A Day in the Life of Your Heart

The way you manage your day actually changes your heart. See how (and make it stronger).

heart rate

Your heart handles a lot in a day. Fortunately, it has an assistant — you! When you know more about what it goes through from morning to night, you can help it stay stronger, healthier, and happier. And keep you that way, too.

Every second of every day, your heart is there for you — it purrs during a good hug, picks up its pace on a power walk, keeps a steady beat when you work, play, and sleep. Can you visualize your body’'s critical engine doing all that? Probably not, and that’'s a shame, says Nieca Goldberg, MD, medical director of NYU Langone’'s Joan H. Tisch Center for Women'’s Health in New York.

On a panel last year, Goldberg watched women fire questions at a cosmetic surgeon about wrinkles and cellulite. “"I realized that if people could look in the mirror and see inside their arteries, my job would be a lot easier,"” she says. Instead, "out of sight, out of mind”" may be a big reason heart disease remains the number one killer of women. So we're giving you the chance to spend 24 hours hanging out with your heart —“— "that elegant organ that’'s been beating your whole life,”" Dr. Oz says. You'’ll zoom in on a health-minded (but not annoyingly perfect) woman like yourself and see her ticker responding to a day. Ride along, and learn how to protect your amazing heart, tomorrow and always.

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6:30 AM: The alarm goes off and you stretch.

Inside Story: Arteries say aah.

In the two hours or so before sunrise, hormones tell your nervous system to boost your heart rate (it could go from an overnight low of about 65 beats per minute to the high 70s or more by midmorning) and push up your blood pressure by about 15 points. Don'’t worry — that'’s normal. Your heart’'s doing you a favor by revving up your body for the day, and a wake-up stretch helps that prep. Stretching regularly increases your arteries’ flexibility by about 20 percent, possibly by increasing the elastin in their walls. This lets arteries move in and out more easily, depending on what you'’re experiencing. (See someone you love? Open sesame. Get scared? Constrict). Taking the kinks out of your muscles may also activate the soothing side of your nervous system— which, like your body'’s inner yoga instructor, also encourages arteries to relax. The serene result: In one study of 28 women, eight weeks of stretching reduced blood pressure by four to seven points.

7 AM: Breakfast is oatmeal, berries, and coffee.

Inside Story: It's an awesome artery cleanse.

A good breakfast sends a microscopic crew of specialists into your bloodstream and digestive system, where they combat plaque buildup and keep blood pressure down. Lots of breakfasts are heart-healthy, but this one helps on three fronts:

1. Oats are stocked with fiber — specifically, the soluble type that can actually help lower "lousy" LDL cholesterol levels.

2. Fruit keeps blood pressure healthy, thanks to its potassium and other plant compounds. Your heart likes the soluble fiber, too. Keep your fruit bowl stocked all day. Research shows that at least four servings of fruit a day cut fatal heart attack by more than 30 percent.

3. Coffee gives you a splash of potassium and adds magnesium, another blood-pressure-controlling mineral. Try sprinkling on some cinnamon: the spice helps relax arteries as well. Pouring whole, 1 percent, or 2 percent milk in your joe — surprise — doesn't hurt your heart. In fact, people who use fat-free dairy products tend to eat more calories from other things, especially refined carbs, says cardiologist and nutrition expert Dariush Mozaffarian, MD, dean of the Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University.

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10:30 AM: "Yikes, I was supposed to be where?!"

Inside Story: Your vessels tense up.

A near miss like forgetting a meeting or a carpool pickup throws everything off. Not every little stress zing will tank your health, but chronic stress can lead to over-eating, skipping exercise, too heavy drinking, and even depression. All of these are bad for your heart. At a cellular level, the scurry and panic switches on your body's ancient fight-or-flight response. Stress hormones, including cortisol, flood your bloodstream and constrict your arteries, driving pressure up. As the blood rushes through, substances in it scrape little pock marks into artery walls. These give LDL easy niches to hide in. Stress hormones also increase inflammation and make blood more apt to clot; both problems can eventually lead to heart attacks. And especially in women, stress can trigger spasms in tinier arteries, harming the heart.

But that amazing engine can recover. Taking steps to reduce stress lowered the risk of heart attack 48 percent in one 2012 study. Of course, "you can't totally avoid stress," says Suzanne Steinbaum, DO, director of women's heart health at Lenox Hill Hospital's Heart and Vascular Institute in New York. "So I tell my patients they need a tool to stimulate the calming side of their nervous system." Meditation helps, and the solutions below give your heart a break, too.

12:30 PM: Oops. You had a fast-food meal, plus a shake.

Inside Story: Your heart has to work harder.

Guess what the big problem is here? All those refined carbs, meaning the white-bread bun and the sugar in the shake. In fact, researchers now suggest that those blood sugar-boosting food felons may be a bigger threat to your heart and arteries than saturated fat. They can make your blood sticky and prone to forming clots, and that's not all. Simple carbs also:

1. Stock Inflammation: Extra calories, sugar, and salt can quickly increase the army of compounds that feed inflammation. At the same time, most fast-food meals are low on goodies that soothe inflammation, like fruits, veggies, and omega-3 fats.

2. Pile on the Belly Fat: That's especially dangerous stuff, because these fat cells pump chemicals into your bloodstream that rev up inflammation, says Steinbaum. "They damage the whisper-thin linings of arteries and get into plaque, making it more likely to rupture and lead to heart attacks," she explains. Surprise: You can have belly fat even if you're not overweight thanks to poor food choices, lack of exercise, and stress. In other words, bad habits show up on the inside even if you look fine from the outside.

3. Open the Door to Diabetes: Especially as you hit menopause. Diabetes damages vessels and throws off your bad/good cholesterol ratio.

