Ask cardiothoracic surgeon Mehmet Oz, M.D. (aka "Dr. Oz" from The Oprah Winfrey Show), what prevents many people from keeping their hearts healthy, and he has a simple answer. "It's fear of failure," he says.
People fear they'll fail at making the necessary lifestyle changes to protect them against having a heart attack or a stroke. "It's OK to fail and then recover," he says. "Just don't beat yourself up -- we all have flaws." Another reason you might fail to stick with a healthy program is an unconscious belief that you don't deserve to be thin. "You might be afraid that you won't succeed as a thin person," Oz says.
Oz knows all too well what makes people -- and their hearts -- tick. He's director of the Cardiovascular Institute and Complementary Medicine Program at New York Presbyterian Hospital and professor of surgery at Columbia University in New York City. Through his appearances on The Oprah Winfrey Show and other TV programs, his best-selling book series You: The Owner's Manual, coauthored with Michael Roizen, M.D., (Collins, 2005), and now the Dr. Oz show, he's become the unofficial doctor to millions of Americans who welcome his intelligent, no-nonsense, no-jargon bedside manner.
Push past your fears by finding the joy in adopting a healthy program and by making it fun. "You absolutely can reverse and virtually eliminate heart disease by making sensible lifestyle changes," he says. Believe it or not, "it's really fun to experience the 'aha moment' when you finally learn how to read a food label," he says.
Take your heart protection to the next level by following these seven strategies that, according to Oz, may come as news to even the savviest heart patients.
Tip 1: Get Rid of Belly Fat
One reason so many Americans suffer from heart disease is because we tend to carry too much belly fat, which insidiously contributes to the epidemic, Oz says.
"Belly fat squeezes the kidneys, poisons the liver, raises blood pressure, increases inflammation, and blocks the ability of insulin to work," he says. "Belly fat was designed to store calories because our ancestors had to survive famine," which thankfully is no longer a problem for most people in the industrialized world, Oz says. Some drugs used to reduce blood sugar and cholesterol actually can promote the unhealthy accumulation of flab around our midriff, Oz says. "So if you focus on losing weight, that will help you lose the belly flab and keep it off. As the weight comes off, you can work with your doctor to reduce the medications you take."
Here's a simple calculation to find out if you need to whittle your waist via exercise and diet:
Take your height in inches and divide by two. That number should be equal to or less than your waist measurement. (So, if you're 5-foot-2, your healthy waist measurement should be no more than 31 inches.)
Tip: A study at Wake Forest University School of Medicine found that trans fat, known to increase the risk of heart disease, may also increase dangerous belly fat.
Tip 2: Take a Deep Breath. Repeat.
One of the first things Oz teaches his patients is how to use their breath to improve the health of their heart. "What deep breathing does is suck nitric oxide -- a potent, short-lived gas that dilates your blood vessels -- into your lungs, helping both your lungs and your blood vessels work more efficiently," he says. And that's not all. Deep breathing helps as a mini meditation that counters the toxic effects of stress. "It's like hitting your reset button," Oz says.
Dr. Oz's deep-breathing technique:
1) Breathe deeply and slowly into your belly. It should take five seconds to inhale, and your belly button should move away from your spine.
2) Exhale slowly, taking about seven seconds to let all the air out, pulling your belly button toward your spine as you release the air from your lungs.
Take 10 deep breaths at least twice a day and whenever you feel stressed out.
Tip 3: Listen to Guided Imagery CDs
When Joan Smith, a 72-year-old floral designer from Port Washington, New York, needed heart valve surgery eight years ago, her cardiologist sent her to Oz.
"Dr. Oz told me that he needed me to be his partner during the surgery and my recovery," she recalls. He gave her some audiotapes to listen to. Joan says that the tapes -- which turned out to be a form of visualization called guided imagery -- made a huge difference before the operation and during her recovery. "Listening to the tapes made me feel like I wasn't alone, and even though I was frightened about the operation, the calm, reassuring words I heard gave me hope and comfort," she says. "I kept playing them as I was healing."
"I've fallen in love with guided imagery," Oz says. "It calms my patients, and studies have shown that it can absolutely help the body heal." Oz worked with a leading guided imagery expert to create a special CD for people undergoing cardiac rehab. You can find it online at healthjourneys.com.
