50 Heart Health Tips Cardiologists Wish You Knew
Concerned about heart health? Canada's top cardiologists share their everyday strategies to keep your ticker in top condition.
Shop for local food
“Local fruits and vegetables are fresher and have fewer preservatives. They also taste better, so you’re more likely to eat them and get more of the nutrients—dietary fibre and vitamins C and A—that have been proven necessary for cardiovascular wellness.” — Dr. Andrea Lavoie, Regina Cardiology Associates
Use our farmers’ market buying guide to pick the best local produce.
Eat raw veggies while making dinner
“It gets me part of my daily requirement. While preparing dinner is when you’re hungry. An apple for dessert, when you’re full, doesn’t really work.” — Dr. Alex MacLean, Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Charlottetown
Psst—these are the healthiest vegetables you can eat.
“There’s a lot of sugar in our food, including virtually every cereal. Same with granola bars for kids—you might as well give them candy bars. We have an epidemic of type 2 diabetes directly related to the level of obesity in the population. More fat tissue requires more insulin, and at some point your pancreas cannot secrete enough of it to compensate for the elevated blood glucose. That’s when diabetes develops. Diabetics have a higher incidence of hypertension, high cholesterol and kidney disease, all of which accelerate hardening of arteries.” — Dr. David Bewick, New Brunswick Heart Centre, Saint John, N.B.
Learn to spot the silent signs you might have diabetes.
“I was a bit overweight a few years ago. I used a smartphone app to track all my calories, which taught me what I was doing to myself. You wouldn’t realize that a small cookie has 400 calories! My patients say to me, ‘I don’t eat much.’ But it’s not the amount that matters. It’s what’s inside.” — Dr. Imad Nadra, Royal Jubilee Hospital, Victoria
Discover 30 easy ways to cut 100 calories.
Follow a Mediterranean-style diet
“I enjoy lots of fish, we only use olive oil for our cooking, and I have a handful of nuts for snacking.” — Dr. Jiao Yang, Live Well Exercise Clinic, Surrey, B.C.
Find out the secret ingredients you need for the Mediterranean Diet.
Avoid saturated fats
“Saturated fat, like that in desserts and red meat, accumulates as plaque in the arteries, which is a cause of heart attacks and stroke. I use healthy oils, like grapeseed, which is higher in polyunsaturated fats.” — Dr. Amin Aminbakhsh, Royal Columbian Hospital, New Westminster, B.C.
Eat complex carbohydrates
“I try to make meals that include whole wheat, hummus, quinoa, seven-grain rice, black beans or kidney beans. Complex carbs are absorbed more slowly in the small intestine and don’t cause significant fluctuations in glucose levels.” — Dr. Bewick
Get to know the silent signs of a heart attack.
Stick to low-fat dairy
“This provides calcium, vitamin D and protein with no or minimal saturated fat. In large population studies, low-fat dairy has been associated with optimal weight maintenance and reduced cardiovascular disease. I eat Greek yogourt, always plain, and have skim milk, mainly in lattes. At bedtime, I have hot skim milk with a teaspoon of Ovaltine, which helps me sleep!” — Dr. Sharon Mulvagh, Maritime Heart Centre Women’s Heart Health Clinic, Halifax
Learn to spot the signs of a calcium deficiency.
Get your fries fix in a healthier way
“I cut potatoes, toss them into a bag with olive oil, salt and pepper, and bake them. You can add whatever seasonings you want, like garlic and cayenne pepper.” — Dr. Catherine Kells, Halifax Infirmary
Stay away from fried foods
“Recycled cooking oil converts into trans fat, which is a heart-clogging fat.” — Dr. Anmol Kapoor, Advanced Cardiology Consultants and Diagnostics Inc., Calgary
Get to know the 10 worst foods for aging.
Don’t keep unhealthy food in the house
“I avoid bringing home junk food from the grocery store. If it’s around, I’ll probably eat it. If I’m out for dinner I may indulge as a treat, but not on a daily basis.” — Dr. Christopher Labos, co-host of the Body of Evidence podcast, Montreal
Check out 50 more ways to lose weight without a lick of exercise.
