A new study suggests there are five keys to slashing your heart risk by 86 percent: eat healthy, exercise, stay lean, don't drink (too much), and don't smoke. After tracking more than 20,000 healthy men over 11 years, Swedish researchers found that while each of these individual lifestyle factors could decrease heart attack risk on their own, when combined, the effect is staggering. In fact, practicing all five behaviors could prevent four out of five major coronary events in men.
The findings tell us something we've known for decades: your everyday choices affect your heart more than you'd think. "The medications we have today are important and effective, but ultimately, no magic pill or modern technology is more important for preventing heart attacks than living a healthy lifestyle," says Dr. Mark Urman, a preventative cardiologist at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles.
The healthiest men in the study drank less than two alcoholic drinks a day, didn't smoke, and kept their waistlines under 37 inches. They walked or bicycled 40 minutes a day and did at least one hour of more-vigorous exercise per week. They ate fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, reduced-fat dairy, whole grains, and fish. All this discipline paid off — the men were 86 percent less likely to suffer a heart attack than the guys who struck out on all five factors.
But because each individual lifestyle factor reduces heart attack risk, even the men who practiced just one or two healthy habits fared much better than those who did none. Not smoking gave the biggest benefit, decreasing heart attack risk by 36 percent. Maintaining a healthy diet slashed risk by 18 percent. Keeping a trim waistline, drinking moderately, and exercising regularly resulted in risk reductions of 12 percent, 11 percent, and 3 percent, respectively.
Urman calls keeping your heart healthy an odd's game. "The more you do what you're supposed to — staying physical active, not smoking, trying to avoid extra fat around your middle — the better your odds of staving off a heart attack," he says. "And there's definitely a synergistic effect of doing many of these things." In other words, the more you do, the better.