You can’t perform any athletic activity if your heart doesn’t cooperate. Preserving your cardiovascular health isn’t only vital to your performance — it’s crucial to staying alive.

How can you bolster your heart health? Whether you’re an athlete or not, taking reasonable measures, like cutting down on salt and fat and avoiding tobacco products, can prevent damage.

However, athletes sometimes engage in behaviors that can put their cardiovascular health at an elevated risk.

Improve Your Athletic Performance and Cardiovascular Health

Chances are, you embarked on your workout regimen to improve your heart health. Make sure you protect this vital organ by following a few straightforward tips.

1. Get Screened

If you’re a parent, your child’s school may have mandated that they undergo a physical exam before participating in sports activities. They do this to reduce liability in case your tyke has an underlying condition that could cause injury or death on the field.

However, if you haven’t gone to your doctor in years, you could also have an underlying disorder — and some exercises could prove dangerous as a result.

For example, if you have mitral valve prolapse, certain endurance activities could create an increased risk of death. While this condition won’t keep you from working out or even running, you might want to avoid competitive marathons.

2. Consider an ECG

Many active adults have never had an ECG, but this screening tool tells your doctor how your heart is doing if you have risk factors that could adversely affect your ability to work out. If you know you have high cholesterol or blood pressure, consider getting one performed before embarking on any new fitness regimen. Have no fear — the test is non-invasive. Your provider will place various electrodes on your body to monitor the electrical activity in your heart. It only takes a few minutes to get screened, and the results could save your life.

3. Identify the Location of an AED

The laws as to which businesses are required to carry automated external defibrillators (AEDs) vary from state to state, but many require fitness facilities to possess them. Many states require these devices at athletic events and schools, as well. If someone goes into cardiac arrest, these gadgets can jumpstart a stopped heart until medical personnel arrives.

However, you can’t make use of this tool if you don’t know where it’s to locate it. When you join a new health club, take a few minutes to find the AED. An emergency, when everyone feels panicked, is no time to go on the hunt. Minutes count in cardiac arrest.

4. Be Honest with Your Doctor

Unfortunately, seeing your doctor before engaging in physical activity won’t prevent potential cardiac injury if you’re dishonest at your visit. For example, excessive alcohol consumption can make your blood pressure yo-yo like a pogo stick, and patients who take opioid-based medications increase their rate of cardiovascular death by 65%.

While you might not want to report drug or alcohol abuse to your physician, doing so improves the quality of care you receive. Additionally, the abuse of these substances will, at the very least, decrease your performance on the field. If you want to maximize your potential, speak up, and accept help when they offer it.

5. Lay Off the Meat and Fatty Food

Are you a bodybuilder or a powerlifter? If so, you might double-down on protein and fat consumption in an attempt to bulk up more quickly.

While it’s true that foods like hamburgers contain more calories on average than a salad minus fatty toppings, they also possess higher levels of saturated fat and cholesterol. Your desire to become a beefcake could put significant pressure on your heart.

One study indicated that for every 100 grams of red or processed meat that individuals consumed per day, their risk of heart disease increased by 19%. Other foods have the opposite effect of lowering it.

If you choose to include meat in your diet at all, replacing 100 calories of it per day with a heart-healthier food could cut your risk by 20%. You can also opt to source your proteins from vegan sources, such as nuts, seeds, and legumes.

6. Increase Your Vegetable Consumption

You know that you should eat more vegetables, and doing so can significantly improve your cardiovascular health. Consider adding more of the following foods to your repertoire.

  • Tomatoes: Tomatoes contain lycopene, a carotenoid that can lower levels of LDL or “bad” cholesterol in your blood.
  • Broccoli, spinach, and kale: These deep, leafy greens contain carotenoids that may counter potentially harmful compounds in your body that can affect your heart.
  • Avocados: Go ahead and treat yourself to that toast. Avocados are high in monounsaturated fats, which researchers link to a lower risk of heart disease overall.

7. Get at Least Seven Hours of Sleep

Are you one of those who tends to skimp on your Zzz’s? If so, you could do your heart a grave disservice. The same goes if you’re a slugabed who lazes about for hours each weekend. In one study, men and women who slept seven hours per night had lower levels of calcium in their arteries than those who slept for only five or more than nine.

If you have difficulty falling or staying asleep, talk to your physician. They can prescribe medications or recommend lifestyle changes that can help.

8. Avoid Steroid and Tobacco Use

Smoking increases your risk of cardiovascular disease significantly, but did you know that the use of performance-enhancing drugs also does a number on your ticker?

Recent research indicates that long-term anabolic steroid use may weaken your heart more than previously thought. In particular, the left ventricles of those who abuse these substances have a lower pumping capacity, upping the chances of cardiac arrest.

9. Consider the Length of Your Workouts

There’s more bad news for the marathon set — scientists have associated consistent long-distance running with arterial damage and an increased risk for heart attacks. When you engage in vigorous exercise for more than an hour at a time, you increase the levels of cortisol in your blood, which leads to hypertension and high cholesterol.

Does this finding mean that you should hang up your tennis shoes and stay on your couch? Absolutely not. Taking regular exercise is crucial to cardiovascular health. Do exercise caution, though, not to overdo it — keep your activity to an hour or less at a stretch, especially if you go hard.

10. Build Up Gradually

Finally, trying to do too much, too soon, can significantly strain your ticker. Yes, you want to make progress, but a heart attack or stroke can sideline you for months.

Listen to your body — if an activity feels too vigorous or you start to feel weak and shaky, stop. A wise rule of thumb is that you should be able to carry on a conversation, even if you pant a tiny bit. If you can’t draw enough breath to finish a sentence like, “How are you today,” slow down.

Stock Photos from udra11 / Shutterstock