If you’ve got the meat and potatoes of heart health down (which, really, means fewer burgers and fries, and more fruits and veggies) on top of a solid exercise routine, you’re on your way to a healthy heart. But there are some other things you could be doing that aren’t found in your kitchen or a gym. Consider these items the secret sauce to ultimate heart health. They won’t make up for a poor diet or nonexistent fitness regimen, but they will add a layer of protection to your already established habits. Even doing just one of these will increase your longevity, energy — and so much more.
1. Get a Pet
While most of the research has been focused on dogs, having any pet (cat, bird, hermit crab) can help improve your heart health. “Pets provide social support, may give people a greater purpose to take care of themselves, may decrease stress and may increase their happiness,” says Glenn Levine, MD, master clinician and a professor of medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.
That said, those partial to pooches may be in luck: Dogs in particular appear to have a powerful ability to help decrease your risk of heart disease. “Owning a dog tends to lead to greater physical activity, which can directly and indirectly improve heart health and decrease the risk factors for developing heart disease,” notes Levine. In fact, research published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health found older adults who owned dogs were 20 percent more active than those who did not own a dog, averaging 30 minutes more exercise per day, even in poor weather, that typically results in more sedentary time inside.
Other studies have found that dog owners have lower blood pressure than those who are canine-free, and there is evidence that having a dog can even lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Plus, when it comes to fighting stress, there’s nothing like coming home to a happy four-legged friend to make you feel better. One study showed that people with dogs have less cardiovascular reactivity during a stressful situation, which meant their heart rate and blood pressure were less elevated and returned to normal more quickly. (Cats help, too.)
2. Have a Hobby
One of the best things you can do to help your heart is something that makes you feel good. And for many, that’s finding a hobby. “It should be something fun, or something you enjoyed doing as a child, like working on a birdhouse, knitting or building with LEGOs,” says Patrick Fratellone, MD, an integrative cardiologist based in New York. Doing something — and doing it well — improves self esteem, which in turn can help your heart, he adds, whether that’s becoming proficient at playing piano or learning a new chess strategy. A study published in Psychosomatic Medicine found that feelings of low self-esteem, depression, and anxiety all affected how severe a group of adolescents perceived their heart disease symptoms.
3. Watch a Funny Movie
Anything that you find humorous, whether it’s a podcast, book, sitcom, or laugh-out-loud joke can help your heart in the process. “Humor is a stimulus,” says Steven Sultanoff, PhD, a clinical psychologist and professor at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California. “It’s something that activates our system in three health-oriented ways.” The first, Sultanoff explains, is the act of laughter itself, which helps lower blood pressure and releases antibodies that can help fight disease. The second is the feeling of mirth, an emotional uplift we get from experiencing humor. Finally, the wit that often comes with humor helps shift cognitive thinking to a more positive direction, combating negative thoughts that can be toxic to our heart health.
4. Forgive Someone
“People who are chronically angry are far more likely to experience a heart attack and they’re in general at greater risk for heart disease,” says Sultanoff. And while it’s near impossible to never get angry (and in many cases — like the guy that cut you off because he was on his phone instead of paying attention on the turnpike — it’s completely justified), there’s a certain type of anger that is more harmful to your health than others. Research published in the American Heart Journal found that an increase in destructive anger justification (the kind where you blame others for your anger or feel the need to defend your anger) was linked to an increased risk of coronary heart disease over a 10-year period.
5. Learn How to Meditate
According to a National Health Interview Survey, approximately 18 million people meditate to help their minds and bodies stay balanced, but with its long-studied ties to heart health, this is a skill that will help your head and heart once you master it. A scientific statement from the American Heart Association (AHA) that examined numerous studies on the health impact of mediation found that heart health was top among those benefits.
Research published in the Journal of the American Society of Hypertension found that in a group of 60 individuals with cardiovascular disease, those who participated in eight weeks of mindfulness-based stress reduction had lower systolic blood pressure, stress, and anger than those who didn’t receive the mindfulness training. And a separate study done by researchers from Maharishi University of Management Research Institute in Iowa found that meditation is also beneficial for young adults, who may be at risk for developing coronary heart disease down the road. They saw significant improvement in total psychological distress, anxiety, depression, anger, and hostility, as well as lower blood pressure levels among 298 college students who practiced Transcendental Meditation for three months.
This is why the AHA recommends those at risk and dealing with coronary heart disease to practice some form of meditation in addition to their personalized health plan set by their doctor. The best part? Meditation is free and can be done anywhere, anytime.
6. Phone a Friend
Just as important as finding heart-health-promoting activities you can do alone is spending time with others. “Studies have shown that we need to interact with people,” says Fratellone. Bonus points for being active with your BFFs. Take a yoga class, go for a walk, or hit the gym together.
A version of this article appeared in our partner magazine, The Complete Guide to Heart Health, in 2019.