1. Find an Aerobic Activity You Enjoy
Imagine if there were a pill that dramatically improved nearly all aspects of your health with just a few doses per week, while having no real side effects. You’d be a fool not to take that pill, right?
That pill is regular aerobic exercise, in which you elevate your heart rate with sustained activity for twenty or more minutes at a time. Just a few hours a week of aerobic exercise significantly lowers your risk for cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and some types of cancer, and helps to control your weight and improves your mental state, among other benefits.
The issue for some people is that, instead of a pill, aerobic exercise is more like the proverbial castor oil—something you know you need, but lacking so much in appeal that it feels like a chore. When you feel like that, it can be hard to get yourself to exercise with the necessary frequency and consistency.
The key to overcoming that potential hurdle is to find an aerobic activity you enjoy doing. Then exercise will be more like play than the first syllable in the word “workout.”
For me, that activity is running. In a physical sense, I enjoy the motion, the sense of exploration, being outside in all sorts of weather, the mood-improving endorphins, and the chance for quality time alone or with one or two good friends. Psychologically, running’s simplicity, convenience, and rewarding of regularity suits my personality well. I like other activities such as hiking and cycling enough to happily do them, but nothing else speaks to me like running does.
My wife is a much more interesting person in an athletic sense. She enjoys regularly mixing activities, including cycling, running, Nordic skiing, kayaking, hiking, and snowshoeing. The variety keeps her more mentally engaged than concentrating on one activity, while the physical variation gives her the overall rather than sport-specific fitness she values. Her two favorites, cycling and skiing, appeal to her in part because she likes the changes in effort that topography naturally cause during a ride or ski. Her boring husband, on the other hand, is drawn to the steady rhythmic effort that marks a good run.
My point isn’t that her way is better than mine, or vice versa. It’s that we’ve been fortunate to find aerobic activities that we want to do, not that we feel like we have to do. As a result, it’s easy for us to get the prescribed few hours a week of aerobic exercise, and then some, and reap the health benefits from doing things we’d want to do anyway.
What those activities are for you is up to you to discover. The keys are that they’re appealing, enjoyable, suitable to your personality, and logistically practical for your life. That last point is key— you might discover that something like stand-up paddle boarding makes you feel fully alive, but if you can realistically do it only a few times a month, you’ll need to find one or more supplementary activities to fill the gap.
While you’re exploring activities, give each one at least a month of regular participation before deciding it’s not for you. Even the simplest activity involves a learning curve before you’re comfortable enough with it to decide if you enjoy it. That will be especially true if you’re not in good cardiovascular shape. In that case, almost any activity is initially going to feel difficult. Wait until your fitness improves and you’re past that hump before declaring a type of exercise isn’t your thing.
2. Come Up with Ways to Be More Active
You’ve probably heard that you should take at least 10,000 steps a day. Although this figure isn’t an official recommendation from public health agencies such as the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it is an activity level that’s been linked to health outcomes such as lower blood pressure and reduced blood sugar levels. And it makes an important point: most Americans aren’t active enough.
By some estimates, the average American takes just more than 5,000 steps a day. Health researchers consider this to be a sedentary lifestyle, with all the negative health consequences that come with living that way. Bear in mind that this is a total for the entire day—not just planned exercise, but moving around the house, buying groceries, walking to the bathroom at work, and so on. And bear in mind that 5,000-plus steps per day is an average figure, meaning that many people are even less active once you account for people who are regular exercisers and/or active at work.
The average person used to be much more active. A study of Old Order Amish, whose lifestyle hasn’t changed much since the nineteenth century, found that the average man in the community took more than 18,000 steps a day, and the average woman more than 14,000. An average adult takes about 2,000 steps per mile, so Amish adults get in roughly seven to nine miles per day of walking just through daily activities.
Over the last 150 years, much of the Amish’s labor-intensive way of life has disappeared. In many ways, of course, that change has been welcome. But the health ramifications of labor-saving devices and environments that are engineered to prioritize automobiles are undeniable. We have reached the stage where most of us need to consciously add some labor back into our day.