Don’t skip breakfast
“If you don’t start the day off with breakfast and you get hungry, you may have unhealthy snacks or a bigger lunch.” — Dr. Colin Yeung, Saskatchewan Health Authority, Regina
Need another reason not to skip breakfast? Just check out these incredible health benefits of oatmeal!
Avoid high-salt products
“In Canada, our bodies don’t need a lot of salt, because we don’t sweat a lot here. So we have to watch how much of it we’re consuming, especially if we have borderline high blood pressure. Salt causes fluid retention and raises blood pressure, which increases the risk of cardiovascular disease.” — Dr. Haissam Haddad, Head of Medicine at University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon
Check out the 25 ways salt makes you sick.
Control your red meat intake
“I choose lean cuts of red meat, and I don’t eat a lot of any of it. If I’m having a steak, I’ll only eat four or five ounces.” — Dr. Catherine Kells
Shun processed food
“Processed red meats and sandwich meats are high in salt, so they’re a cardiovascular risk. Cooking a chicken and eating sandwiches made with it tastes the same. Processed sauces have a lot of hidden sodium, too.” — Dr. Alex MacLean
Get to know the best foods to eat to avoid clogged arteries.
Make homemade energy snacks
“I don’t like the sugary, packaged energy snacks, so I make balls out of granola and nut butter with fruit stuffed inside. I stash these in my lab coat, my commuter backpack, my office and the fridge in the lunch room, so there’s never an excuse for me to have an unhealthy snack.” — Dr. Helen Bishop, Maritime Heart Centre Women’s Heart Health Clinic, Halifax
Here are more healthy snack ideas you don’t have to feel guilty about eating.
Never buy fruit juices
“Juice from fruit is high in sugar. And when we make juice, the fibre—which is the good stuff—is thrown away. Soluble fibre helps to keep the heart healthy, particularly by acting like a sponge that absorbs LDL—the ‘bad’ cholesterol—and then moves it out of the body.” — Dr. Anmol Kapoor
Check out 30 more painless ways to increase dietary fibre.
Avoid trans-fatty acids
“Even though I love potato chips, they’re deadly. I tell patients, if your fingers look shiny or feel slippery after eating something, that means it is trans fatty or has saturated fats.” — Dr. David Bewick
Having a snack attack? Nutritionists never eat these foods late at night.
Take a nutrition course
“Some doctors in my hospital actually joined the same cardiac nutrition classes that the patients took. We did it with our spouses. It was fun and we got some useful tips; one is to stock your workplace fridge with healthy snacks from home instead of going to the coffee shop and buying a muffin.” — Dr. Catherine Kells
Take inspiration from these healthy low-calorie snacks.
Run as often as you can
“Physical activity reduces blood pressure and increases the health of the cells that line the blood vessels. It also lowers bad cholesterol and is one of the only interventions that increases good cholesterol. I usually like to run in the morning and see the sun rise. When it’s very cold or icy, I use a treadmill.” — Dr. Paula Harvey, Women’s College Hospital Cardiovascular Research Program, Toronto
You can also avoid the 10 worst foods for cholesterol.
Wear a fitness tracker
“I aim for over 10,000 steps a day, which burns 500 calories, and 12 hours of standing. When I’m travelling for work and will be sitting in meetings all day, I visit the exercise room.” — Dr. Sharon Mulvagh
These great fitness gadgets are guaranteed to get you off the couch.
Try to get in more steps
“I take stairs instead of the elevator, or I park a little farther away from where I’m going and walk. When I’m doing rounds, I don’t sit; I stay on my feet. When you’re sedentary, there’s a greater chance of developing risk factors for cardiovascular disease.” — Dr. Colin Yeung
This is what happens to your body when you start walking 10,000 steps a day.
Hire a personal trainer
“He pushes me to do more than I would do otherwise. He also helps me try new exercises and keeps it fresh.” — Dr. John Vyselaar, North Shore Heart Function Clinic, North Vancouver, B.C.
These are the best exercises for seniors to build strength, improve balance and boost heart health.
Exercise first thing in the morning
“It’s a good way to start the day, and it helps me focus once I get to work. My days are quite unpredictable and busy, and I’m often too exhausted in the evening to even think about exercise.” — Dr. Sayeh Zielke, author of One Heart, Five Habits, Lethbridge, Alta.
These are the best workouts for people who hate exercise.
