There’s no question that everything is more expensive right now, including healthcare. In fact, annual healthcare spending in the United States now exceeds $12,530 per person.
You may not spend that much out of pocket, but when you figure in co-pays, gym memberships, nutritional supplements, organic foods, and other health-enhancing measures, it adds up.
That’s why I want to remind you that there are many things you can do to improve your heart health and overall well-being that don’t cost a cent. Here are my top 10 recommendations.
1. Stick with a Sleep Schedule
Do your best to go to bed and get up in the morning around the same time every day. A regular sleep schedule supports normal circadian rhythms and cues your body when it's time to power down. This helps you to fall asleep faster and improves sleep quality and duration.
This sleep advice is more important than you may think. Irregular sleep patterns and late-night light exposure are linked with delayed circadian rhythms, interrupted sleep, and poorer health. A 2021 study in the European Heart Journal found that a 10:00–11:00 p.m. bedtime was associated with a lower risk of developing heart disease.
2. Cut Out Sugar & Ultra-Processed Foods
Want to save money and improve your health at the same time? Cut out ultra-processed foods, including boxed, frozen, and canned snacks, drinks, and meals made from ingredients extracted from food rather than from real food itself.
These foods, which make up a significant proportion of the average American diet, are loaded with sugars, starches, unhealthy fats, and chemical additives—and deficient in fiber, phytonutrients, vitamins, minerals, and other micronutrients that are abundant in whole and minimally processed foods.
Sugar is one of the most harmful ingredients in these products. It causes a spike in blood sugar and insulin that damages the blood vessels, promotes inflammation, and contributes to insulin resistance, diabetes, and obesity. Studies have found strong links between a high intake of ultra-processed foods and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and death.
3. Drink Up!
One of the many benefits of making sure you are adequately hydrated is maintaining normal blood pressure. When you are dehydrated, the volume and fluidity of your blood decreases.
Your heart has to beat harder and faster to circulate blood and, as a result, blood pressure increases. Dehydration also signals your body to retain more sodium, which is another factor in higher blood pressure.
In addition to eating fruits and vegetables, which naturally contain a lot of water, make a concerted effort to drink eight to 10 glasses of fluids a day. Contrary to popular belief, coffee and tea count toward your fluid intake, plus they have health benefits of their own—as long as you don’t load them with sugar or artificial sweeteners.
4. Take a Walk
You don’t have to join a gym to reap the many cardiovascular benefits of exercise. My top exercise advice is to just take a walk.
A 2021 review of 73 clinical trials concluded that walking at a moderate pace for 20–40 minutes three to five days a week for three months reduced systolic blood pressure by an average of 4.11 mmHg. The usual exercise advice is to get at least 150 minutes per week, but every little bit of physical activity helps.
Walking also reduces other heart disease risk factors such as insulin resistance, diabetes, obesity, and stress. Plus, it strengthens your bones, tones your muscle, boosts your mood, and reduces your risk of depression.
5. Go Barefoot
One of my favorite freebies is grounding. All it requires is taking off your shoes and hanging out on grass, sand, dirt, or concrete. The earth’s surface is teeming with free electrons.
When you are in direct physical contact with the earth, your body absorbs these electrons, which act like antioxidants and neutralize free radicals.
Grounding not only lowers oxidative stress and systemic inflammation but also reduces stress by balancing your body’s nervous system. It has extraordinary cardiovascular benefits as well, including thinning the blood and improving blood pressure.
Aim for 30 minutes of grounding a day. I understand that going barefoot outside isn’t always possible, so special grounding pads for sleeping or sitting are also available. Although they aren’t free, they are a minimal investment with big dividends.
6. Let the Sunshine In
Try to spend some time in the sun. In addition to stimulating the production of vitamin D, which has numerous cardiovascular benefits, sun exposure triggers the release of serotonin, a neurotransmitter with positive effects on mood, appetite, and more. Plus, morning sunlight helps keep your circadian rhythms ticking, which enhances sleep.
Research suggests that 10–30 minutes of unprotected sun exposure a few times a week is about right for most people, although you may require more if you have darker skin—or less if you are sensitive to the sun. Of course, you can get too much of a good thing, so make sure you use sunscreen if you’re outdoors for longer periods.
7. Reduce Screen Time
Did you know that the average American spends more time on their digital devices than they do sleeping?
Granted, smartphones, tablets, and computers have many amazing features, but they also have a downside. They emit electromagnetic fields (EMFs), which over time can have adverse effects on your health. Plus, research reveals that constant exposure to negative news and excessive use of social media may have an adverse psychological impact.
Try to cut back on screen time. It is particularly important to unplug an hour or so before bedtime, as light from digital devices suppresses the release of melatonin and can interfere with sleep.
8. Get a Dose of Nature
Spending as little as 20 minutes in nature significantly reduces levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. That’s the finding of a 2019 study, which instructed participants to avoid strenuous exercise, phones, conversations, or reading during their allotted time but simply sit, stroll, and be in nature. The greatest drops in cortisol were noted with a 25–30-minute “nature pill.”
You don’t need to hike through a forest or climb a mountain. A local park can provide an opportunity to be in nature. We spend about 90% of our time indoors, so it may take some planning to get your nature fix, but it truly is a boon to your health and well-being.
9. Brush & Floss Regularly
Do not overlook the importance of taking care of your teeth and gums. Even low-grade oral infections are linked with systemic inflammation, which is a major contributor to heart disease, diabetes, and other chronic conditions.
Yet, nearly half of US adults have some form of periodontal (gum) disease. Make a habit of brushing your teeth every morning and evening and flossing once a day.
10. Weigh Yourself Daily
Obesity is a significant risk factor for heart disease and most other chronic conditions. If you are concerned about your weight, make a point of stepping on the scales every day.
Studies suggest that weighing yourself regularly, preferably at the same time every day, is an effective strategy for preventing weight gain. Going up a pound is not a big deal, but it is a reminder to make positive adjustments in your diet and exercise.
A clinical trial that tested this during the holidays—prime time for weight gain—found that people who weighed themselves daily and tracked their changes either maintained or lost weight, while a control group gained weight and kept most of it on at a 14-week follow up.