As with many health-improvement measures, becoming more active doesn’t mean making radical changes all at once. Many experts laud the 10,000-steps movement but say that if you’re currently sedentary, your best bet is to start with small increases. If you use a step counter or other fitness tracker, try to take 1,000 more steps per day than you currently do. As that level of activity becomes seamlessly integrated into your lifestyle, add another 1,000 per day. Keep increasing in this manner until you’re at 10,000 or more steps per day or meet the CDC’s recommendation of at least 150 minutes of moderate activity per week.
Regular exercise is the obvious way to increase your activity level. But experts tell even hard-core athletes to avoid a routine of vigorous exercise followed by being sedentary for the rest of the day. A few simple ways to be more active: Take the stairs instead of elevators. (At the least, don’t use the down elevator.) Keep walking on escalators. Don’t use drive-throughs. Park at the far end of lots. Walk rather than drive when running errands near your home. If you do drive, park in a central spot and go on foot to each of several stores. Go low-tech with your yard work.
Convenience is killing us. Sometimes, short cuts are dead ends.
3. Create a Car-Free Zone around Your Home
The next time you’re in Manhattan, take a good look at the people walking down the street. Notice anything? That’s right—not many of them are overweight, and almost none are obese.
While it’s true that, on average, Americans who are better off financially tend to be slimmer, this phenomenon can’t just be attributed to the relative wealth of Manhattanites. After all, many of the nontourists you’ll see live in other boroughs, or even outside of New York City.
One thing almost all these people share is that they regularly walk for transportation. Because of cost and convenience, New Yorkers walk when many other Americans drive—to and from work, when shopping, to get to public transportation, etc. Data collected by the fitness tracker manufacturer Fitbit show that, on average, New Yorkers accumulate more steps per day than residents of any other American city. Equally telling, unlike in other cities, New Yorkers walk almost the same amount in winter as they do in summer. They have to to go about their lives. Two unintended but felicitous consequences are a significant amount of heart-helping exercise and less incidence of overweight.
You can simulate the New York experience by creating a car-free zone around your home. Maybe it extends a mile in every direction. For trips within that zone, travel by foot or bike. Over time, you should accumulate enough extra movement in your day to impart health benefits.
Implementing this idea speaks to the concept we looked at in the previous item—that in modern society, we should sometimes choose to do things in other than the most convenient way. As with Manhattanites walking to the subway, for most of human history, daily life required people to use their bodies enough to produce health benefits. It now behooves many of us to consciously make some tasks a little more labor-intensive.
Having a car-free zone around your home can also change how you experience and think about your neighborhood. It’s a way to slow down the pace of life in the area immediately around you, better giving your surroundings a feeling of refuge.
4. Eat Dark Chocolate
This idea should be easy to sell you on: regularly eating small amounts of dark chocolate can lower your blood pressure and reduce your risk of having a stroke.
Karin Reid, PhD, is an Australian chocolate researcher who, in addition to having the world’s coolest job, has found that cocoa products are effective in reducing blood pressure by 2 to 3 mm Hg in the short term. That’s a significant enough reduction to improve cardiovascular health. Other longterm, large-scale studies have found an inverse relationship between chocolate consumption and the incidence of stroke. That is, those who reported eating the least amount of chocolate were more likely to have a stroke during the study period than those who said they ate more chocolate.
The mechanism for this apparent gift from nature is thought to be gut microbes metabolizing compounds in cocoa with names like catechin and epicatchin into smaller molecules with antiinflammatory properties.
It’s those compounds in cocoa that provide the benefit. That means if you want to eat your way to better heart health, you’ll need to eat dark chocolate that contains at least 50 percent cocoa. Milk chocolate won’t get the job done.
Most people find dark chocolate with that high of a cocoa content to taste bitter without added fat and sugar. And once those latter items are added, dark chocolate becomes less of a superfood—a 100-gram bar of 85 percent dark chocolate contains 600 calories, 450 of which come from fat. The good news is that research has found the cardiovascular benefits accrue at relatively low levels of consumption, even as little as six grams, or about a tenth of an ounce, per day. Reid says she eats one three- to six-gram piece of 50 to 70 percent dark chocolate daily.
