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When it comes to improving your heart health, “fun” probably isn’t the first word to come to mind. Maybe you have a list of “shoulds” or “have tos” from your doctor, or you envision a strict exercise regimen or boring diet.
But the truth is, some of the most fun activities – ones we actually look forward to doing – can help strengthen our hearts (thanks, nature!). We asked a doctor to weigh in on some of the most enjoyable ways to get your ticker in tip-top shape.
1. Pet a pet
“Having a pet – especially a dog – is beneficial from a cardiovascular standpoint, because for many people having a dog keeps them more active in terms of walking and exercise,” says internal medicine physician Sonya Chawla, MD. “Also, having a pet usually means more interactions with others, such as neighbors, children coming over to play, and then that facilitates social and emotional connection, which can help with symptoms of depression, which is clearly tied to cardiovascular health.”
In addition, aside from connection with other humans, your interaction with a pet can improve your mood and create a more positive home environment, which is also good for your heart, she adds. “Interaction with a pet, especially a friendly one, can significantly lower your cortisol level. Not only immediately, but also in the long term,” even 24 hours later, Dr. Chawla says, noting that lowered cortisol is associated with decreased risk of heart attack and stroke. Stroking a dog or cat has also been shown to lower blood pressure and heart rate.
The takeaway: Adopt a pet, if you can. If not, interact with a friend’s or neighbor’s pet whenever possible.
2. Meet up with a friend
Just as our furry companions help our hearts, so can our human ones. In fact, our human relationships are critical to heart health. “Loneliness is associated with a 29% increased risk of having a heart attack and 32% increased risk of having a stroke,” Dr. Chawla warns.
Human connection is so important that Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy wrote a book about it, called Together. “When [loneliness] is chronic, then we enter into a chronic stress state,” he told NPR in 2020. “And that is what has dramatically consequential impacts on our health. Because in chronic stress, we also increase our levels of inflammation in the body, which damage tissues and blood vessels and increase our risk for heart disease and other chronic illnesses.”
The takeaway: Make sure to prioritize friendships and family relationships – whether in person or over the phone. (Social media doesn’t count, and in fact may exacerbate feelings of loneliness.) If you don’t currently have people in your life who you can count on for connection, Murthy recommends helping out a coworker and forming a collegial relationship, or volunteering some time toward a cause that’s meaningful to you, where you’re likely to find people with common values.
3. Have a laugh
Go ahead and watch your favorite funny show or movie, because research shows that laughter can be a powerful tool for heart health. “Laughter improves blood flow through the arteries,” the opposite of what happens in cardiovascular disease, where the arteries are narrowed, Dr. Chawla notes.
Laughter improves mood by stimulating the release of feel-good hormones dopamine and serotonin, as well as endorphins, the calming chemicals that are released when we exercise. Endorphins are part of what “makes the arteries wider, promoting blood flow, promoting oxygen flow,” Dr. Chawla says. Having a good laugh also reduces the stress hormones epinephrin and cortisol. Mood is directly related to heart health, since depression, stress and anxiety cause heart rate and blood pressure to increase, which can lead to heart disease over time if it goes unchecked.
The takeaway: Read funny articles and books, watch funny movies or shows – anything you can do to laugh more is good. Bonus points for getting together with a funny friend, so you also get the human connection.
4. Get regular, quality sleep
You already know that being well rested is crucial for enjoying your life – and it turns out it’s also important for your heart. “There’s no question that sleep is vital to cardiovascular health,” Dr. Chawla says. “Sleep deprivation as studied in nurses, health care workers, and other overnight shift workers is a very significant risk factor for developing coronary artery disease, hypertension, or diabetes.”
Poor sleep affects heart health in a number of ways; it’s associated with inflammation, for one. Poor sleep also can affect our eating habits, as it blunts appetite-regulating hormones, and being overweight is a risk factor for heart disease. (So that feeling like you want to snack all day after a bad night’s sleep isn’t your imagination.) In addition, chronic poor sleep is associated with a number of mood disorders.
The takeaway: Aim for 7 to 9 hours of quality sleep every night.
5. Eat dark chocolate
You probably don’t need a whole lot of convincing to eat dark chocolate – but just in case, it’s good for heart health on a few fronts. For one thing, it may have anti-inflammatory benefits. Dark chocolate may help reduce the risk of developing an irregular heartbeat. Plus, dark chocolate contains flavanols, a type of plant compound that can help maintain heart health and fight off cancer, along with other benefits.
Not all chocolate is created equal, of course. The darker the chocolate (that is, the greater the percentage of cocoa it contains), the higher it is in flavanols, and the lower in sugar, Dr. Chawla notes. “Dark chocolate has 2 to 3 times more flavanols than milk chocolate,” she adds. The flavanols cause a reaction in the body that help blood vessels relax, which “allows for easier blood flow, which lowers your blood pressure,” she says.
Also, look for natural chocolate and cocoa that have not undergone Dutch processing. In Dutch processing, an alkalizing agent is added to reduce the cocoa’s acidity, and a byproduct is that the cocoa is lower in flavanols.
Now that you know how to improve your heart health and have some fun, keep reading for more on cardiovascular health: