Health Lifestyle

The 4 Scientifically Proven Pillars of Heart Health

9 min read

Heart health is about more than what you eat. These 4 habits will keep your heart happy.

What can you do to protect your heart? Discover the 4 pillars of the Ornish Lifestyle Program — which science has proven to be effective for heart health.

Are you at risk of heart disease?

If you live in the U.S., the answer is almost certainly yes: cardiovascular disease (CVD) accounts for one in three deaths.

And when you reach a certain age, pretty much everyone you know will be taking at least one medication to manage a cardiovascular symptom, such as high cholesterol or high blood pressure.

Because they’re so common in our society, we think of heart problems as normal and probably genetic, since we’ve seen the devastating toll on our family members.

But there’s much more to the story.

Some of the most important medical research ever conducted shows conclusively that most of us can prevent cardiovascular disease. And we can even reverse existing damage to our heart and blood vessels. Not through some miracle drug or magic supplement or brand-new, high-tech treatment, but by engaging in four simple, time-tested habits.

Want a healthy and happy heart? Read on…

Why Heart Health Is a Priority

Older woman with hand over heart

Cardiovascular disease includes angina, arrhythmia, heart attacks, strokes, and heart failure.

This category of disease is the leading cause of mortality for both men and women in the United States. It cuts short over 836,500 lives per year. Or the equivalent of four to five Boeing 747 crashes every single day for a year.

What’s Being Done About Cardiovascular Disease?

The medical industry has responded to this epidemic by developing and marketing drugs, surgeries, and expensive new technologies.

But these efforts haven’t come close to solving the problem.

For example:

  • The best cholesterol-lowering drugs, statins, reduce the risk of death from heart disease by less than 2% in people who haven’t yet experienced a heart attack or stroke.
  • The various blood pressure lowering medications come with their own risks and negative side effects.

When you take a moment to think about why the modern medical approach hasn’t cured CVD, it’s easy to understand.

All these treatments take aim at symptoms: elevated cholesterol, high blood pressure, chest pain, narrowed and damaged arteries, and a heart stressed beyond its capacity to pump the volume of blood needed to keep the body functioning well.

Heart disease is largely preventable by adopting a few simple, enjoyable, healthy behaviors.

Medical science hasn’t addressed the root causes. Why? Largely because most researchers and clinicians look around and see high levels of heart disease as normal and natural. The human body is simply flawed, the thinking goes, so it’s a good thing we have access to all this “heroic” care to save us from our inherent brokenness.

But thankfully, there’s good news.

Scientific research begun in the 1990s has proven that heart disease is largely preventable by adopting a few simple, enjoyable, healthy behaviors.

You can take care of your heart and dramatically reduce your risk of developing this devastating disease.

The Ornish Program — The Program Most-Documented to be Effective for Heart Health

Only one lifestyle program has been proven to reverse heart disease to the point of being covered by Medicare and insurance companies.

With over 37 years of data and many published studies, it’s the gold standard guide to reducing your own risk of CVD by making simple and powerful lifestyle shifts.

Founded by Dean Ornish, MD, it’s called Ornish Lifestyle Medicine.

The program focuses on four areas:

  1. What you eat
  2. How you manage stress
  3. How much you move, and
  4. How much love and support you have

Instead of only addressing the effects of CVD, Ornish Lifestyle Medicine focuses on its root causes.

Just as when you’re growing a seedling, a healthy plant requires taking a deeper look at what’s happening underneath the soil — and nurturing it accordingly.

You don’t have to take my word for it. The published research speaks for itself.

What Science Says About the Ornish Program for Heart Health

Dr. Ornish led the Lifestyle Heart Trial in 1990. It looked at whether patients with severe atherosclerosis (hardening of arteries due to plaque buildup) could reverse their disease with comprehensive lifestyle changes alone.

These changes included moderate exercise, stress management, smoking cessation, and a low-fat, plant-powered (vegetarian) diet.

When the participants implemented these changes for one year, the results they experienced were every bit as effective as those seen with cholesterol-lowering medication, without any of the side effects. And not surprisingly, those who made the most effort showed the most significant improvements.