5. Control Your Reaction to Stress
Many of the things that cause us stress are external. We can’t control whether a work project is dumped on us with a short deadline, the insurance company screwed up our medical billing, or the person in the car in front of us is texting away even though the light has turned green. We can, however, control how we react to these events, and in doing so preserve our cardiovascular health.
Your body reacts to perceived stress by releasing the hormones adrenalin and cortisol and constricting your blood vessels. As a result, your heart rate and blood pressure increase. These fightor-flight processes are helpful if your house is on fire or a bear is chasing you. They don’t do you much good when your plane is delayed or a coworker fails to read an important message you sent.
Short-term reactions to stress haven’t been shown to cause long-term high blood pressure. But if you’re having these reactions three times an hour, day after day, you’re certainly not improving your health. It’s reasonable to say chronic stress can harm your overall wellness.
There are two key ways to limit stress. First, find ways to alter your reaction. The fight-or-flight response may be hard-wired into us but is neither helpful nor appropriate in much of modern life. Learn to override that response. Analyze the situation: Is it really that bad? Is there anything I can do to change it without confrontation? Is it worth losing control of my emotions over? Is it likely to end soon even if I don’t do anything? Remind yourself that having a stressful reaction makes the person causing you to feel that way that much more in control of you. On a practical level, do something to stop the stressful reaction. Breathe deeply and calmly, hum a favorite song, look away, go for a walk, or put on headphones. Do something to break your typical reaction to the trigger
The second solution is to avoid situations that you know will stress you, even once you’ve gotten better in how you react to these situations. Few of us are Zen master enough not to be bothered by things like rush-hour traffic or crowds of holiday shoppers. Most of us know people who have a way of getting under our skin. When possible, remove yourself from predictable sources of stress. Along those same lines, don’t create known stressful situations, such as putting off work projects or your tax returns until the last minute, or getting to the airport too soon before your flight.
There’s another aspect to controlling your reaction to stress. During sustained stressful periods, it’s common to turn to things like cigarettes, alcohol, tubes of cookie dough, etc. It’s easy to justify a justthis-once mentality when you’re looking for immediate relief. But whatever aid they might provide is temporary and won’t do away with the cause of your stress, while worsening your health.
6. Get a Petable Pet
If you’ve ever felt better after spending time with a dog instead of people, you’re not necessarily misanthropic. You probably just experienced the research-backed benefits of certain types of pets. In one fascinating experiment, researchers measured people’s blood pressure while the subjects petted, talked to, and looked at a dog, and also while the people talked to (but didn’t pet!) the researchers. The subjects’ blood pressure was lowest when they petted a dog and highest while they talked with the researchers. When the people talked to or looked at a dog, their blood pressure was still lower than when they talked to a human. The researchers concluded that the touch element of the encounter somehow triggered the most beneficial blood-pressure response. This finding suggests that dogs and cats are better for your cardiovascular health than, say, goldfish.
There are other ways that dogs in particular have been linked with improved health. Several studies have found that dog owners tend to be more active than non-dog owners, and that this greater activity level is associated with a better cardiovascular profile and lower weight. Walking the dog once or twice a day is another great example of how something simple, non-strenuous, and (usually) enjoyable done for practical purposes can have unintended but significant health benefits.
Along those lines, as anyone who has ever walked a puppy in the presence of strangers can attest, dogs are a great way to get humans who would otherwise ignore one another to converse. Short, casual social interactions are a boost to mental health by virtue of reducing feelings of isolation. Some psychologists recommend dog ownership for people with mild to moderate depression, both for the companionship and uncomplicated love the animal provides and the likely greater social connections the pooch will lead to.
7. Know Your Heart Rate
An elevated heart rate can be the sign that one of several undesirable things is going on in your body. Possibilities include high blood pressure, coronary artery disease, heart muscle disease, tumors, and infections.
Knowing your normal heart rate will help you better decide if something is amiss. Your heart rate varies throughout the day, depending on many factors, including body position, stress level, caffeine intake, and recent activity. Your lowest typical pulse, when you’ve been sitting or lying still for a while, is known as your resting heart rate. It should be relatively stable from day to day.
