Cardiologist holding heart
No one wants to be a statistic, and when it comes to heart health, the statistics are staggering.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, according to the American Heart Association, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 1 in 5 deaths in the U.S. is from cardiovascular disease.
Everyone wants a healthy heart, but how do you know if you have one? The good news is, it's really easy for you to find out the basics of your own cardiovascular health, even without a doctor (though if you're concerned, absolutely talk to your physician too). Find out what cardiologists say is the top sign of a healthy heart as well as other telling factors and how to improve your cardiovascular health.
The No. 1 Sign of a Healthy Heart
According to cardiologists, your ability to do cardiovascular exercise is actually the best sign of whether or not your heart is healthy.
"The heart is a muscle that pumps blood throughout your body, carrying nutrients and oxygen to the cells that need them," Dr. Cheng-Han Chen, MD, board-certified interventional cardiologist and medical director of the Structural Heart Program at MemorialCare Saddleback Medical Center in Laguna Hills, California, tells Parade. "When the heart is healthy and working well, the body is able to perform well even with strenuous exertion. A great sign that someone has a fairly healthy heart is if someone can exercise at a high-intensity level without symptoms such as shortness of breath or chest pain."
In other words, if you can do a HIIT workout without feeling like death, you're in decent shape.
Dr. Richard F. Wright, MD, board-certified cardiologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, agrees that if you can exercise easily without losing your breath or having chest pain, you're probably good to go—but there are other factors that can play into whether your heart is healthy.
What Are Other Signs of a Healthy Heart?
According to Dr. Wright and Dr. Chen, aside from being able to exercise easily, other signs of a healthy heart include:
A slim waistline (although obviously, your baseline body type may vary)
Healthy blood pressure levels
Healthy blood sugar levels
Healthy cholesterol levels
Healthy heart rate and control
Healthy kidney function
Of course, a conversation and check-up with your physician is the best way to find out whether your cardiovascular health is where it needs to be.
Related: The One Thing You Should Never Do If You Have High Cholesterol
What Are Signs of Poor Heart Health?
Conversely, signs of poor cardiovascular health can be trickier to pinpoint, in part because they can also be signs of other issues as well. According to Dr. Chen, the most common signs of poor heart health include:
Shortness of breath
Arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat)
Other signs of poor heart health can be surprising. These include:
Stomach and abdominal pain
Excessive or unexplained sweating
If you're experiencing any of these symptoms, book it to your doctor ASAP to get checked out and make sure you're on the right track—or to get on the right track if you need some help with your heart health.
What Can You Do for a Healthier Heart?
Dr. Wright says that sometimes the simplest answer is also the right one.
"The best way to improve your heart health is to get up off the couch, go for a walk and take the stairs," he said.
Dr. Chen concurred, and you don't even need to necessarily shell out for a gym membership to get workout benefits.
"The number one thing someone can do to improve their heart health immediately is to start exercising," Dr. Chen told us. "Even if you don't have time for an extensive exercise regimen, even short walks of 10 minutes a day can put someone on the path to a healthy heart."
Related: The Best Snack for Heart Disease Patients, According to Cardiologists
Aside from exercising, your physician or cardiologist can help you tailor a plan to improve your heart health overall, and a regimen may include:
Eating less red meat
Eating more fish
Eating foods low in saturated and trans fats
Limiting foods high in added sugars
Limiting your consumption of processed foods
Eating more fruits, vegetables and whole grains
Avoiding secondhand smoke
Lowering or eliminating alcohol consumption
Cutting calories to maintain a healthy weight
Eating foods low in cholesterol
Managing stress (exercise is great for this, too!)
Maintaining a healthy sleep schedule
Taking prescribed medications