5 simple steps to a heart-healthy lifestyle

Woman walking on a treadmill

Cardiovascular disease, including stroke, is the leading cause of death in the U.S. The American Heart Association estimates 80% of cardiovascular diseases may be preventable with education and action. Reducing your risk is possible, but it has to start with daily changes to your physical and dietary habits, along with tailored discussions for treatment with your primary care physician or cardiologist about improving your health.

The best thing you can do to improve heart health is to create a good lifestyle plan. This means modifying your diet to focus on nutrition and introducing exercise until these things become basic parts of your life. Forming new lifestyle habits is an investment of time and effort, but once you have done so, they become part of your daily or weekly routine and are easier to maintain.

Here are some tips to help you begin your heart-healthy life:

Get Moving

Incorporating more physical activity has benefits, regardless of your previous exercise habits or age. Nearly half of the population does not meet the minimum recommended amount of exercise for cardiovascular health, which is 75 minutes or more per week of vigorous aerobic activity or 150 minutes or more per week of moderate intensity aerobic activity.

Examples of vigorous-intensity aerobic activities:

  • Hiking uphill or with a heavy backpack
  • Running
  • Swimming laps
  • Aerobic dancing
  • Jumping rope

Examples of moderate-intensity aerobic activities:

  • Brisk walking
  • Water aerobics
  • Dancing (ballroom or social)
  • Gardening

While this may sound like a lot if you aren’t in the habit of regular exercise, you can start slowly. Try dividing up your exercise into three to four sessions over the course of a week. For example, 10 to 15 minutes of brisk walking at a time can be a more manageable goal.

Plenty of research shows it’s never too late to get moving. Whether you are a teenager or middle aged, the effects of physical activity for your present and future cardiovascular risk – and many of the underlying contributors to heart disease – make it a cornerstone of treating patients at risk for or with cardiovascular disease.

Watch What You Eat

There has always been emphasis on following a “heart-healthy diet.” Plenty of data demonstrate a greater risk of cardiovascular disease and mortality is associated with high carbohydrate intake, processed food and trans fats, which patients should actively avoid.

What has been more challenging is to shape the specifics of what diet is best for heart health. At present, the two dietary patterns — which have emerged as the most likely to reduce cardiovascular risks — are plant-based diets and Mediterranean diets. Both emphasize whole grains, plenty of fruits and vegetables, legumes, nuts and other foods high in fiber. The Mediterranean diet also emphasizes lean protein, especially fish.

The DASH diet, which stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, stresses moderating sodium intake to reduce your blood pressure and prevent cardiovascular disease. New attention on vegan diets and intermittent fasting has become very popular but may not be feasible for all.

At the end of the day, a simple approach works best:

  • More fresh fruits and vegetables
  • Whole grains instead of white or refined starches
  • Protein from lean animal sources including fish, as well as beans and nuts
  • Use olive oil for cooking instead of margarine, butter or coconut oil.

It’s important for you to be aware that a heart-healthy diet is not the same as a diet for weight loss. Awareness of caloric intake is necessary if weight loss is an additional goal of dietary changes.

Dealing With Stress

Stress is, unfortunately, a part of daily life for everyone, and how we cope with it can have an important effect on cardiovascular risk factors and overall health. There is a correlation with high levels of stress and cardiovascular events, but there is not a clear solution for everyone. Examine and be aware of your response to stressful times. I encourage my patients to ask themselves important questions like:

  • Do you get enough sleep?
  • Do you overeat, smoke or drink more than usual?

Meditation and other psychological methods of stress management may be appropriate to discuss with your doctor.

Control Cholesterol

Cholesterol plays an integral role in many pathways in the body, but excess levels are associated with an increased risk of heart disease and stroke. Modifying your diet, choosing healthy fats and increasing soluble fiber can help.

Examples of healthy fats include:

  • Avocados
  • Almonds, cashews and peanuts
  • Cooking oils made from plants or seeds like canola, olive, peanut and sunflower oils

Soluble fiber is found in:

  • Oat bran
  • Barley
  • Nuts
  • Seeds
  • Beans
  • Lentils

You should also discuss with your physician whether the addition of cholesterol-lowering medication, such as statins, is an appropriate way to help manage cholesterol levels. Depending on your baseline risk factors, there may be benefits to cholesterol-lowering medications.

Stop Smoking

Rates of cigarette smoking have decreased over the last few decades, but it remains a potent risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Being open with your doctor about your tobacco use is important, as it will help them understand barriers to helping you to quit.

There are many programs available for patients interested in quitting, like Courage to Quit, as well as different nicotine replacement and pharmacologic options to help you quit. E-cigarettes have increased in popularity but appear to have adverse health effects and should not be used as a permanent replacement for conventional tobacco products. Quitting tobacco can have immediate benefits, and, the longer you abstain, the more it reduces risk for cardiovascular disease.

Amita Singh, MD

Amita Singh, MD

Board-certified cardiologist Amita Singh, MD, specializes in non-invasive diagnostics and cardiac imaging in addition to preventive cardiology.

Learn more about Dr. Singh