Get a dog
“Walking him gives me extra steps! He gets me out in the morning and evening.” — Dr. Anmol Kapoor
Make being active as easy as possible
“A simple walk, preferably a brisk one, is good for the heart. Or you can set up a stationary bicycle or treadmill in front of the TV. The less onerous the activity, the more likely you are to do it.” — Dr. Michael Froeschl, Director, Adult Cardiology Postgraduate Training Programs, University of Ottawa
Psst—it turns out there’s a scientific reason why your brain never wants you to exercise.
Exercise in short bursts
“I tell my patients, if you don’t have the time to do continuous moderate exercise, just try getting 10 minutes here and there. Try to do at least 150 minutes a week this way; it’s shown to prevent heart disease.” — Dr. Colin Yeung
Need more proof? Check out these health benefits of walking just 15 minutes a day.
“Beginning a workout dehydrated will mean you start with an elevated resting heart rate. The exercise doesn’t go as well, and the muscles don’t feel good, either. That said, it’s also important to avoid overhydration, which can be dangerous, as well, due to a shift in sodium levels.” — Dr. Helen Bishop
This is how much water your should drink to stay hydrated.
Bike to work
“My office is about four kilometres away, so it’s far enough to get my heart rate up. It’s a great way to incorporate exercise into your day, because you have to go to work. I treated myself to a nice bicycle.” — Dr. Imad Nadra
These beginner’s tips for bicycle commuting can help you get started.
Find people to motivate you
“I’ve always tried to stay active, but I’m not a person who loves exercise. I used to take group exercise classes. These days, I do tings with family and friends, like skiing, hiking and dog walking. I’ll even do activities I don’t particularly enjoy, like running, if it’s with other people!” — Dr. Catherine Kells
Distance yourself from toxic people
“Negative discussions make your heart rate and blood pressure go up, and the stress causes a greater secretion of hormones—cortisol, norepinephrine and adrenalin—that damage your cardiovascular system. When you’re happy, your vessels relax, so it’s good to be around positive people as much as possible.” — Dr. Haissam Haddad
Here are tips on how to end a toxic friendship.
“As a doctor, you’re pulled in a lot of different directions, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed. I find that doing even 10 minutes of guided meditation in the morning helps to calm the mind.” — Dr. John Vyselaar
These expert stress management tips can also come in handy.
Read to unwind
“I started reading biographies of famous people. It brings me a different perspective, and it’s quite interesting to read about those who have made an impression on the world. I find that relaxing.” — Dr. David Bewick
Check out the surprising benefits of reading every day.
Hit the links
“Stress is a silent killer. I find golfing is a good treatment for it because you forget about everything except your game, no matter what level you’re at. And I walk when I play.” — Dr. Haissam Haddad
Learn to spot the silent signs of stress you might be ignoring.
Look for humour
“I work around a lot of funny people. In fact, one of my surgeons happens to be a stand-up comedian! (I’m more of a straight man.) Laughter improves overall heart health because it lowers stress and improves blood flow by dilating the vessels.” — Dr. Peter Fong, New Brunswick Heart Centre, Saint John, N.B.
Could you use a laugh? Check out the funniest Reader’s Digest jokes of all time!
Spend time in the woods
“My husband and I have property on the Niagara Escarpment. It’s our sanctuary. There, we connect with nature and get away from pollution, which has been shown to have adverse effects on the health of the cells along our blood vessels. In fact, the World Health Organization has shown that even small green spaces in cities are good for cardiovascular health and reduced mortality.” — Dr. Paula Harvey
Here are more great reasons to go camping this summer.
Get a full night’s sleep
“There appears to be a higher inflammatory state caused if you don’t get enough reparative sleep. Between six and eight hours seems to be the sweet spot in terms of cutting down on that problem and repairing oxidative stress—the disturbance in our balance of free radicals and antioxidants.” — Dr. Andrea Lavoie
Could you use some quality shut-eye? Adopt these daily habits for a better night’s sleep.
Practise sleep hygiene
“I don’t have a television in my bedroom and never keep my phone there, either. I don’t drink caffeine at night and I minimize alcohol. To wind down, I’ll step out onto the back deck with an herbal tea and look at the stars for a few minutes. And always, I read a book before I sleep.” — Dr. Paula Harvey
Practise good sleep hygiene by avoiding these things before bed.