The 4 Pillars of Heart Health and How to Apply Them in Your Life

What do the 4 pillars mean for you?

Here’s how you can put positive changes into practice in your everyday life.

Pillar 1: Nutrition

A variety of healthy foods

You are what you eat, right? This pillar focuses on what you’re putting — and not putting — into your body.

Certain classes of foods harm the cardiovascular system, while others promote its health and vitality.

What dietary pattern promotes a healthy heart according to the Ornish Program?

  • Eat mostly plants in their natural form. This means more fresh fruits and vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and nuts and seeds. These foods are rich in antioxidants, fiber, vitamins, and minerals that can prevent heart disease.
  • Reduce or eliminate animal products, especially red and processed meat products. Replace these with plant proteins, such as tofu, tempeh, beans, lentils, and other legumes.
  • Limit refined carbohydrates, including sugar, white flour, and white rice. They lack nutritional value, are known to spike blood sugar, and can lead to chronic inflammation.
  • Limit high-fat foods, including oils, and include small amounts of nuts.
  • Reduce sodium, instead flavoring meals with herbs and spices that don’t raise blood pressure.
  • If you drink caffeine, stick to a maximum of 2 cups per day of green tea or black coffee. These are rich in antioxidants and other compounds that have protective benefits for your heart.
  • Depending on your overall dietary pattern, you may want to consider supplementing with B12, Omega-3 fats, vitamin D, and turmeric.

Your heart will thank you for nourishing it well.

Pillar 2: Stress Management

A woman relaxing in a bathtub

I don’t know anyone who is a stranger to stress (if you are, I want to know your secrets!).

Stress is how your body responds to change or challenge. And it can manifest emotionally, mentally, and physically.

For many of us, this means a faster heart rate, sweating, increased blood sugar, trouble breathing, muscle tension, anxiety, hostility, and slowed digestion. Stress can also impair your immunity.

How does stress impact your heart health? It increases your risk of high blood pressure, cholesterol, and even obesity. These are all known risk factors for cardiovascular disease.

What can you do about stress?

  • Hug someone you love. It’s been proven to reduce blood pressure, boost well-being, and improve memory.
  • Practice yoga, deep breathing, imagery, or meditation. These habits can increase awareness of what’s going on inside your body. And it can help you better cope with change.
  • Laugh more. Spend time with people who make you laugh. Read or watch something funny or get together with others for fun activities that get the giggles going. Laughing reduces stress hormones like cortisol and epinephrine. It can also increase blood flow.
  • Start a relaxation journal or log to help you develop a routine. This can be a useful incentive and allows you to watch your progress.

A less-stressed heart is a healthier and stronger heart.

Pillar 3: Fitness

A man and woman running in a park

Fitness can take many forms, but the goal is simple: to move your body regularly, which, in turn, improves your overall well-being.

Movement is therapeutic in its ability to strengthen your heart.

This doesn’t mean that you have to sign up for a triathlon this year. (If that’s your thing, I’m not stopping you!)

Regular, moderate exercise has been demonstrated to benefit your heart health in numerous ways:

  • Increases your heart’s efficiency to pump blood and access oxygen
  • Reduces your oxygen requirements while both resting and active
  • Decreases your blood pressure
  • Increases your exercise tolerance
  • Reduces blood triglyceride levels and raises HDL (“good”) cholesterol
  • Reduces your risk for blood clots
  • Decreases body fat and increases muscle mass
  • Boosts metabolism

How Can You Increase Your Activity?

Some of my favorites include long walks, yoga, biking, swimming, jogging, and pumping iron. And I’ll even check out a group fitness class every now and then.

Simple activities also count. For example, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, walking instead of driving, housework, and yard work. And gardening gives you a bonus because you’ll spend time in nature — plus you’ll end up with nutritious foods to eat!

For best results, aim for at least 30 minutes per day (or 60 minutes every other day for a total of 3-5 hours per week) of aerobic exercise. Some aerobic exercise activities include swimming, biking, and walking.

Strength training exercise is also great to do 2-3 times per week for 20-30 minutes at a time. This includes weights; doing bodyweight exercises, including push-ups, pull-ups, and sit-ups; or practicing resistance training.