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    2 PM: You sit down and fire up your devices.

    Inside Story: A break for your heart? Not really.

    We know you've got emails, memos, and possibly a new level of Candy Crush to conquer, but please don't plant your butt for long. When you sit for a while, muscle cells go into "sleep mode." They burn far less blood sugar and fat, which leads to increases in weight and blood pressure, and that bothers your heart more than you'd expect: Research suggests that years of sitting for at least four hours a day could double the risk for fatal heart disease.

    Help your heart bounce back: A new British study found that an hour of moderate exercise a day, like a brisk walk, could erase some of sitting's health risks. And little breaks every hour or so can help reduce inflammation and keep your waistline trim, says Micah Zuhl, PhD, an assistant professor of exercise science at Central Michigan University. Try making some sit-less rules for yourself. Fill your water bottle just halfway so you'll make more trips for refills. Or stand up every time you text someone.

    3 PM: Munch time! Almond butter on an apple.

    Inside Story: A rebalancing act for your bloodstream.

    True, there's fat in that almond butter, but not the kind you need to fear. Unsaturated fats (polyunsaturated and monounsaturated) are heart-friendly. "These are great for raising healthy HDL," says Mozaffarian.

    Research shows that good fats have also been found to knock down LDL, reduce triglycerides (little packets of fats in your blood that carry the fat you eat into storage), and even help lower blood pressure. Research goes back and forth over whether polyunsaturated fats (oils from fish are in this category) or monounsaturated fats (avocados, many nuts, and seeds) are better for your heart. But the fact is, many oils contain both, so it's not really an either/or decision, and there's no need to make yourself crazy splitting hairs about the ratios of polys to monos on a snack. Just stay away from trans fats, and keep saturated ones like those in cheese and butter to about 5 percent of your daily fat total. (That's about 11 grams if you eat 2,000 calories a day.)

    Nuts and seeds are the ultimate good-fat snack: Four servings a week can cut heart disease risk by 22 percent. (Find a whole bunch of nutty eating ideas starting on page 100.) But there are plenty of other ways to get these fats into your afternoon pick-me-up (like olives, hummus with veggies, sweet potato chips, or avocado dip). Bonus: They keep your appetite in check.

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    5:30 PM: You hop on the treadmill.

    Inside Story: Your engine gets more efficient.

    Your body responds to aerobic exercise the way a dog reacts when he sees the leash. Yes, please! Every workout serves up at least five major heart benefits:

    1. Your arteries relax. As you begin to exercise, blood pressure rises to feed more oxygen to the working muscles. But then an amazing thing happens. Your tiniest arteries get less rigid and expand between heartbeats, so more blood and oxygen can get through. That's why the stress of exercise is good for your cardiovascular system — unlike mental stress, which tightens up the same arteries. For hours afterward, arteries stay relaxed, helping to control your blood pressure, says Zuhl.

    2. Your heart muscle gets buff, so it's more efficient. It's like you've traded your V-6 engine for a V-8.

    3. HDL goes up. Exercise is a great way to increase this cholesterol, Zuhl says, which helps clear out that "lousy" LDL.

    4. Belly fat melts. That solves a lot of problems beyond buttoning your pants. A waist measuring 35 inches or more could double your risk for a fatal heart attack, but exercise takes aim at belly fat. Even shedding 5 to 10 percent of your weight (8 to 17 pounds if you weigh 170) could help.

    5. You're less on edge. Activity boosts levels of feel-good brain chemicals and may reduce stress-related cortisol.

    7 PM: Friends or family share your healthy, delish meal.

    Inside Story: A soothing blanket for stressed-out heart.

    What's just as nourishing as a plate that follows the classic heart-healthy formula? Sitting down at the table with people you love. Close connections keep blood pressure from spiking when you're tense. (On the flip side, people who feel isolated tend to have higher blood pressure and a nearly 30 percent increased risk of heart disease.)

    If you're dining alone, try to call, Skype, or FaceTime a friend before, during, or after dinner. It's even better if you virtually check in on someone who's been having a rough time: One Johns Hopkins study found that giving support had bigger heart benefits than receiving it. "The heart is the most poetic organ for a reason," says Dr. Oz. "It reminds us how influenced we are by each other. Sure, to protect it, you have to love yourself, but studies highlight that loving others is an even better tactic to keep it beating.

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    11 PM: You snuggle in for the night.

    Inside Story: A sigh of relief for your whole system.

    Lights-out at a reasonable time guarantees you at lease seven hours of rest. "Your heart rate and blood pressure dip by 10 to 20 points overnight, giving your cardiovascular system a much-needed break," says Steinbaum. Try not to go below six hours, though. Less than that on a regular basis doubles heart attack risk, possibly because sleep loss can make you gain belly fat.

    To get all the heart downtime you need, you have to stop believing you can cheat on sleep. "It's like fuel for your body," says Steinbaum. What helps her turn in on time, despite her over-loaded schedule? "I think of sleep as what I need to do to be great the next day," she says.

    Each evening, spend a few minutes priming your body for rest. You know you should avoid caffeine, exercise, screens, and other stimulators right before bed. But it's equally important to do something that signals to your mind and body "It's time to go to bed now." Just as, say, a shower and coffee gets your cylinders firing in the morning, it's good to have a ritual that cures up your "rest and recover" system so you can doze off. Jotting down a few things you're grateful for can deliver that cue. So could a good guided meditation podcast, or turning in with a good book — doing an every-night prompt helps your whole body slow down.

    No day is going to be perfect; the point is to shoot for mostly good choices. Your heart does so much to keep up with you — it only makes sense to show some love in return. Now you know how.

    This story originally appeared in the November 2016 issue of Dr. Oz The Good Life.

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