Kumar, MD, has found that a meditation practice helps him to stay calm on even the most intense days. “If I am very stressed or had a very long day, I can go and sit quietly, meditate, and then come back and look at things with a fresh perspective,” he says.
Stress is an emotional response that has serious physical repercussions. It can raise blood pressure, cause inflammation, lead to irregular heart rhythm, and decrease blood flow to the heart, all of which increase the risk of heart attack and stroke.
To manage his stress, Dr. Kumar sets aside up to 45 minutes on Friday, Sunday, and Monday nights for meditation and reflection. He lights a diya, or candle, and focuses on clearing his mind. He believes so strongly in its benefits that he is teaching his children to meditate along with him. “When you practice meditation, you focus your mind,” says Dr. Kumar. “The practice has changed me and been a very positive influence in my life.”
To meditate, find a quiet place where you can focus on your breath and clear your mind of all thought. If a thought enters, just let it go and then return to the breath. “Meditation and mindfulness are very important because they help me to focus on my life’s purpose and achieve a feeling of tranquility,” says Dr. Kumar.
More About NYU Langone Heart
NYU Langone is among the top 5 hospitals in the country for cardiology and heart surgery, according to U.S. News & World Report’s “Best Hospitals.” Make an appointment with one of our cardiologists or cardiac surgeons.