If you've spent the past 10 or 20 years eating junk and not exercising, you've done some damage. "Inside the blood vessels that feed your heart is a layer of cells called the endothelium, whose purpose is to keep those vessels healthy and prevent plaque buildup," says Alexandra J. Lansky, M.D., director of the Yale Heart and Vascular Clinical Research Program. "It's your blood vessels' own protection system." An unhealthy lifestyle overworks the endothelium—but it's never too late to help it bounce back. And small changes help.
Your heart on years of…
- Junk Food: Sugar-filled, processed foods make the endothelium work on overdrive and can lead to plaque buildup that starts as early as the teen years.
- Lack of Exercise: If you're not getting your heart rate up, it will begin to weaken like any other muscle would. Your heart becomes less efficient at pumping blood, putting you at risk for high blood pressure and other circulation issues.
- Smoking: It raises your heart rate and causes the platelets in your blood to get stickier, increasing your risk of a blood clot, which can lead to stroke. Smoking also damages your coronary artery walls.
Your heart after just a few months of…
- Eating Well: Your endothelium gets a chance to reboot—and within 30 days of laying off junk and eating lots of fruits, veggies, and lean proteins, your endothelium will be back in fighting form, ready to take on that occasional slice of pie.
- Consistent Exercise: Do 30 minutes a day, most days, and within about six weeks you can lower your blood pressure and improve your cholesterol numbers. Exercise also stabilizes the plaque in your arteries so that it's less likely to cause a blockage or break off and cause a clot.
- Quitting Smoking: Break the habit and within a few months, your heart attack risk begins to drop; after the first year, your risk of heart disease drops by 50 percent. Amazing, right?
This story originally appeared in the December 2014 issue of Dr. Oz The Good Life.