23 Habits Men Don't Realize Are Hurting Their Hearts
TURNS OUT, THERE'S A SWEET SPOT WHEN IT COMES TO HOW MUCH SLEEP YOU SHOULD GET.
You probably think you've got a pretty good idea of which habits are bad for your heart: not exercising enough, chowing down on too much red meat, maybe even ignoring your doctor's urging to cut the sodium. But our blood-pumping organ is truly complex, and there are a range of factors that can have a negative impact on it. From poor sleeping habits to not spending enough time with other people, these are the 23 behaviors that can hurt your heart.
Being overweight is a huge risk factor when it comes to heart disease. But regardless of your weight, simply overexerting yourself at meal times can spell danger for your heart. "When you eat a lot of food at once, the stomach expands and the body shifts blood from the heart to the digestive system," says cardiologist Shaista Malik, MD, medical director of the University of California, Irvine Health Preventive Cardiology & Cholesterol Management Program. "In people who already have blockage in heart arteries, any shunting of blood away from the heart can result in angina, or chest pain."
For similar reasons, overeating can also lead to faster and irregular heart rhythms, which can cause a heart attack or heart failure.
You don't get enough sleep.
Not getting enough sleep can have a number of dangerous effects on the heart. For one, it can impact your food choices, says Sujay Kansagra, MD, director of Duke University's Neurology Sleep Medicine Program. "Sleep-deprived individuals eat an extra 385 calories per day on average," he says.
But that's not all. According to the National Sleep Foundation, "sleeping too little causes disruptions in underlying health conditions and biological processes like glucose metabolism, blood pressure, and inflammation." For your heart's sake, make getting a full night's sleep a priority.
Or you sleep too much.
Sure, not getting enough sleep is dangerous. But getting too much sleep can also have negative effects. One 2018 study published in the European Heart Journal found that people who sleep between eight and nine hours a night increase their risk of dying or developing cardiovascular disease by 5 percent. And people who sleep more than 10 hours a night increase their risk by 41 percent.
You binge-watch TV.
Plopping down in front of the TV may feel relaxing, but it could hurt your heart in the long run. One 2019 study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association found that sitting while watching TV—as opposed to sitting at work—was associated with a higher risk of heart disease and death.
"Our findings show that how you spend your time outside of work may matter more when it comes to heart health," study author Keith M. Diaz, Ph.D, said in a statement. "Even if you have a job that requires you to sit for long periods of time, replacing the time you spend sitting at home with strenuous exercise could reduce your risk of heart disease and death."
You're all-or-nothing when it comes to exercise.
It goes something like this: You know you need to exercise. You pick something strenuous so you really get your money's worth. You overexert yourself and hate the experience. You vow to never do that activity again. Weeks or months later, the cycle starts again.
Unfortunately, this pattern will ultimately harm your heart, since the organ requires regular exercise to stay healthy. According to Harvard Medical School, even as little as one hour of walking or gardening a week has been linked to lower rates of heart attack, stroke, and death.
You forget to floss.
Doctors are still exploring the exact connection between gum disease and heart disease, but they do know that one exists. In fact, one 2016 study published in the BMJ Postgraduate Medical Journal found that oral bacteria can contribute to a person's risk of atherosclerosis, or the hardening and narrowing of the arteries. That, in turn, can increase your risk of heart attack.
"Studies over the past 15 years have shown that if patients reduce the chronic inflammation that gum disease causes by having good oral hygiene, they can also have a positive effect on their diabetic, heart, and overall health condition," says Jeffrey Sulitzer, DMD, the chief clinical officer at Smile Direct Club. Fortunately, you can do that simply by brushing and flossing on a daily basis.
You smoke—or live with a smoker.
There are few worse choices for your general health than smoking. In addition to increasing your risk of cancer, it also increases your risk of developing blood clots and plaque build-up in the arteries. In fact, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine, one out of every five smoking deaths is caused by heart disease. Additionally, cigarette smokers are also twice as likely to suffer a stroke than non-smokers. And if that's not reason enough to quit, get this: Smoking-related heart disease kills about 46,000 nonsmokers every year due to the effects of secondhand smoke. For the sake of those you love at least, it's time to quit.
You don't treat your snoring.
Persistent snoring can be a sign of obstructive sleep apnea, a condition that periodically blocks your airways. Not only do these blockages pull your brain out of a sound sleep and leave you feeling exhausted, but they can also impact your heart health. One 2010 study published in the journal Circulation even found that men with severe sleep apnea were 58 percent more likely to develop congestive heart failure than men without the disorder.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, "without long, deep periods of rest, certain chemicals are activated that keep the body from achieving extended periods in which heart rate and blood pressure are lowered. Over time, this can lead to higher blood pressure during the day and a greater chance of cardiovascular problems." So, if you still feel run-down after a full night's sleep, ask your doctor about a simple sleep apnea screening procedure.
You drink diet sodas.
Nope, that diet soda isn't fooling your heart. While it might feel healthier than drinking the full-calorie version, diet soda negatively impacts your health just the same. In fact, one 10-year study published in 2012 in the Journal of General Internal Medicine found that people who drank diet soda on a daily basis were more likely to develop cardiovascular disease than people who stayed away from it entirely. Swap your soda for water or seltzer and your heart will thank you for it.
You drink too much alcohol.
Drinking alcohol in small amounts doesn't do much damage. However, overindulging can lead to a greater risk of high blood pressure, increased blood fats, and heart failure. "The current consensus is that men should avoid consuming more than two alcoholic drinks per day," according to Marc Eisenberg, MD, and Christopher Kelly, MD, cardiologists and co-authors of Am I Dying?: A Complete Guide to Your Symptoms and What to Do Next. "More than that, however, and your risk of abnormal heart rhythms (like atrial fibrillation), heart failure, and heart attacks goes up."
