Let’s say you detected a lump in your breast. You’d probably call your gyno and have it checked out pronto. Yet we bet that you aren’t paying attention to another potential problem in your chest: your heart’s health.
But the fact is, you need to. Females are five times as likely to die from heart disease as they are from breast cancer. And though both conditions are rare in young women, your lifestyle habits now, when you’re in your 20s and 30s, have a profound effect on your weight, cholesterol levels, blood-pressure rate, and stress levels — four factors that affect your odds of developing heart disease in as little as a decade, explains Nieca Goldberg, MD, medical director of the NYU Women’s Heart Center and author of Dr. Nieca Goldberg’s Complete Guide to Women’s Health. Even if you spent your teens and 20s cultivating heart-harmful habits, you can undo some of the damage by taking the right steps now. Here, six moves to work into your routine today.
Stay Out of Smoky Spaces
Even if you don’t smoke, cigarette smoke from friends, roommates, or strangers at a club can put you at risk for heart attacks by causing your arteries to narrow over time.
Secondhand smoke can also trigger more immediate damage. “Just a few minutes of exposure has almost the same effect on your blood and blood vessels as if you were actively smoking,” explains Stanton Glantz, PhD, director of the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at the University of California at San Francisco.
You want the kind called monosaturated fat. It lowers your level of bad cholesterol — the waxy, artery-plugging stuff that can bring on a heart attack. Foods loaded with monosaturated fat include peanut butter, avocados, nuts, and fatty fish like salmon, sardines, and anchovies, explains nutritionist Dave Grotto, author of 101 Foods That Could Save Your Life.
Try to avoid anything with lots of saturated or trans fats. These have been shown to raise bad cholesterol and clog your arteries.
Do Short, Intense Workouts
While any heart-pumping activity helps reduce the risk of heart disease by lowering blood-pressure and bad-cholesterol levels and keeping your weight and body mass index in a healthy range, experts suggest that four 4-minute bursts of intense treadmill sessions (punctuated by 3 minutes of lower-intensity exercise) may be more effective than about 45 minutes of moderate jogging.
So consider taking 4-minute breaks during a typical sedentary day, during which you run in place or do jumping jacks. Or add 4-minute intervals to your current workout, says Wayne Westcott, PhD, fitness research director at the South Shore YMCA in Quincy, Massachusetts.
“Always being on edge for a phone call or text pummels your body with the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol,” explains Dr. Goldberg. “High levels of these hormones increase your blood-pressure rate, which over time hardens your arteries.”
So try to unplug for an hour or two a day, giving your body and mind time to decompress. Going for a walk or just soaking in a hot tub can reduce the amount of stress hormones circulating in your system.
Look on the Bright Side
Highly optimistic people have lower death rates from heart disease, studies show. “Optimists may engage in healthier behaviors in general: They eat right, exercise, and don’t smoke,” explains Redford Williams, MD, director of the Behavioral Medicine Research Center at Duke University.
Also, Dr. Williams says, “pessimists are more likely to look for bad behavior in other people, which makes them angry,” stirring up those heart-harmful stress hormones.
Be a Social Butterfly
The more close relationships you foster and the greater the number of social activities you’re involved in, the lower your odds of heart disease.
“Friends provide emotional support and a sounding board during tough times, and research shows that this helps reduce adrenaline levels,” says Dr. Williams. Stick with friends who build you up and make you feel better about yourself.
Could It Be a Heart Attack?
It’s rare for a young, healthy woman to experience a cardio emergency, but some less serious conditions mimic the signs.
Your Heart Occasionally Skips a Beat
This freaky-yet-benign sensation is most often caused by anxiety or drinking too much caffeine. Try chilling out and sticking to just one cup of coffee a day; if you continue to experience the skipping, see your MD.
You Experience Frequent Palpitations
Again, caffeine and stress are often the culprits, but it could also be a sign of a panic attack — especially if you’re hyperventilating. Try to relax, and slow your heart rate by sitting down and breathing deeply.
You Get a Burning Feeling Under Your Breastbone
It sounds like heartburn, a condition during which gastric acid from your stomach rises into your esophagus. It’s linked to spicy dishes and caffeinated beverages, so cut back on these triggers. If symptoms recur (or happen when you haven’t eaten these foods), see your doctor.
You Feel Dizzy or Faint
Odds are, you simply are not eating or drinking enough. But if symptoms don’t improve after refueling or you actually black out, ask your MD to check you out for anemia or a possible heart issue.
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