These fun, easy changes really do help…
You don’t smoke, your cholesterol levels look good and your blood pressure is under control.
This means that you’re off the hook when it comes to having a heart attack or developing heart disease, right? Maybe not.
Surprising statistic: About 20% of people with heart disease do not have any of the classic risk factors, such as those described above.
The missing link: While most conventional medical doctors prescribe medications and other treatments to help patients control the “big” risk factors for heart disease, holistic cardiologists also suggest small lifestyle changes that over time make a significant difference in heart disease risk.* My secrets for preventing heart disease…
SECRET #1: Stand up! You may not think of standing as a form of exercise. However, it’s more effective than most people realize.
Think about what you’re doing when you’re not standing. Unless you’re asleep, you’re probably sitting. While sitting, your body’s metabolism slows…your insulin becomes less effective…and you’re likely to experience a gradual drop in HDL “good” cholesterol.
A study that tracked the long-term health of more than 123,000 Americans found that those who sat for six hours or more a day had an overall death rate that was higher—18% higher for men and 37% for women—than those who sat for less than three hours.
What’s so great about standing? When you’re on your feet, you move more. You pace…fidget…move your arms…and walk from room to room. This type of activity improves metabolism and can easily burn hundreds of extra calories a day. Standing also increases your insulin sensitivity to help prevent diabetes. So stand up and move around when talking on the phone, checking e-mail and watching television.
SECRET #2: Count your breaths. Slow, deep breathing is an effective way to help prevent high blood pressure—one of the leading causes of heart disease. For people who already have high blood pressure, doing this technique a few times a day has been shown to lower blood pressure by five to 10 points within five minutes. And the pressure may stay lower for up to 24 hours.
During a breathing exercise, you want to slow your breathing down from the usual 12 to 16 breaths a minute that most people take to about three breaths. I use the “4-7-8 sequence” whenever I feel stressed. What to do: Inhale through your nose for four seconds…hold the breath in for seven seconds…then exhale through the mouth for eight seconds.
Also helpful: A HeartMath software package, which you can load on your computer or smartphone, includes breathing exercises to help lower your heart rate and levels of stress hormones. Cost: $129 and up, at HeartMath.org. You can also sign up for some free tools on this website.
SECRET #3: Practice “loving kindness.” This is an easy form of meditation that reduces stress, thus allowing you to keep your heart rate and blood pressure at healthy levels.
Research has shown that people who meditate regularly are 48% less likely to have a heart attack or stroke than those who don’t meditate. “Loving kindness” meditation is particularly effective at promoting relaxation—it lowers levels of the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol while raising levels of the healing hormone oxytocin.
What to do: Sit quietly, with your eyes closed. For a few minutes, focus on just your breathing. Then imagine one person in your life whom you find exceptionally easy to love. Imagine this person in front of you. Fill your heart with a warm, loving feeling…think about how you both want to be happy and avoid suffering…and imagine that a feeling of peace travels from your heart to that person’s heart in the form of white light. Dwell on the image for a few minutes. This meditation will also help you practice small acts of kindness in your daily life—for example, giving a hand to someone who needs help crossing the street.
SECRET #4: Don’t neglect sex. Men who have sex at least two times a week have a 50% lower risk for a heart attack than those who abstain. Similar research hasn’t been done on women, but it’s likely that they get a comparable benefit.
Why does sex help keep your heart healthy? It probably has more to do with intimacy than the physical activity itself. Couples who continue to have sex tend to be the ones with more intimacy in their marriages. Happy people who bond with others have fewer heart attacks—and recover more quickly if they’ve had one—than those without close relationships.
SECRET #5: Be happy! People who are happy and who feel a sense of purpose and connection with others tend to have lower blood pressure and live longer than those who are isolated. Research shows that two keys to happiness are to help others be happy—for example, by being a volunteer—and to reach out to friends and neighbors. Actually, any shared activity, such as going to church or doing group hobbies, can increase survival among heart patients by about 50%.
SECRET #6: Try Waon (pronounced Wa-own) therapy. With this Japanese form of “warmth therapy,” you sit in an infrared (dry) sauna for 15 minutes, then retreat to a resting area for half an hour, where you wrap yourself in towels and drink plenty of water. Studies show that vascular function improves after such therapy due to the extra release of nitric oxide, the master molecule in blood vessels that helps them relax.
Some health clubs offer Waon treatments, but the dry saunas at many gyms should offer similar benefits. I do not recommend steam rooms—moist heat places extra demands on the heart and can be dangerous for some people.
*To find a holistic cardiologist, go to the website of the American Board of Integrative Holistic Medicine, ABIHM.org, and search the database of certified integrative physicians.