Despite mountains of research on cardiovascular function and the incredible importance of the heart and blood vessels in health and physical performance, there is an alarming lack of understanding about how to optimize the cardiovascular system. Ask the average person how to protect the heart through diet and exercise and they will tell you to avoid saturated fat or to do cardio.
This approach is woefully inadequate: Although aerobic cardio is a great first step in getting your heart and blood vessels in tip top shape, few people do it often enough or work hard enough to maximize benefits. Further, the classic recommendation to walk, bike, or jog for 30 minutes a day for cardio is limited and doesn’t account for the myriad training options you have for protecting the heart. There’s also the unfortunate fact that if you are like most people and live a sedentary lifestyle, spending your day seated at a desk, in the car, and on the couch, regular workouts won’t protect your cardiovascular health from the ravages of inactivity.
In regard to the recommendation to avoid saturated fat, the hypothesis that saturated fat causes heart disease has been debunked. The best, large-scale studies show no positive association between saturated fat intake and heart disease. A high intake of carbohydrates, on the other hand, is associated with heart disease, especially when this dietary profile coincides with diabetes or obesity. High-carb foods raise triglycerides in the blood and cause inflammation that leads to plaque buildup in the arteries, compromising blood vessel function and increasing heart disease risk.
To help clear up the confusion, this article will give you an overview of the relevance of the cardiovascular system to your life with five ways to optimize it.
Why Is Cardiovascular Health Important?
You probably know that the cardiovascular system is made up of three main components:
1) Your heart
2) Your blood, and
3) Your blood vessels
The heart is a big muscle with an internal electrical system that allows it to contract, pumping blood via the blood vessels out to the body. Blood carries nutrients, glucose, and oxygen to muscles and organs. It also carries waste products to the kidneys for removal from the body.
The cardiovascular system works with other organs, such as the lungs to allow for circulation of oxygenated blood, and the digestive system to allow for digestion and absorption of nutrients.
The blood vessels are an essential but often overlooked part of cardiovascular health. They expand and contract to shunt blood to areas where the body most needs it. In order to do this efficiently, the blood vessels need to be pliable and flexible. Blood vessels also produce substances such as nitric oxide, which have a variety of important effects, including enabling efficiency of the energy producing mitochondria and allowing the vessels to expand and contract.
Many habits of daily life, such as unhealthy diets, stress, and lack of physical activity can harm the blood vessels by reducing their flexibility and ability to dilate. When this happens, blood pressure increases, raising the work load on the heart and causing a cascade of problems for the cardiovascular system as a whole.
What Can You Do To Protect the Cardiovascular System?
Although many factors impact cardiovascular health, researchers have identified the key habits that can protect you, allowing for longevity and better quality of life. What follows are recommendations for optimizing cardiovascular health.
Your first line of defense against heart problems is a physical training program. Regular exercise keeps your blood vessels flexible so they can dilate in response to stressors. Exercise also helps prevent obesity, which puts extra strain on the heart and is a key contributor to high blood pressure. It also makes the heart more efficient, so that more blood is being ejected from the heart with each beat. How does this happen?
Exercise increases the size of the heart, growing the left ventricle cavity that pumps blood. Because each contraction is more powerful and more oxygenated blood reaches your brain and muscles, heart rate is reduced. A related adaptation is an increase in parasympathetic nervous system activity (known as the “rest and digest” system) so that you experience less stress and better sleep.
Most people think of endurance exercise as their go-to for cardio, and it is a viable option as long as you work at a vigorous pace and do it often enough—30 minutes most days of the week at a moderate effort, such as brisk walking of hills. For people who are crunched for time or want more variety in their training, intervals may be a better option.
A meta-analysis found that interval training in which you alternate intense bouts of activity with rest is equally as effective as continuous endurance training for improving the body’s ability to use oxygen (the primary way we measure cardiovascular function during exercise) and it conveys additional benefits not seen with endurance exercise such as lower insulin levels and better metabolism.
Strength training is also important because it improves function of the endothelium, the inner lining of the blood vessels that is involved in releasing nitric oxide for dilation and constriction of vessels. Strength training also helps regulate body weight, and when combined with conditioning, it enhances aerobic capacity and resistance to fatigue.
How To Do It: Best results will come from adopting a training program that incorporates aerobic (intervals or steady-state exercise like running or walking) and anaerobic exercise such as strength training. The exact frequency will vary depending on situation and goals, but most people will benefit from doing strength training in a circuit format 4 days a week for a total of one hour with aerobic workouts done the other 3 days a week.
#2: Be Active Throughout The Day.
Sitting has been called the new smoking because of the profoundly negative impact it has on the heart and blood vessels. Surveys show that with the surge in technology and smart phones, people are becoming increasingly sedentary, which is taking a major toll on the heart.
In as little as 60 minutes of inactivity, fat accumulates in the blood and glucose uptake slows, leading to inflammation that damage cells, including those of the cardiovascular system. We'll get more into exactly how this happens in the section on diet, but you need to know that being inactive for long periods is one of the strongest predictors of an unhealthy heart. How can you overcome inertia and get active?
A recent study from Western State Colorado University found that you have two options:
Do 5 minutes of easy activity ever hour, such as standing, walking slowly at a pace of 2 miles an hour, stretching, or doing chores, or
Do 10 minutes of easy activity every two hours.
Duration and frequency were more important than working at a more vigorous pace for overcoming protecting the heart.
How To Do It: Incorporate chores, walk breaks, stretching, or other modalities that get you up and moving every hour during the day to stimulate your cardiometabolic system.
