The key is to start small and start soon. UT Southwestern Medical Center’s Preventive Cardiology program offers these tips for living a heart-healthy lifestyle that won’t cost you a lot of time or money.
You can do it! Set short-term goals to achieve long-term heart health success. If you smoke, set a goal to quit by the end of the month, by the end of the week, or by the end of this sentence! If you are overweight, try to lose a pound a week through diet and exercise. See your doctor or a preventive cardiologist to determine your specific risk factors and the necessary steps to address them. A heart-healthy lifestyle is a choice, and you can choose it – today and every day!
Relax. Stress and anxiety can have deleterious effects on your health, both directly and indirectly. While stress itself may not be a risk factor, it can lead to increased blood pressure or cholesterol. It can also lead to unhealthy behaviors such as overeating and not exercising. You may not be able to remove stress from your life completely, but yoga, breathing exercises, meditation, and other activities can help reduce stress or its effects.
Do the math. Obesity affects one-third of the population and is an important risk factor to control; it may cause heart disease by itself, with no other risk factors. Obesity can also contribute to many other risk factors such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and more. Your body mass index (BMI), which is based on your weight and height, is a more precise indicator of obesity than weight alone.
To calculate BMI, multiply your weight in pounds by 703, and then divide by your height in inches squared. Or, look it up online. A BMI of 18.5 to 24.9 is considered to be normal, 25 to 29.9 is overweight, and 30+ is obese.
Eat healthy to be healthy. There are certain ingredients that are more trouble than they’re worth when it comes to your heart – sodium, saturated fats, and trans fats being chief among them. Try to limit your daily intake to about 1,500 milligrams of sodium, 16 grams of saturated fat and no trans fats, and opt for low-sodium foods when they’re available. (Try some heart-healthy recipes.)
Just as important is how much you eat. Take steps to maintain portion control, such as eating slowly and waiting a few minutes after one serving before helping yourself to seconds.
Get physical. Exercise can minimize many of the risk factors for heart disease, such as high blood pressure, obesity, high cholesterol, and diabetes. Try to exercise five days a week for at least 30 minutes each day. Even three days a week is a good start. Push yourself, but avoid overdoing it, since overly strenuous exercise can lead to injuries.
If you can’t make it to the gym, find other ways to break a sweat:
Know your family’s medical history. Hereditary factors may affect your future health. For instance, if a close relative has suffered a heart attack or stroke, you will have a higher risk for heart disease. The closer the relative, the higher your increased risk. Advancements in the genetics of heart disease, led by UT Southwestern’s Helen Hobbs, M.D., and others, have helped diagnose and treat heart disease in its earliest stages – and sometimes before it develops.
Go organic. Not only do organic foods taste better, they’re also better for you. In the past, fresh, organic produce may have been too expensive to consider or too hard to find, but its popularity has led to cheaper prices and increased availability.
Cheers to your health – within reason. Research has shown that one glass of wine a day (up to two glasses for men) can help reduce the risk of heart disease. And health benefits have been found in both red and white wines. But when it comes to alcohol, more is not better. In addition to other obvious dangers, excessive alcohol intake can increase triglycerides.
Your statistics tell your story. Your weight, cholesterol, blood pressure, blood sugar, and other important measurements can be indicators of heart disease risk. They can also help you track your success. For instance, a blood pressure reading of less than 120 over 80 or less is normal, while ≥ 140 over ≥ 90 indicates hypertension, which should be addressed. For cholesterol, anything less than 200 is preferred, 200-239 is borderline, and over 240 is high risk.
Read the labels. Not all fats are bad for you, but you should be wary of foods that have a high amount of saturated fat or trans fat. These fats can raise your cholesterol and increase your risk of heart disease. Many people don’t realize that certain foods they think are heart healthy, such as some protein bars, can have a large amount of saturated fat.