Show Your Heart Some Love With These Simple Health Hacks

It's no longer American Heart Month, but that doesn't mean your heart doesn't deserve attention year-round.

Health Hacks for Your Heart

Here's one thing you should seriously consider moving to the top of that ever-growing to-do list: keeping your ticker in tip top shape. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in both men and women and accounts for one in every four fatalities in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). But don't freak — there's no need to do any kind of crazy diet overhauls or sign up for a 10k. (Unless you want to!) There are many small and delicious lifestyle changes that can give your heart the makeover it deserves. These health hacks will have your heart saying "I <3 you, too!" all year long.

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1 Play With a Pup

Hanging with friends — especially the cute, furry kind — can help keep your heart healthy. In a 2013 review published in Circulation, researchers found that pet owners had lower blood pressure levels and hypertension risk than people who did not own pets. One possible reason? Pets (especially dogs), require exercise, and we all know our ticker loves it when we're active! Plus, playing with Fido can lower cortisol — the stress hormone — levels because, really, how can you be stressed when an adorable pup is begging for a belly rub or game of fetch? Another study in the review revealed that heart patients who owned a dog were four times more likely to survive than those without a pooch, likely because dogs often serve as social support systems for sick individuals and can help defend against depression. If owning a dog just isn't in the cards for you, hanging with a friend's pup or signing up for a dog walking service like Local Dog Walker may prove just as beneficial.

2 Mind the Salt

Salt is one sneaky seasoning — it loves to hide out in processed foods like cold cuts, salad dressings, bread, and readymade soups. (We're lookin' at you, ramen.) Consuming high amounts of sodium causes our bodies to retain water, which puts an added strain on our hearts and blood vessels. Overtime, this can cause hypertension, stroke, heart disease, and heart failure. We're all blindly eating loads of the stuff, so much so that NYC just imposed a rule requiring chain restaurants with at least 15 or more locations to display a salt shaker icon next to dishes on their menus with at least 2,300 mg of sodium (the recommended daily max). While that amount might sound high, it's actually just one teaspoon. But thanks to zingy spices and dressings like Old Bay, garlic, cumin, cilantro, and flavored vinegars, it's easier and more flavorful than you might think to wean yourself off of the salty stuff.

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3 Crunch on Cruciferous Veggies

We don't discriminate when it comes to veggies, but here's one subgroup your heart is particularly fond of: the cruciferous kind. We're talking cauliflower, broccoli, arugula, kale, cabbage, bok choy, and Brussels sprouts. In a 2011 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers found that increased consumption of these veggies was associated with a reduced risk of death from heart disease. That's because cruciferous vegetables are packed with sulforaphane, a compound containing both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that may protect against congestive heart failure, atherosclerosis, myocardial ischemia, and drug-induced cardiac disorders. If you're cringing at the thought of chomping on dry, rough, broccoli heads, don't: These delicious broccoli recipes will change the way you think about this veggie, because really, how can you say no to bacon and cheese?

4 Get Intimate

We know that hitting the gym is a smart move for your ticker, but sometimes the thought of a date with the treadmill is, frankly, kinda depressing. Especially on a Friday night. But you know what isn't? An evening full of a different kind of heart-healthy activity: sex. In a 2010 study published in the American Journal of Cardiology, researchers found that men who had sex infrequently (once a month or less) were at almost double the risk of developing heart disease compared to guys who had sex two or more times per week. And an orgasmic session is good for ladies, too: It can relieve stress and serve as a fun form of cardio, which are both proven to decrease blood pressure.

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5 Enjoy Your Java

Are you a don't-talk-to-me-I-haven't-had-my-coffee-yet person? If so, this news will be music to your coffee-loving ears: People who drink three to five cups of either regular or decaf coffee each day have a lower risk of dying from multiple illnesses, including type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease, according to a November 2015 study published in the American Heart Association's (AMA) journal Circulation. That's because coffee drinking may reduce inflammation and the likelihood of calcium buildup in the arteries, which is an early sign of atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) and can lead to heart disease. So coffee cravings are nothing to feel guilty about, just don't load your mug with sugar and cream. We like to top off our cuppa Joe with a little cinnamon, which has been found to help lower blood sugar levels.

6 Check Your Labels

In June 2015, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that manufactured forms of trans fat, aka partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs), are not safe for consumption. PHOs are especially harmful to your heart because they raise bad cholesterol levels (LDL) and lower the good ones (HDL). Talk about a double whammy. But here's the upshot: The FDA has given manufacturers three years to remove PHOs from their products, which may prevent up to 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths from heart disease each year, according to former FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg, MD. In the meantime, you can help your heart out in a big way by cutting PHOs out of your diet. Check the labels of packaged foods and choose those with the lowest levels of saturated and trans fats. And even if a product's label says it has 0 grams of trans fat, give the ingredients list a scan — manufacturers can claim 0 trans fats in a product if it contains fewer than 0.5 grams of PHOs.

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7 Keep the Yolk

The egg-white-everything trend gave the poor yolk a bad rap, but it's back now and ready to hand over an impressively healthy resume. The yolk holds all of the egg's healthy fats, including those important omega-3s that reduce the risk of arrhythmias (an irregular heart beat) and help slow the buildup of plaque in the arteries. The yolk also contains 95 percent of the egg's folate, a B vitamin that may help reduce heart disease risk. It's best to get your folate through food rather than through folic acid supplements. So the next time you crack open an egg, think twice before throwing out its yellowy goodness. Because let's face it: The yolk is the best part for your heart and tastebuds!

8 Go (a Little) Nuts For Nuts

Nut lovers, rejoice! Munching on a handful of antioxidant-rich nuts each day is a slam-dunk for your ticker. Two Harvard studies published in 2013 revealed that daily nut eaters had a 20 percent lower death rate than participants who didn't eat any. Nut eaters also had a lower risk of dying from cancer, heart disease, and respiratory disease. That's because this MUFA snack can decrease bad cholesterol, blood pressure, and cortisol levels. All nuts (including peanuts, which are technically legumes) are good for your heart, so choose whichever type you like best, but do be sure to opt for the unsalted and unsweetened kinds. Concerned that adding nuts to your diet may lead to weight gain? While high in healthy fats, nuts are also high in satisfying protein and fiber, which help keep you feeling fuller for longer. In fact, eating nuts is even associated with a reduced waist circumference and a decreased risk of obesity. We recommend topping your Greek yogurt with walnuts and trying this crazy-delicious vegan version of stuffed eggplant with crunchy cashews.

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9 Go for a Nature Walk

Take a cue from the Japanese and enjoy what they call Shinrin-yoku, or "forest bathing." These short ventures into the woods may lower blood pressure, heart rate, and tension levels. If you don't live near a forest, not to worry — studies show just looking at trees can boost your heart health and wellbeing in general.

10 Get a Flu Shot

Research shows that the flu vaccine is linked to reduced risk of stroke, heart attack, heart failure, and other major cardiac events by roughly a third over the following year. This is likely because inflammation caused by the flu can result in clots if you already have plaque buildup in your arteries. And if you haven't been vaccinated this year, it's not too late — flu season can last through May. Check out to find a location near you that offers immunizations. The shot is widely administered and free to most people with health insurance, so your flu shot is really one of the easiest ways to protect yourself against multiple preventable illnesses.

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