To take care of your heart, even little changes can help

Eat better, drink less, exercise more and get enough sleep are common advice for heart health.

But studies suggest that a major lifestyle overhaul is not the only way to help your heart. Even small changes can make substantial differences.

Eventually, little changes can add up, said Dr David Goff, director of the cardiovascular sciences division at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, in the United States.

"Any small change you make in a positive direction is good for you," he says. "It's not an all-or-nothing phenomenon."

Physical activity is a perfect example, he said. Official guidelines recommend 30 minutes of moderately intense activity on most days.

It is ideal to get at least 150 minutes of exercise weekly but getting less than that has benefits too.

When the researchers looked at deaths from all causes, they saw the sharpest drop in mortality when exercise jumped from half an hour to 11/2 hours each week.

Just getting up for a minute or two to interrupt bouts of sitting may also improve health, the study added. And moving for as little as eight minutes a few times a day provides the same cardiovascular benefits as an uninterrupted 30 minutes.

Dr Goff said: "If you can't find 30 minutes a day, try to find five or 10 or 15. Anything is better than nothing." The philosophy applies to dietary improvements, too, he added.

According to the National Institutes of Health, an ideal meal plan includes lots of fruit, vegetables and whole grains, with limited amounts of fatty meat and oils.

But eating an imperfect diet with more of the good stuff is better than giving up entirely.

That is the conclusion from a 2016 study that created food- quality scores from the self- reported diets of about 200,000 people.

Over a course of about 25 years, the study found, people whose diets scored lowest had a 13 per cent higher risk of coronary artery disease than those in the second worst group.

Not taking soda and other sugar- sweetened beverages can also help eliminate a few hundred calories a day and help in weight control.

It helps to lower blood pressure, harmful cholesterol and the potential for diabetes - risk factors for heart disease, Dr Goff said.

Large long-term studies have shown that people who average one sugary drink a day have a 20 per cent higher risk of heart attack than those who rarely drink any.

It is not just food and diet, said Dr Michael Miller, director of the Centre for Preventive Cardiology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and author of Heal Your Heart: The Positive Emotions Prescription To Prevent And Reverse Heart Disease.

Heart strength can also come from battling stress by boosting emotional health in simple and unexpected ways, he said, such as enjoying a good laugh.

In a small 2005 study, Dr Miller played movie clips for 20 people. When they watched a scene that made them laugh, 19 of them experienced dilation of the blood vessels.

In contrast, a stressful scene led to constriction in 14 of the 20 viewers.

Since then, Dr Miller said, other small studies have found similar results, including one showing that vessels stay dilated for 24 hours.

Dilation also allows more blood to flow, lowering blood pressure as well as heart rate.

"Cross-talk" between the brain and heart explains the potential long-term benefits of laughter, Dr Miller said.

Belly-laughing releases endorphins, triggering receptors in blood vessels to produce nitric oxide, which, in turn, dilates blood vessels, increases blood flow and reduces the risk of blood clots.

People are far more likely to laugh when they are with friends, Dr Miller said, and this added yet more evidence of the health benefits of being social.

Accumulating evidence suggests that another easy way to help your heart is to listen to music.

Several studies have shown that, during recovery from surgery, listening to relaxing music leads to less anxiety and a lower heart rate.

Dr Miller said: "I tell patients to listen to music they have not heard in a long time but which, in the past, had made them feel really good."

He also recommended mindfulness meditation and hugging.

"Considering that stress probably accounts for a third of heart attacks, it can have a dramatic effect if you do all of these things in sync," he said.

THE WASHINGTON POST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 28, 2017, with the headline 'To take care of your heart, even little changes can help'. Print Edition | Subscribe