“Instead of sitting around with our electronics, my kids and I go for a hike together. Recent studies show that you have improved mood and overall wellness when you spend more time in an oxygen-rich environment.” — Dr. Andrea Lavoie
Looking for inspiration? Check out the 10 greatest hikes in Canada.
Stay in the moment
“I realized that sometimes I was with my wife and kids but my mind was on work. Not paying attention to the family at important times can create stressful situations, which increases the risk of cardiovascular events. Leave work behind sometimes and focus on family and friends.” — Dr. Laurent Macle, Montreal Heart Institute
Ready for a digital detox? Here are practical tips on how to kick social media addiction.
Monitor your mood
“Depression and anxiety have a huge impact on cardiovascular wellness—they can cause constricted blood vessels and an elevated heart rate, among other things. Any time we can improve our mental health, it has a counter-effect on our cardiovascular risk.” — Dr. Andrea Lavoie
Learn to spot the signs of high functioning depression.
“A Swedish study of over 20,000 men looked at five low-risk health factors, including not smoking, regular exercise and healthy diet. Accomplishing all of them led to a relative 86 per cent lower risk of heart attack. Another study found that the behaviours that decreased the likelihood of coronary heart disease the most were regular exercise and quitting smoking.” — Dr. Colin Yeung
Limit your drinking
“There’s evidence that alcohol, in moderation, can be beneficial to the heart. But if you have too much, it can be harmful. When a patient comes in with atrial fibrillation, we always screen for alcohol overuse. If it turns out they consume more than what is recommended in Canada’s Low-Risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines, I suggest they cut back. I personally enjoy a drink with supper, but I don’t have more than that.” — Dr. Colin Yeung
Find out how to spot the warning signs of binge drinking.
Helping others can boost your heart health
“When you help someone, you can see the appreciation in their eyes. It’s a huge de-stressor. When someone says you’re fantastic and gives you a hug, that’s a magic pill. It’s juice for the soul!” — Dr. Anmol Kapoor
Don’t miss these simple acts of kindness you can do in two minutes.
Get a heart scan
“The value of screening for coronary calcium in the general population is still up for debate. (There is evidence that it’s useful for people who have already had a heart attack, but those patients should still discuss this with their family doctor.) It’s a quick CT scan, it involves a low dose of radiation and it’s predictive of premature coronary artery disease. I’m 41 and plan to get this test in the next couple of years.” — Dr. John Vyselaar
See a physician
“Sometimes you can have high sugar or high blood pressure and not know it. If you visit your primary-care physician regularly, you can get these things checked. If you have an elevation in your blood sugar, you may be able to make changes to your lifestyle and normalize it before it becomes diabetes.” — Dr. Sayeh Zielke
Find out more ways to maintain healthy blood sugar levels.
Pay attention to risk factors for women
“Women have unique risk factors because of our reproductive life stages and because certain conditions, like autoimmune disorders, are more prevalent in women. Also, when we transition into menopause, we lose the beneficial effects of estrogen on blood vessels—including a better cholesterol profile. If you’re in perimenopause and haven’t already discussed risk factors with your doctor, this is a critical time to start.” — Dr. Paula Harvey
Find out how women’s pain is often left undiagnosed.
Look at your family history
“More than 80 per cent of North Americans will develop high blood pressure in their lifetime, but if one or both of your parents had it, you’re likely to develop it earlier. By adjusting your lifestyle, you can delay the onset of hypertension by decades or make it a much more manageable disease.” — Dr. Eugene Crystal, Sunnybrook Hospital Schulich Heart Centre, Toronto
Get to know which foods can help lower blood pressure.
Take a statin
“My cholesterol is high because my father’s, mother’s and grandmother’s was high. I have a strong family history of heart disease, so I take medication that lowers my cholesterol levels.” — Dr. David Bewick
Get a flu shot
“The wave of seasonal flu in society actually goes in parallel with, and slightly in front of, an increase in acute cardiovascular events. The correlation is not extraordinarily strong, but it does make sense: if your body is trying to fight the flu and you have a pre-existing heart condition—whether known to you or not—there’s a risk that it will surface.” — Dr. Eugene Crystal
Next, get to know 30 more ways to boost your heart health.