What can I do to keep my heart healthy?

Dr. Gregory G. Pellizzon, MD
Interventional Cardiologist

To start a heart healthy lifestyle, you have to understand that your choices in food and physical activity have a direct impact on risk factors for cardiovascular disease, such as blood pressure and cholesterol. Begin by learning how many calories you should be eating and drinking to maintain your current weight.

Eat a healthy diet. Choosing healthful meal and snack options can help you avoid heart disease and its complications. Be sure to eat plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables.

Eating foods low in saturated fat and cholesterol and high in fiber can help prevent high blood cholesterol. Limiting salt or sodium in your diet can also lower your blood pressure.

Maintain a healthy weight. Being overweight or obese can increase your risk for heart disease. To determine whether your weight is in a healthy range, doctors often calculate a number called the body mass index (BMI). Doctors sometimes also use waist and hip measurements to measure a person's excess body fat.

Exercise regularly. Physical activity can help you maintain a healthy weight and lower cholesterol and blood pressure. Adults should get at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic physical activity each week, and perform muscle strengthening activities, using all major muscle groups, on two or more days per week.

Don't smoke. Cigarette smoking greatly increases your risk for heart disease. So, if you don't smoke, don't start. If you do smoke, quitting will lower your risk for heart disease. Your doctor can suggest ways to help you quit.

Limit alcohol use. Avoid drinking too much alcohol, which causes high blood pressure.

Here are some tips for living a heart-healthy lifestyle:

  • Get at least 30 minutes of physical activity most days of the week. Remember, physical activity does not necessarily mean intense exercise. Getting your heart pumping while walking your dog, mowing your lawn or mopping the floor is good for your heart too. If you've been inactive for a long time, are overweight or have other health problems, see your doctor before beginning a physical activity program.
  • Cut back on saturated and trans fats, cholesterol, added sugars and salt. Foods high in cholesterol include things like shellfish, "organ" meats (like liver) and whole milk. Make reading food labels a habit. Added sugars in food may be identified on food labels as sucrose, glucose or fructose.
  • Maintain a healthy body weight by balancing the amount of calories you take in from food and beverages with the amount of calories you burn. Eating smaller portions at each meal is a good way to begin lowering your daily calorie intake.

As the health manager for your family, you can take charge and create a heart-healthy environment, which encourages kids to adopt healthful habits early on. By making the following lifestyle changes yourself, you can also lower your risk of heart disease and improve your overall physical and mental health:

  • Stopping smoking or never starting to smoke. Reason: Tobacco smoke increases the likelihood that your arteries will harden, which restricts blood flow to the heart. Smokers are at least twice as likely to develop heart disease as nonsmokers. Women who smoke and use birth control pills are at even greater risk.
  • Getting regular exercise. Reason: Regular exercise improves heart function and lowers both blood pressure and blood cholesterol levels. In fact, people who maintain an active lifestyle have a significantly lower risk of developing heart disease and diabetes than those who do not.
  • Eating a heart-healthy diet. Reason: Diets that are low in fat, cholesterol and salt can help prevent heart disease, diabetes and certain cancers. For healthier eating, choose foods that are high in fiber, such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
  • Maintaining a healthy weight. Reason: Excess body fat greatly increases your risk, even if you don't have any other risk factors. Losing just 10 pounds can make a big difference.
  • Knowing your numbers. Reason: Abnormal blood pressure, blood cholesterol and blood sugar (glucose) ranges can be red flags for diabetes and heart disease. Have regular screenings and ask your healthcare provider what's normal for your age. Then, you'll "know your numbers," and you'll be able to keep track of any changes that could be warning signs of heart disease or that any health problems you already have may be getting worse. Women's cholesterol is often higher than men's after 45 years of age.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.