Secrets to a Healthy Heart
Feel-Good Ways to Lower Your Blood Pressure
How just stretching, taking baths or enjoying your coffee could lower your risk of heart attack and stroke
En español | You know the drill: Exercise, eat a Mediterranean-style diet, get a good night's sleep and tame your stress to optimize the health of your heart.
"You can't really get on a path to wellness without addressing all four of these,” says cardiologist Dara Lee Lewis, M.D., codirector of the Women's Program at the Lown Cardiovascular Group in Boston.
But recent research suggests some unexpected ways to further protect your heart's health. Try these tactics also to lower your risk for both heart attacks and strokes:
Take a hot bath daily
There's nothing wrong with having a nice long soak in the tub while winter weather and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic have you spending more time at home. In fact, doing so may give you an extra heart boost. High temperatures cause the blood vessels to dilate, which lowers blood pressure. Plus a hot bath helps with lowering stress, one of the four pillars of heart health.
A new study in the journal Heart confirms these benefits. Researchers tracked the bathing habits and health records of some 30,000 people ages 40 to 59 in Japan for more than 20 years. Compared with people who took baths less than twice a week, those who soaked in a tub almost every day had a 28 percent lower risk of heart problems overall and a 26 percent lower risk of stroke. The findings held up even when researchers took into account other factors that can affect heart health, such as exercise, a smoking habit and diet.
It doesn't replace a vigorous bike ride or brisk walk, but according to a recent study from Europe, mere stretching may reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke by improving blood flow, which in turn is believed to decrease stiffness and damage to the walls of your arteries.
To test the idea, researchers at the University of Milan divided 39 men and women into three groups. One group did leg, ankle and foot stretches five times a week for 40 minutes, while another group stretched just one side of the body. The third group didn't stretch at all. When the study ended 12 weeks later, those in the stretching groups had significantly improved the health of their blood vessels compared to those who didn't stretch.
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Stretching doesn't quite meet the American Heart Association's recommendation of at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity a week (30 minutes, 5 times a week). But it could “have a practical implication in maintaining or even improving vascular function in people with a limited aerobic capacity or with a limited motor capacity,” says study author, Emiliano Cè, associate professor of biomedical science for health at the University of Milan.
Filter your coffee
Improving heart health is one of coffee's nifty perks — but it turns out that's true only if you brew it the right way. A study of more than a half million people in Norway recently showed that those who drank filtered coffee were 15 percent less likely to die during the 20-year follow-up due to any cause, including heart disease.
People who drank one to four cups a day of filtered coffee had the lowest risk of death from heart woes. The findings held even after researchers accounted for participants’ weight, blood pressure and cholesterol — factors that could skew the results. Norwegians who regularly drank unfiltered joe (that includes espresso drinks or brews from methods like a French press or moka pot) had a higher risk of dying from heart disease.
Why the difference? The study authors believe unfiltered coffee retains high levels of oils in coffee that can raise cholesterol levels.
Practice tai chi
The heart-related benefits of tai chi, the ancient Chinese practice of slow, meditative movement, are multifold. According to a study of more than 200 people with somewhat elevated blood pressure, those who practiced tai chi for three months significantly decreased it, compared to those who didn't. In research involving obese patients with diabetes, tai chi lowered cholesterol, body mass index (BMI) — a measure of weight and height used to define obesity — and C-reactive protein (CRP), a marker of inflammation in the body that's linked to poorer heart health.
These effects may be due to tai chi's effect on harmful stress, something a recent review study from the University of Arizona saw among older adults with cardiovascular disease in particular.
However, tai chi is just one way to find calm and boost your heart's health. “It's not necessarily sitting in the lotus position, with your legs crossed, chanting,” Lewis says. “It can be baking bread, walking in nature, gardening, knitting — anything that takes you into the quiet part of your brain and allows you to shut the world out for a little bit.”