The best time to get a good baseline figure for your normal resting heart rate is when you wake. Lie still until you feel calm. (This might take longer if you wake to an alarm.) Without too much pressure, place one or two fingers on the inside of your wrist or the side of your neck to find your pulse. Count the number of heartbeats in fifteen seconds and multiply that figure by four to get your resting heart rate. Repeat this exercise over several mornings to get an idea of what’s typical.
If you feel like your heart rate has increased recently, try to measure it as above, when you’re likely to get the lowest reading for the day. A one-day bump probably isn’t cause for concern—poor sleep, dehydration, stress from work, and other temporary situations can cause that. Similarly, if you’re clearly sick, then don’t worry about an elevated heart rate. If, however, you notice a repeated increase over your norm and can’t identify an obvious reason, seek medical attention.
8. Eat Whole Grains
Large-scale studies consistently show that people who regularly eat whole-grain foods have a lower risk of developing many chronic conditions, including coronary artery disease and cardiovascular disease. A diet high in whole grains is also associated with lower cholesterol levels and less incidence of cancer, diabetes, respiratory diseases, and infectious diseases. In study periods of various lengths, people who eat a lot of whole grains are less likely to die than those who don’t.
The fiber in whole grains is thought to play a large role in their heart-health benefits. Fiber is believed to attach itself to cholesterol particles and help remove them from your system. By promoting a feeling of fullness, fiber is also credited with helping people stay at a healthy weight. Being overweight is an independent risk factor for some diseases. In addition, whole grains are a good source of many nutrients that have their own health benefits.
Refined grains, in which the bran and germ have been stripped away, contain little of the fiber and nutrients of whole grains
Some studies have found a benefit from adding just one serving of whole grains to your daily diet. Greater benefits appear to occur at around three daily servings. Some common examples of one serving of whole grains are one piece of whole-wheat bread, half a cup of cooked whole-grain pasta or brown rice, and one whole-wheat tortilla.
For many people, obtaining these servings can be accomplished by replacing a current refined grain product—such as white bread, white pasta, or white rice—with its whole-grain counterpart. In addition to whole wheat, readily available sources of whole grains include brown rice, whole oats, wild rice, whole-grain barley, and popcorn.
9. Drink Wine (in Moderation)
People have strong feelings about alcohol, and for good reason. Excessive alcohol consumption leads to problems ranging from liver disease and traffic fatalities to neurological conditions and ruined relationships. There are many people who are better off living an alcohol-free life. For people who can enjoy alcohol at light to moderate levels of consumption without risk of becoming a heavier drinker, there’s good evidence of cardiovascular benefits, especially from red wine.
When the results of several studies are pooled, light to moderate alcohol consumption is associated with a 20-percent lower risk of developing coronary artery disease or having a stroke. The same level of consumption is associated with about a 30-percent lower risk of having a heart attack. It’s thought that alcohol helps to maintain healthy blood vessels, thereby lowering the risk of arteries clogging
Although the evidence is equivocal, it appears that red wine might confer additional benefits over beverages such as beer or white wine. It’s thought that chemical compounds in red wine known as polyphenols contribute to blood-vessel maintenance independent of that caused by alcohol.
The amounts in these studies are in the range of one or two five-ounce glasses of wine a few to several days per week. The takeaway is that if you enjoy drinking this amount, you can further enjoy it knowing you’re helping your heart. But more is definitely not better. And health experts agree that people who don’t currently drink shouldn’t start just to get the heart-health benefits.
10. Eat Nuts
“A handful of nuts a day” lacks the poetic pizzazz of the daily-apple version, but it contains at least as much medical validity.
Consider the findings of a study that looked at diet and disease in 118,000 people over a thirty-year period. It found that frequent nut consumption was associated with a lower risk of all-cause and disease-specific death. Compared to people who didn’t eat nuts, those who ate a one-ounce serving of nuts seven or more times a week had a 20-percent lower risk of all-cause death (i.e., they were less likely to die for whatever reason during the long period studied). Eating nuts five or more times per week was also associated with a 25-percent lower risk of cardiovascular-related death and a 29- percent lower risk of heart disease. The study also found an 11-percent lower risk of cancer-related death and a 24-percent lower risk of death from respiratory disease among regular nut eaters.
