Be Heart Smart: Habits That Can Harm Your Heart

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Be Heart Smart: Habits That Can Harm Your Heart

Nobody wants to be unhealthy and certainly, no one wants any problems with their heart. Yet, every day, millions of people inadvertently (or not) do things that can wreak havoc with their heart health. Certain factors, such as having diabetes or having a family history of heart problems can be somewhat out of your control, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make changes to lessen the chances of having a problem. Here are some common habits that don’t do your heart and blood vessels any good — and what you can do about them!

Habits that can harm your heart

Sitting all day

If you’ve been working at home or quarantining due to the pandemic, there’s a good chance that you’re sitting more than usual. Unfortunately, being glued to your desk chair or lounging on your couch is not helpful for your heart (or the rest of your body). Here’s how being inactive can harm your heart:

• You burn fewer calories, making it more likely that you’ll gain weight.

• You may have worsening circulation.

• You’re at risk for developing high blood pressure.

• You’re at higher risk for having a heart attack or stroke due to a buildup of fatty deposits in your arteries.

• Your blood sugar is more likely to be higher than when you are active, which, over time, raises the risk of heart disease.

In fact, sitting for more than five hours each day can double your risk for heart failure, based on a 2014 study published in the journal Circulation: Heart Failure. Remember that your heart is a muscle, so like every other muscle in the body, it needs some exercise in order to work as it should. How do you do that when you’re stuck at home?

What you can do

Here are some suggestions to get you going:

• Schedule time into your day to move. You may think you have no time at all, but you’d be surprised. Ten minutes here and there over the course of the day add up and definitely count.

• Set an alarm so that you get up out of your chair or off the couch every 30 minutes and move for at least three minutes. March in place, climb stairs or do some housework. If you’re confined to a chair, grab some hand weights or turn on a video for upper body exercise. Get tips here

• Use an exercise ball in place of your desk chair to help tighten your abdominal muscles.

• Enlist someone in your household to go for a walk with you during your lunch break or after work has ended for the day.

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Skipping the flossing

Everyone knows that flossing helps keep your teeth and gums healthy. But the benefits of flossing extend beyond oral health. Gum disease, or periodontitis, is linked with a higher risk of heart disease. And poor dental health may increase the risk of a bacterial infection that can affect the valves of your heart. There’s also evidence that having gum disease can worsen blood pressure and decrease the effectiveness of blood pressure medicines.

What you can do

Here’s what you can do if you’re not flossing at least once a day:

• If you forget to floss, link flossing to another task that you do before you go to bed, such as brushing your teeth or taking your insulin. Leave the dental floss in plain sight to help you remember.

• Keep dental floss in several places besides in your medicine cabinet. Try putting it on your desk, on the coffee table, in your car, or in your purse.

• Try a flossing stick if you dislike the whole idea of flossing (meaning, sticking your hands in your mouth). While dental experts believe that dental floss more effectively cleans your teeth, flossing sticks can still clean your teeth, and using them is better than not doing anything.

Stressing too much

Stress is a normal part of life, and it’s understandable that you may have been feeling more stress than usual, thanks to the pandemic. Some stress is actually a good thing if it’s stress that occurs because you’re feeling excited; for example, starting a new job, buying a home or going on a date. On the other hand, “bad” stress that occurs constantly can take a toll on your heart health by increasing heart disease risk. In addition, chronic stress can raise blood pressure and blood sugars, and possibly damage artery walls. Also, behaviors change when you’re stressed: you might reach for unhealthy food or overeat; you might stop being active; or you might turn to smoking, alcohol or drugs.

What you can do

How can you deal with stress in a healthful way?

• Relax: Listen to music or a meditation app, read a book, or go for a walk.

• Laugh: Watch a funny video or television show.

• Release that pent up energy: Keep a stress ball on your desk or table, or invest in a massage pad for your chair.

• Close your eyes for five minutes and breathe deeply, using the 4-7-8 breathing method. Learn how here. 

• Write it down: Putting pen to paper when you’re stressed or upset can help you vent and can also give you some perspective.

• Try using a weighted blanket when you sleep. This may provide a calming effect and can help you relax.

