Bad habits sabotage your heart health. Learn what you can do to break them.

The old saying “You are the sum total of all your experiences” also applies to your heart health. All your habits — good and bad — affect your body’s most important muscle. Are you guilty of making the less-than-healthy choices listed here?   

Staying Seated

Sitting all day at work, then sitting in front of the TV all evening. Many of us do it without thinking about how unhealthy it is for our heart. “Studies have shown that people who sit for the majority of the day have a shorter life span as well as higher rates of heart disease,” says Nieca Goldberg, M.D., a spokeswoman for the American Heart Association.

Change of heart: “Get up and walk around every 20 minutes, and try to make your everyday activities more aerobic,” Dr. Goldberg says. Besides designating time for exercise, she walks to and from work and takes the stairs instead of the elevator on her rounds.

Gorging on “Salads”

Choosing a salad over a burger may make you feel virtuous, but there’s plenty of sin at the salad bar. Those egg, tuna and pasta “salads” are prepared with mayonnaise—and packed with fat and calories.

Change of heart: “Go for undressed vegetables. You can recognize which ones are dressed in oil by how shiny they are,” Dr. Goldberg says. She also recommends a little dressing on the side to use sparingly.

Smoking Like a Chimney

Besides increasing your risk for lung cancer, “smoking raises your risk for heart attack and stroke, brings on menopause years earlier and causes wrinkles,” Dr. Goldberg says.

Change of heart: Quitting is the obvious answer, but it’s definitely not easy. When you’re ready, make a plan, seek support and learn to identify your triggers so you’re prepared to handle them when the urge to smoke strikes. Need more reasons to stop? A recent study found that women who quit before age 40 may add 10 years to their lives and may decrease their risk of death from smoking by 90 percent or more.

Avoiding the Scale

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: You’ve gotten older and you’re less active, but you haven’t changed your eating habits. And since your scale has betrayed you, you’ve stopped stepping up for weigh-ins.

Change of heart: A weekly reality check with your scale is sensible. It’s much easier to correct a five pound weight gain than a 25 pound weight gain.

Ignoring Your Symptoms

When people are unsure whether they’re having heart symptoms, these days they’re more likely to take an aspirin and search the Internet for what to do next.

Change of heart: Don’t stop with a pill. “If your symptoms are telling you that you need to chew an aspirin, you should simultaneously call 911,” Dr. Goldberg says. “That might be the most important phone call of your life.”

Anxiety After Heart Attack

In movies, when a character survives a heart attack, the person is elated, having been given a new lease on life. But in reality, heart attacks are traumatic events that can lead to depression and, in some, even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

A recent study at Columbia University Medical Center found that one in eight heart attack survivors experiences PTSD, which is characterized by nightmares, elevated blood pressure, rapid heart rate and avoidance behaviors. What’s worse is that having PTSD after a heart attack doubles a survivor’s risk of having another one within three years.

The best protection is to seek help if symptoms of PTSD last longer than a month. Cognitive behavioral therapy can be effective. Talk to your doctor about your symptoms.

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