In the study, one-ounce servings of peanuts and tree nuts (almonds, pecans, walnuts, pine nuts, etc.) had similar effects on lowering mortality. There are about twenty to twenty-five almonds, and fifteen to twenty peanuts or cashews, in a one-ounce serving. Nuts are dense with vitamins, minerals, protein, and antioxidants. They are also higher in fat than most foods touted as disease-fighting, but it’s thought that the unsaturated fat in them helps to lower, not raise, cholesterol levels.
There’s even evidence that regular nut consumption might not hurt, and could even aid, people watching their weight. One study found that the caloric value of almonds has been overestimated by 32 percent. It based its calculations on analyzing waste products when nuts were eaten as part of a mixed diet, in contrast to the traditional method of assigning caloric values, which analyzes food in isolation. The newer method, of course, more closely aligns with how things happen in the real world.
Another factor in nuts’ favor for dieters: in one study, subjects who ate dry-roasted almonds— either with breakfast or lunch, or as a morning or afternoon snack—curbed their appetite without gaining weight. The snackers had their almonds two hours after a meal and two hours before their next meal. All the nut eaters in the study had a one-and-a-half ounce serving per day. Their total caloric intake didn’t increase, and they didn’t gain weight during the month-long study. According to the researchers, the subjects adjusted their diet because they didn’t feel as hungry between meals and during meals.
11. Eat Berries
Nuts’ partner in the common pairing also appears to have heart-health benefits, with no concern whatsoever about its caloric content. In one study of more than 90,000 women, those who ate three or more servings of berries each week were found to have a significantly lower risk of heart attack over an eighteen-year follow-up period. Another study of almost 2,000 men found that, over a twelve-year follow-up period, those who ate the most berries had a significantly lower rate of death from heart disease than those who ate the least amount of berries. Such evidence isn’t isolated and has led to berries being included in most health experts’ recommendations for a heart-healthy diet.
Berries are high in flavonoids, one type of the micronutrient family known as polyphenols. These substances are increasingly believed to have cancer-preventive and anti-inflammatory benefits. There’s even evidence that berries can help aging brains. One review of studies on the matter concluded that eating a lot of berries helps to preserve neural communication in the brain, thereby lessening the cognitive decline often associated with aging. It’s this apparent ability to lower your risk for major diseases that always lands berries on lists of superfoods.
Flavonoids give many plants, including berries, their bright color. Variety in your diet is always a good idea, and that includes the matter of color. Choosing fruits and vegetables of a broad range of colors should increase your consumption of flavonoids and lower your risk of some diseases.
12. Drink Tea
Chalk up another one for flavonoids, which we looked at in the previous item. In the case of tea, the flavonoids present are thought to help lower inflammation and improve vascular health, resulting in less build-up of plaque in your arteries. Arterial plaque is responsible for what’s commonly called clogged arteries. Plaque can slow blood flow or, more dangerous, rupture, resulting in a blood clot that causes a heart attack or stroke.
Research on regular tea drinkers has found that they may be less likely to have heart attacks and strokes. There’s also evidence supporting tea’s role in lowering blood pressure and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels.
The tea in question comes from the plant Camellia sinensis. The leaves of this evergreen shrub are used in all black and green teas. Herbal teas, such as chamomile, rooibos, or ginger, are called teas because their method of preparation, steeping, is what’s done with black or green tea. While these herbal teas may have health benefits, and are enjoyable, they don’t contain the flavonoids found in the leaves of Camellia sinensis. Because of differences in how green and black teas are made, green tea contains more flavonoids.
13. Care for Your Yard the Low-Tech Way
It’s not only possible, but better for you to gather leaves, mow the lawn, and clear snow with humanpowered rather than gas-powered tools. I live in Maine, and I can vouch for the fact that it’s possible to get through the winter with just a shovel.