Tip 4: Keep Your Health Numbers Low
Oz recommends that heart patients get basic lab tests to monitor cholesterol, blood sugar, and blood pressure -- and that you work toward keeping your numbers for blood pressure, blood sugar, and LDL (bad) cholesterol a bit lower than the target figures your doctor may recommend. (See Heart-Healthy Living's standards, below. )
"High blood pressure is the No. 1 driving factor behind accelerated aging and heart disease," Oz says. "Yours should be no higher than 115/75 mmHg."
As far as blood sugar is concerned, shoot for a fasting blood sugar of less than 100 milligrams of glucose per deciliter. "Higher than that, blood sugar acts like shrapnel going through your arteries and will hasten your aging process," Oz says.
When it comes to cholesterol, Oz has something surprising to say: "Total cholesterol is a meaningless number." Huh? What the good doctor means is that the numbers that really count are your "lousy" (LDL) cholesterol -- which should be under 100 -- and your "healthy" (HDL) cholesterol, which should be 45 or higher, he says.
Heart-Healthy Living's standards:
Up to 120/80 = normal
121-139/79-89 = prehypertension
140-159/90-99 = Stage 1 hypertension
160 or higher/100 or higher = Stage 2 hypertension
Under 100 = best (your LDL goal will be lower if you've had a heart attack or have two or more risk factors)
What about 100-199?
200-239 = borderline
240 and above = danger
60 and above = best
low 40s (men), low 50s (women) = borderline
under 40 (men), under 50 (women) = danger
Under 150 = best
150-199 = borderline
200 and above = danger
Total cholesterol mg/dL:
Under 200 = best
200-239 = borderline
240 and above = danger
Tip 5: Stop Drinking Pop
One of the easiest and best things you can do for your heart is to simply stop drinking sweetened sodas and other sugary beverages, Oz says. "A large glass of soda has around 169 calories," Oz says.
Over the course of a day, you'll take in way more calories than you need and get zero nutrition from them. Stick to sparkling water, unsweetened tea (particularly green tea), and other noncaloric beverages.
Tip 6: Rev Up Your Exercise Program
If you think that you can keep your heart healthy by walking, you're only partly right, Oz says. "You have to stress your heart with vigorous exercise at least twice a week for 30 minutes each session -- that means exercising at a revved-up rate 'til you're somewhat out of breath," he says. Though walking at a slow or moderate pace will help you keep the weight off and reduce your stress levels, it won't give your heart the exercise it needs to stay strong and healthy.
Tip 7: Use Aromatherapy and Music Therapy
Your senses of smell and hearing can help relax you before your heart surgery -- and can abet the healing process, Oz says.
Aromatherapy (whiffing fragrant essential oils distilled from plants) and music therapy both work on different areas of your brain to enhance the deep level of relaxation that can dispel the effects of toxic stress. In a recent Japanese study, when men inhaled the aroma of lavender, it reduced their blood levels of the "stress hormone," cortisol, and increased blood circulation to the heart.
It's not enough to tell patients what they need to do in order to have a healthy heart, Oz says. He models positive behavior for them. Oz says he religiously practices these three things:
1. Get more than 40 winks. People who sleep an average of at least seven hours a night have healthier hearts. Treat sleep with respect, Oz says, and make time for it. Don't overschedule yourself with too much work or too many social commitments that snatch away your sleep time. And if you feel tired even though you sleep seven hours a night, you may need to snooze longer -- some people need up to nine hours every night, he notes.
2. Schedule daily "om" time. "The calming effects of daily meditation can work wonders for lowering blood pressure and can also help ease stress and anxiety," says Oz, a dedicated meditator. In You: The Owner's Manual, he describes this simple method. Find a quiet room. With your eyes partially closed, focus on your breathing and repeat the same word or phrase over and over again -- it can be something simple, like "um" or "one." The process of repeating the same word clears and relaxes the mind.
3. Eat fish. The healthy fat in fish makes it one of the best things you can eat for your heart, Oz says. Try to eat fish several times a week as he does -- especially wild salmon, sardines, and other cold-water fish -- as an alternative to higher-fat protein such as red meat.