#3: Eat A Whole Foods Diet Rich In Phytonutrients
Nutrition has a primary influence on health and cardiovascular function by regulating levels of inflammation in the vascular system. Whole foods that are rich in nutrients provide food components that eradicate inflammation and improve the blood vessels ability to dilate and produce nitric oxide. This is one reason that the Mediterranean diet and other ancestral diets appear to have a cardioprotective effect compared to modern diets high in processed foods or skewed towards one macronutrient, such as refined carbohydrates.
Historically, scientists zeroed in on cholesterol levels and dietary fat as the main culprit in heart disease, but more recent investigations show that this nearsighted approach is backfiring. Fat doesn’t cause heart disease and saturated fat, which supplies dietary cholesterol, is benign or neutral, having no negative effect on cardiovascular function.
Interestingly, polyunsaturated fat, which comes from nuts, seeds, and fish, is protective for the heart, however, this type of fat is easily oxidized or damaged. It’s extremely important that you avoid consuming oxidized polyunsaturated fat because these molecules damage arteries and causes inflammation in the blood vessels walls.
How can you tell if fat has been oxidized?
One indicator is a rancid taste. Processed fats, such those found in packaged foods or supplements, are more likely to be oxidized due to exposure to heat. Cooking oils can become rancid during processing or because they sit on the grocery shelf for long periods of time. Fish and flax oil supplements are also at risk of oxidation, and since supplement manufacturing is unregulated, it’s critical that you buy from a reputable producer that follows safe manufacturing practices.
Just as you want to avoid foods that cause inflammation, you want to eat foods that have a protective anti-inflammatory effect. Many plant foods contain phytonutrients (also known as antioxidants) that neutralize oxidized fat and other free radicals that damage cardiovascular function. Protective phytonutrient-rich foods include blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, grapes, leafy greens, olives, peppers, avocados, tree nuts, coffee, and a range of spices including cinnamon and turmeric.
How To Do It: Design a healthy diet out of whole foods that is rich in vegetables, high-quality protein, and a balanced intake of healthy fats from a variety of sources (nuts, meat, fish, dairy, eggs, seeds, avocado, olive oil). And don’t be afraid of saturated fat. Naturally, you don’t want to get all of your fat from saturated sources, but there’s no need to shun it like the plague. Saturated fat is useful for cooking because saturated fats like butter and coconut oil aren’t as easily damaged as polyunsaturated fats, which are easily oxidized at high temps. Eating nuts, fish, and high-quality olive oil will supply a “safe” source of polyunsaturated fats.
#4: Balance Blood Sugar & Insulin
As evidence has mounted to debunk the saturated fat hypothesis of heart disease, researchers have zeroed in on other dietary components that harm the cardiovascular system. Problems with insulin health and blood sugar regulation are emerging as a primary indicator of cardiovascular problems.
You probably know that when you eat, blood sugar is elevated in order to supply your cells with energy. This is a normal physiological process that is necessary for life, however, due to the combination of inactivity and unhealthy diets high in refined foods, many people have excessively high blood sugar levels. Elevated blood damages blood vessels, causing inflammation and leading to hardening of the arteries so that they are less able to dilate.
Another negative effect of chronically high blood sugar is that cells become resistant to insulin. Insulin is the storage hormone that helps your cells burn blood sugar. As you develop insulin resistance, triglyceride levels increase. Triglycerides are fat that is circulating in the blood stream.
As triglycerides go up, levels of the harmful small, dense LDL cholesterol increase. These LDL particles are susceptible to oxidation, or damage, which increases the chance that they will result in the deposition of plaques in the blood vessels that lead to atherosclerosis and heart disease. Another problem with high triglycerides, especially when combined with insulin resistance is that HDL cholesterol goes down. HDL particles scavenge the small LDL particles from the blood transporting them to the liver to be metabolized.
How To Do It: Exercise and being active throughout the day will increase your cell’s sensitivity to insulin, while burning blood sugar. Lifestyle habits that reduce stress help manage appetite and junk food binges. Finally, choose a diet of whole foods that de-emphasizes high-carb refined foods in favor of high-quality protein, vegetables, and healthy fat.
#5: Boost Intake of Cardioprotective Nutrients
One way of protecting the cardiovascular system is by consuming nutrients that increase nitric oxide production in the blood vessels. Nitric oxide dilates blood vessels to protect them during exertion and enhance circulation and exercise performance.
Nitric oxide is produced from the amino acids arginine and citrulline. Studies show that supplementation with citrulline alone or in conjunction with arginine will raise nitric oxide and have beneficial physiological effects. Consuming foods high in citrulline or nitrates, which serve as a precursor for nitric oxide production, is also beneficial.
Beets are naturally high in nitrates and one study found that when trained volunteers ate the equivalent of 2 baked beats they increased running velocity by 3 percent in a 5k race (equaling about 40 seconds faster if you normally ran 8 minute miles). Another trial found that drinking a beetroot juice allowed them to lift more reps and more total weight during a 3-set bench press workout.
Other benefits of raising nitric oxide levels include lower blood pressure and improved flexibility of blood vessels. It also plays a role in muscle contractions and how efficiently the muscles use glucose. Raising levels of nitric oxide have been shown to improve memory and cognition, enhance sexual function, and boost exercise performance at both aerobic and strength sports.
How To Do It: There are a number of options when it comes to boosting NO levels: Regularly eating beets or watermelon is one option and companies are coming out with juices and powders containing extracts of these foods. Supplementation with citrulline and arginine is a good bet and research shows that it’s important to take the two together because arginine taken alone is degraded during digestion and doesn’t reach your blood stream unless it is taken with citrulline. Citrulline is easily absorbed and is turned into arginine in the kidneys, making it available to the endothelium in the blood vessels to produce nitric oxide.