This gets back to an idea introduced earlier—modern life has made it so easy to avoid activity that we need to find ways to reintroduce it. Put another way, the existence of a gas-powered gadget shouldn’t automatically make it the default means of doing a task. Mowing by hand, raking leaves, and shoveling snow are exactly the types of moderate-intensity activities that contributed to earlier generations’ better health. They’ll get your heart rate up and exercise large muscles throughout your body. Raking and bagging leaves burns an estimated 350 to 450 calories per hour, a little more than an hour of brisk walking for most people. Shoveling snow can burn up to 600 calories an hour, close to what a lot of people expend to run six miles.
These devices can harm your health other than by reducing your activity level. A typical leaf blower operates at a volume of eighty-five or more decibels, louder than the threshold at which hearing is harmed. The same device is also an emissions nightmare—a leaf blower with the common two-stroke engine pollutes as much in half an hour as a pick-up truck does driving across the United States one and a half times. And while you’re blowing leaves, you’re also dispersing allergens, pesticides, and other particulates that can lead to health problems.
An irony is that these devices save you labor but might not save you time. Picture someone with a leaf blower slowly ushering their pile of leaves along. You don’t have to be a Luddite to agree that the leaves could be raked much more quickly. Similarly, I regularly clear snow from my driveway in less time than my neighbor does with a snow blower. One more way that low-tech yard care can improve your health: the neighbors won’t throw something at your head for ruining their weekend afternoon with your leaf blower.
14. Take a Walk after Dinner
After Thanksgiving dinner, while some people collapse on the couch in a food coma, others head outside for a leisurely stroll. Even people who are usually sedentary will instinctively walk around the block.
Trust those instincts. Walking after your largest meal of the day has important benefits in addition to the calorie-burning and fitness-improving ones that accrue at all times. Research has found that a brief walk (fifteen to twenty minutes) lessens the spike in blood sugar levels that typically occurs after a large meal. Large rises and falls in blood sugar levels can increase your risk for cardiovascular disease and are particularly dangerous for diabetics and pre-diabetics. At least one study has found that a shorter walk after a large meal tempers blood sugar spikes better than a longer walk before eating.
Walking after dinner is an example of a practice whose benefits transcend one type of health. In addition to the above, a post-meal ambulation has been shown to aid in digestion (the likely explanation for why people are more inclined to engage in the practice on Thanksgiving). In one study that compared following a meal with a walk to a post-dinner caffeinated beverage or alcoholic digestif, only the walk increased the rate at which food emptied from the stomach.
And yet another benefit: in another study, people who delayed having dessert until after going on a short walk ate about half the amount of chocolate compared to when they indulged immediately after the main course.
15. Jump Rope
Michael Joyner, MD, a health researcher at the Mayo Clinic, has stood before a conference of fellow experts and touted a fitness device that’s effective, inexpensive, portable, and convenient. Then, with the attendees expecting to see the latest digital gadget, Joyner pulls out a jump rope.
Once you (re)learn how to do it, jumping rope can provide a great cardiovascular workout in a short amount of time. When you get a good rhythm going, your heart rate will be at the desired level that is high enough to produce the desired benefits but not so high that you can’t sustain the activity. (For most adults, continuing to coordinate the motion of jumping rope is what will first bring them to a halt. But the aerobic benefits will still accrue if you resume jumping rope almost immediately.)
Jumping rope at a good but sustainable effort level can burn about the same number of calories per minute as running. Of course, it’s unlikely you’ll do a straight thirty minutes of jumping rope like you might running, cycling, or using an elliptical machine. A good whole-body workout alternates five minutes of jumping rope with a minute of body-weight exercises, such as push-ups and planks, then immediately back to jumping rope.
Jumping rope has other benefits. Weight-bearing activities such as jumping rope help to build and maintain strong bones. Jumping rope will also improve your balance and what’s known as neuromuscular coordination, or how well your brain, nervous system, and muscles work together. Better balance and coordination can have huge payoffs in daily life, especially with age, as they help you to avoid falls and generally better navigate your physical environment.
Joyner’s advocacy of jumping rope makes a larger point: simplicity often means an activity is easier to do on a regular basis than a supposedly more advanced or more effective type of workout.