Here’s a fun fact: The average doctor visit takes 17.5 minutes. That means you have less than 18 minutes to go over your vital signs (weight, blood pressure, temperature, all that jazz), talk through how you’re feeling, and ask your doctor questions before they have to see another patient waiting in the next exam room.
Clearly, it’s not often that people have the chance to pick the brain of a doctor — which is why it’s ultra exciting that Jennifer Haythe, MD, director of cardio-obstetrics and internist at NYPH/Columbia, is sharing an inside look at the things she does to keep her heart in tip-top shape.
“Cardiovascular disease is the number one cause of death for men and women in this country,” says Dr. Haythe, who is also the co-director of the Women’s Center for Cardiovascular Health at Columbia. “The key to longevity is to take really great care of your heart.”
Dr. Haythe explains that your heart is a muscle and, therefore, like your other muscles, it needs to stay in shape. “It’s also intimately connected with your neurological system,” she says. “So your mood and stress levels have a huge impact on how your heart feels.”
So what are the heart health tips that a cardiologist actually lives by? See for yourself, straight from Dr. Haythe.
1. Set exercise goals
Dr. Haythe loves to run, and says that setting goals for herself, like signing up for a half or full marathon, helps her to stick with a regular exercise schedule. “Doing at least 45 minutes of vigorous cardiovascular exercise four to five times a week is a part of my life,” she says. (Note to self: Hit the gym today.)
Thankfully, you don’t have to be a runner to take care of your heart. The American Heart Association recommends adults get at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity (like brisk walking, dancing, or even gardening) or 75 minutes per week of vigorous aerobic activity (like running, cycling, or swimming laps).
You can also do a combination of both to make sure you clock in your weekly recommendation of heart-pumping activity.
2. Stick to a Mediterranean-style diet
The word “restrictive” isn’t part of Dr. Haythe’s eating vocabulary. Instead, she says, she uses common sense to guide her plant- and fish-based diet, limiting red meat to once every two weeks and relying on olive oil, fish, chicken, legumes, fruit, and nuts as staples.
(Hello there, Mediterranean diet!) “It’s okay to have fries and pizza now and then—just make them delicious ones!” she added. Take it from a heart doc—you have to live a little.
3. Prioritize healthy sleep habits
Dr. Haythe says she aims for about seven hours of sleep each night, “even though it’s not always possible.” This makes sense, given that a recent study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, shows that too little—and too much—sleep can lead to a higher risk of a heart attack in adults.
According to the study, people who slept less than six hours of sleep per night had had a 20 percent higher risk of a heart attack; on the other hand, people who stayed in bed for more than nine hours per night were at a 34 percent higher risk.
“Sleep is essential to heart health and your heart rate slows and blood pressure comes down with sleep,” Dr. Haythe says. She also favors reading over screen time before bed, which helps her to fall asleep—and stay asleep—more easily.
4. Try meditation
Dr. Haythe doesn’t consider herself a meditation pro, but she said she relies on the Calm app on her phone to try and score 20 minutes of focused relaxation time every day. “Meditation slows the heart rate and lowers blood pressure, which are both great for the heart,” she says.
If sitting on a cushion just isn’t your thing, there are other, more active forms of meditation you can try, like cooking, walking, or just taking a long bath.
5. Take care of your teeth
When you think about hearth health, you might not link it to brushing and flossing, but Dr. Haythe says you should. “Poor dental and gum health are linked to heart disease, so I always get my teeth cleaned twice a year,” she says.
Indeed, a 2018 study of 682 people showed those who brushed less than twice a day and for less than two minutes tripled their increased risk of cardiovascular diseases compared to those who said they brushed at least twice a day for at least two minutes.