Dance is another great form of healthy movement. In a 2016 Australian study of nearly 48,400 adults over the age of 40, researchers found that regular dancing at moderate intensity reduced the risk of death from cardiovascular disease by 46%. An added benefit of dancing is that it often increases your social connections, too.

You can increase intensity and duration of your activity over time, but the most important factor is to make movement a habit. (It may be advisable to speak with your doctor before changing your exercise routine to make sure it’s safe for you.)

A fit heart is better able to do its job.

Pillar 4: Love and Support

A group of healthy, active people

Modern science confirms what many of us learned in kindergarten: Having friends is good for you. Not having them, on the other hand, can be hazardous to your health.

Researchers at Brigham Young University concluded that a lack of good friends and connections to others is as damaging to your health as being obese, or as smoking 15 cigarettes per day.

Loneliness kills just as surely as cigarettes. And by the same token, bonding and social connection correspond with higher life expectancy and long-term wellness — and with the prevention of heart disease and even breast cancer.

Societies and cultures that prioritize taking care of each other and building community tend to produce longer-lived people. Health and happiness take a village.

Here are some things you can do to strengthen your support system:

  • Join local groups that spend time together socially (if you’re not plugged into your community, you can search for groups by topic at
  • Volunteer for local organizations or events
  • Attend sporting events or religious ceremonies
  • Schedule recurring social dates with friends or family members
  • Write love letters. Even writing about affection for significant others (and not necessarily to them) can lower LDL cholesterol levels.

(Note: If you want ongoing support building a positive, healthy-eating community — plus recipes and wisdom from world-leading experts — check out Food Revolution Network’s WHOLE Life Club. Learn more about it here.)

Love isn’t just good for your emotional heart. It turns out it’s good for your physical heart, too!

The Ornish Program Improves More Than Heart Health!

And it’s not only heart health that improves on the Ornish Program.

As Dr. Ornish describes in his brilliant, bestselling book (written with Anne Ornish), Undo It!: How Simple Lifestyle Changes Can Reverse Most Chronic Diseases, a whole host of other conditions improve as well.

Participants who adopted these four pillars of lifestyle were able to:

  • Increase telomerase, the enzyme that influences telomere length. Telomeres are the ends of the chromosomes that determine how long you live. Short telomeres are emerging as a risk for disease and premature mortality.
  • Slow the progression of prostate cancer.
  • Influence over 500 genes, turning on disease-preventing ones and turning off disease-promoting ones.
  • Improve coronary heart disease risk factors among people with diabetes, improving long-term glucose control.
  • Support healthy weight loss, leading overweight individuals with heart disease to lose an average of 20 pounds over one year.
  • Reduce LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels by 40%.
  • Lower blood pressure over 12 weeks and reduce blood pressure medication needs.
  • Significantly reduce symptoms of depression among 73% of male and female participants with heart disease risk factors over 12 weeks.

It turns out that given the right environment, your body can heal itself. When you fuel it with the right food, reduce your stress, stay physically active, and lean on a community, your body thrives.

And powerful things can happen when you give your body — and your heart — what it truly needs.

The Simple Prescription for a Happy Heart

Hands holding a heart with stethoscope

Your heart is working hard, day in and day out, to deliver oxygen and other nutrients to every cell in your body. It will most likely beat about two billion times before it’s through.

So show your heart some love by choosing the best foods, nourishing a strong support system, and practicing a lifestyle that minimizes unnecessary stress and enhances your physical fitness. By taking these steps, you can add both years to your life, as well as life to your years.

Interested in learning more about these 4 pillars and how to apply them to your everyday life? Dr. Ornish has just released a new book, called Undo It!: How Simple Lifestyle Changes Can Reverse Most Chronic Diseases. You can order it here.

Want sustained support applying these pillars in your everyday life so you can get lasting results? Check out Food Revolution Network’s membership community, WHOLE Life Club, here.

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Tell Us in the Comments:

  • Which of the 4 pillars of heart health do you already practice?
  • Which ones do you want to focus on more?
  • Have you or your loved ones ever suffered from cardiovascular disease and gotten positive results from making lifestyle changes?

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