If the above techniques aren’t helping or if you’re finding that your stress is worsening, you might benefit from seeing a professional. Let your primary care provider know about your stress, as well as any feelings of depression or anxiety. He or she may suggest psychological therapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy.

Not sleeping enough or not getting enough quality sleep

Being at home all the time can easily cause you to lose track of time and jolt you out of your usual routine, including sleep. Likewise, shortchanging yourself of sleep due to working long hours, working more than one job, or juggling school with work can lead to burning the candle at both ends. You might think that sleep is a luxury that you can’t afford, but nothing could be further from the truth. Sleep is critical to good health. It allows your body time to reset and repair. Sleep also helps you function normally during waking hours. Most adults need about 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night; getting less sleep than this can lead to:

• High blood pressure, which can raise the risk of heart disease and stroke

• Type 2 diabetes (and can worsen blood sugars if you have diabetes)

• Weight gain

What you can do

How can you get enough sleep and sleep better at night?

• Stick to a regular sleep schedule; go to bed and get up at the same time every day (even on days off).

• Be strategic about napping. If you do nap, limit the time to no more than 20 minutes, and take your nap in the early afternoon.

• Stay away from laptops, tablets and smartphones a couple of hours before bedtime. Or use a blue light filter on these devices.

• Keep your bedroom cool, dark and as quiet as possible.

• Avoid eating or drinking a few hours before bedtime.

• Try to be active during the day. Doing so can help you sleep better and also help you avoid feeling sleepy during waking hours.

If you snore, wake up with a dry mouth or headache, have trouble staying awake during the day and/or have trouble staying asleep, talk with your healthcare provider about getting checked for sleep apnea. Sleep apnea can cause high blood pressure, increase the risk of heart attack or stroke, and lead to abnormal heartbeats.

Drinking too much alcohol

Enjoying a glass of wine or beer, or having a cocktail in moderation is generally fine to do for most people who have diabetes (talk with your healthcare team about drinking alcohol to make sure it’s safe for you). But drinking too much alcohol can increase the risk for many heart health problems, including high blood pressure, stroke, high blood fats, and heart failure, according to the American Heart Association. Too much alcohol can also make it harder for you to manage your diabetes. Here’s what drinking alcohol “in moderation” means:

· No more than two drinks per day for men

· No more than one drink per day for women

A “drink” is 12 ounces of regular beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof spirits (gin, vodka, rum). And yes, some studies show that alcohol provides heart-health benefits, such as increasing “good” (HDL) cholesterol. But you get more of an HDL cholesterol increase by doing physical activity, and there are healthier ways to help your heart.

What you can do

If you’ve been indulging in alcohol more than you usually would, here are some tips to help you cut back:

• Set a goal for yourself as to when and how often you’ll drink alcohol. Decide on a day or days when you’ll have a drink.

• Keep tabs on when you drink alcohol by writing it down.

• Limit the amount of alcohol you keep in your home.

• Practice saying “No, thank you” if others are pressuring you to drink.

• Let your family, partner or roommates know that you are working on drinking less alcohol and ask for their support.

•  Choose a no-carb beverage at the end of the day or while watching television if you usually drink alcohol to help you relax. Seltzer water with a slice of lemon or lime in a special glass or a cup of hot herbal tea are good substitutes.

If you are having difficulty cutting back on your drinking, reach out to your healthcare provider or visit the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism’s website for more information, including resources 

Want to learn more about protecting your heart? Read “Be Heart Smart: Know Your Numbers,” “Does Diabetes Hurt Your Heart?” “Fight Off Heart Disease With These Five Heart-Healthy Foods” and “Lower Your Risk of Heart Disease.”

Amy Campbell, MS, RD, LDN, CDCES

Amy Campbell, MS, RD, LDN, CDCES

Amy Campbell, MS, RD, LDN, CDCES on social media

A Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator at Good Measures, LLC, where she is a CDE manager for a virtual diabetes program. Campbell is the author of Staying Healthy with Diabetes: Nutrition & Meal Planning, a co-author of 16 Myths of a Diabetic Diet, and has written for  publications including Diabetes Self-Management, Diabetes Spectrum, Clinical Diabetes, the Diabetes Research & Wellness Foundation’s newsletter,, and

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