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Being physically fit helps protect the heart, perhaps even more than eating a nutritious diet. A study at Stanford University found that volunteers who exercised three times a week cut their cholesterol, while those on a low-fat diet saw no change. Here are easy ways to get moving:
1. Kick it up a notch. According to a recent study, a vigorous workout has double the heart benefits of mild exercise. Men who jogged, played tennis or swam cut their risk of a heart attack by as much as 20 percent.
2. Fit it in. Too busy to exercise? Studies show that several short sessions of exercise (about fifteen minutes each) can cut heart-attack risk as much as a longer workout.
3. Pump some iron. Regular strength training increases muscle strength and endurance, improves heart function and reduces the risk of coronary disease. Plus, it can boost metabolism.
4. Turn up the heat in the bedroom. Having sex not only helps you feel more connected to your spouse, but it's also a mini-workout equivalent to running three minutes on a treadmill. Consider it an exercise bonus.
5. Take some flextime. Try yoga and breathing and relaxation techniques. Recent research suggests that these types of exercises may help reverse symptoms of heart disease.
The daily grind can take a toll on your heart. If you're constantly stressed, blood pressure climbs and the risk of heart attack increases. Ease up with simple changes:
6. Indulge yourself. Getting a massage is not only relaxing, but it also reduces heart rate, lowers blood pressure and improves circulation. Even better, research suggests that it may help relieve PMS.
7. Get over your grudge. If you're steamed about an argument with your spouse, make sure the rift gets resolved. In a study of newlyweds, researchers found that wives who used negative words to describe their marriage had more of an increase in stress hormones than their husbands did. Over time, high stress levels can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.
8. Adopt a furry friend. Researchers asked one hundred married couples to discuss a recent argument and found that the blood-pressure readings of pet owners were lower, rose less and returned to normal faster than readings of those without pets.
9. Soothe your temper. A recent study found that people who get angry easily have a nearly threefold higher risk of a heart attack or dying from heart disease than calmer folk.
10. Make new friends and keep the old. Research suggests that people who have little contact with friends and family have a two to three times greater risk of heart disease than those with a good support network.
11. Kick the habit. Smoking is the leading cause of lung cancer and a major risk factor for coronary heart disease. According to the American Heart Association, 50 percent of heart attacks in middle-aged women are linked to smoking.
12. Manage stress. It's critical for women to find a way to relax -- whether through yoga, listening to music, meditating or laughing with friends. The stress hormone cortisol can cause estrogen levels to drop, putting some women on a high-risk course for heart disease even before menopause.
Maintaining a healthy weight will put the brakes on three of the biggest heart hazards: high cholesterol, diabetes and hypertension. These eat-smart habits also can help:
13. Cut back on coffee. Drinking two to three cups a day can elevate blood pressure and increase the body's production of cortisol.
14. Eat often. Instead of skipping meals, or taking the three-square route, try grazing. New research in The New England Journal of Medicine found that eating several small, low-fat meals throughout the day, can lower cholesterol.
15. Get plenty of C. Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant that mops up damaging particles known as free radicals, which have been linked to the development of heart disease. Boost your intake with apples, bell peppers and oranges.
16. Eat a balanced diet. The Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet, a low-fat diet rich in fruits and vegetables, helps lower high blood pressure. New studies also show that it significantly lowers levels of homocysteine, an amino acid linked to an increased risk of heart disease and stroke.
Stocking up on four to ten servings of fruits and vegetables a day may decrease your risk of heart disease by as much as 30 percent. Here are fabulous foods to pile on your plate:
17. Tomatoes. These are chock-full of lycopene, an antioxidant that protects against heart disease and cancer. Your body can absorb more lycopene from cooked or processed tomatoes (like those in tomato sauce or ketchup), while fresh tomatoes are a good source of vitamin C.
18. Complex carbs. Researchers have found that women who eat lots of potatoes, white bread and white rice are two and half times more likely to develop diabetes than women who eat these foods sparingly; they also double their risk of heart attack. Choose heart-healthy complex carbohydrates such as whole-grain breads, brown rice and beans.
19. Nuts. It's true that nuts are high in fat, but it's the unsaturated kind that can help lower cholesterol. For a midafternoon snack, grab a handful of almonds: They're rich in vitamin E, which may help reduce the inflammation associated with heart disease, as well as calcium and folate.
20. Fish. Salmon, mackerel and trout may help prevent the deadliest cases of heart disease. Why? They are loaded with omega-3s, powerful fatty acids that inhibit the formation of blood clots, lower triglycerides and may slow the accumulation of artery-clogging plaque.
21. Green tea. It contains polyphenols, powerful phytochemicals that reduce the risk of heart disease by fighting damaging free radicals.Things to ask your doctor about
Studies show that people who are informed about health care get the best treatment. So don't be shy; talk about these issues:
22. Heart-attack symptoms. If upper abdominal pain, nausea and fatigue strike, don't wait to get help. Along with chest pain, these are common symptoms of heart attack in women. Studies show that women are less likely to receive early treatment during a heart attack, possibly because their symptoms aren't the same as the typical symptoms in men.
23. Aspirin. A recent study found that women were less likely to receive aspirin, an effective treatment to help prevent a second heart attack, after discharge from the hospital.
24. A complete cholesterol checkup. High levels of triglycerides may be as artery clogging as high cholesterol. The Framingham Heart Study found that high triglyceride levels are related to higher risk of heart attack in women, not men, although experts aren't sure why.
25. Clinical trials. Although more women are signing up for single-sex studies than ever before, only 38 percent of participants in studies including both sexes are women. By analyzing sex differences, researchers may find new answers to help both men and women.--Melinda Leader and Christina Sciammacco