You eat loads of red meat.
Many men enjoy a good steak, but that should be the diet exception instead of the rule. Red meat—including beef, pork, and lamb—is full of saturated fat (i.e., the bad kind). One 2017 review of research published in the International Journal of Preventative Medicine even found that eating one serving of red meat a day is associated with an elevated risk of heart disease. You don't have to go full vegetarian if that's not your cup of tea, but sticking to leaner cuts, chicken, and fish is the way to go.
You skip your fruits and vegetables.
If you're not getting an adequate amount of fruits and vegetables, then you're doing your heart a serious disservice. In fact, one 2007 meta-analysis published in the Journal of Human Hypertension found that people who eat more than five servings of fruits and vegetables a day have a 20 percent lower risk of heart disease and stroke than those who eat fewer than three servings. That doesn't have to mean eating leaf after leaf of plain kale, though—try adding extra vegetables to the soups, sandwiches, and stir-fries that you're already eating, and add in a smoothie for extra fruit.
You don't know your numbers.
What's your current cholesterol level? How about your blood sugar level? Your blood pressure? Not knowing your risk factors makes them all the more dangerous. Get your numbers tested regularly—and if you're confused about what any of them mean, be sure to ask your doctor for clarification.
You load up on salt.
"Saltier foods retain fluid in your system, making it tougher for your heart to pump blood, thereby increasing your blood pressure," says Thanu Jey, MD, clinic director at Yorkville Sports Medicine Clinic in Toronto, Canada. "It's important to check sodium content when picking foods to help you make smarter heart decisions." The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends limiting sodium intake to less than 2,300 mg per day; the average American consumes 3,400 mg.
You ignore your symptoms.
Let's say that you've been walking up three flights of stairs each day to get to your office. Over the last week or two, you find that you're feeling more out of breath than usual. Should you assume this is just a natural byproduct of getting older? Nope. It's best to check with your doctor.
It might seem like no big deal, but if you catch a heart problem early, you stand a much better chance of remaining healthy. It's better to find out that your chest pressure or pain is not a symptom of heart disease than to make assumptions until it's too late.
You bottle up your emotions.
You probably know that refusing to deal with feelings of depression, anger, and anxiety is bad for your mental health. However, it can take a toll on your physical health, too. In fact, healthy people who are often angry or hostile are 19 percent more likely than calmer people to develop heart disease, according to a study cited by WebMD.
Instead of bottling things up, make time to vent to a friend or try a guided meditation. Of course, if the feelings become overwhelming, consulting with a therapist is your best bet. Talking about your problems with a compassionate professional will do wonders for your head and your heart.
You have a thing for fried foods.
You already know fried food isn't great for your heart. But did you know how little of the stuff could actually make an impact? According to one 2019 study published in the British Medical Journal, those who ate just one serving of fried chicken a week had an 11 percent increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease.
You forget to take your blood-pressure pills.
High blood pressure, also called hypertension, is known as "the silent killer" because you can't feel its effects. So, if you've been prescribed medication for your blood pressure, you might feel fine even if you skip a dose… or stop taking it altogether.
However, just because you don't feel different doesn't mean your heart isn't coping with the repercussions. Make sure to take any prescribed medication regularly. If you're experiencing side effects, talk to your doctor before making any changes—there are dozens of hypertension medications, and a different one might be just what you need.
You sweat the small stuff.
"Stress significantly increases the risk of a heart attack. It's no wonder that heart attacks are more likely to occur on Mondays… and in the morning… and while in traffic," according to Eisenberg and Kelly. "Despite the constant pressures to 'hustle' harder than the rest, it's also essential to take a few minutes each hour to recenter yourself with deep breathing, meditation, or whatever helps you calm back down. Learn to address your stressors right away."
You drive to work.
Yep, even something as simple as how you get to your office can have a significant impact on your heart health. One 2010 study published in the journal Archives of Internal Medicine found that people who commuted to work by bike or on foot had a lower risk of heart disease than those who didn't.
You isolate yourself.
This one might be tough to hear for introverts and workaholics, but a lack of positive social connections can hurt your heart health. One 2016 study published in the journal Heart found that those who reported poor social relationships had a 29 percent greater chance of having coronary disease than those with healthier friendships. Humans are social animals, and relationships are good for our hearts, both figuratively and literally.
You don't set heart-health goals.
By now, you've learned about quite a few heart-unhealthy habits, and you've probably recognized some in your own life. If you want to make changes, get specific with yourself. "I want to have a healthier heart" is a worthy goal, but how will you know when you've achieved it?
Instead, set smaller, measurable goals for yourself. Commit to eating three servings of fruit and three servings of vegetables a day. Make a plan for getting at least 15 minutes of exercise a day. That way, you can track your progress in a meaningful way and see how far you have to go.
You assume you're not at risk.
Let's say you're an active guy at a healthy weight who doesn't smoke or overeat. You get plenty of sleep and actively work to reduce your stress. Think you don't have to be concerned about heart disease? Think again. The truth is that heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). One in four U.S. deaths is due to heart disease and more than half of those deaths are in men.
"Poor heart health can sneak up on you, but it is also easy to correct when things are found early," says Jey. See your doctor for regular check-ups and make sure they know your family's health history. Between appointments, pay attention to your personal risk factors and heed your doctor's advice for diminishing them. And for more heart-harming habits you'll want to skip, check out the 27 Daily Habits That Are Ruining Your Heart.
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