Your doctor says you need to make some changes in your life: Start a heart-healthy diet, exercise a little, stop smoking, and more. You also walked away with some medication to take. Perhaps you’re wondering: Why can’t medicine alone do the trick? Does lifestyle really make a difference?
The Truth About Lifestyle and Heart Disease
The truth is, drugs won’t cure heart disease, though it can certainly help control it. That means your lifestyle does matter — a lot.
For starters, it’s likely that some aspects of your lifestyle may have put you at risk for heart disease. These are called risk factors. Here’s a list of common risk factors for heart disease:
Having high blood pressure
Having unhealthy blood fat and cholesterol levels
Being physically inactive
Being over 55 years old for men and over 65 years old for women
Having family members who had heart disease or a heart attack early in life: under 55 for your father or brother; under 65 for your mother or sister
Some heart disease risk factors you can’t control, such as your age or health problems of your parents. However, some risk factors are related to your lifestyle, such as smoking, being overweight, and having an unhealthy diet. These lifestyle factors may have helped contribute to your heart disease. And these same risk factors will continue to make your heart disease get worse.
Luckily, the opposite is true as well. Adopting a heart-healthy diet and a healthier lifestyle can improve your health, even if you already have high blood pressure or other forms of heart disease. Here’s what a heart-healthy lifestyle can do for you:
Lower your blood pressure
Lower your bad cholesterol and triglyceride (blood fat) levels
Ease the stress on your heart
Lower your risk of heart attack
Lower your risk of stroke
Prolong your life
Choosing a heart-healthy diet and lifestyle can even help your medications work more effectively. In some cases you might even be able to reduce or eliminate some medications.
But what exactly is a heart-healthy lifestyle? And how do you get started in making changes toward one? Let’s take a closer look at seven lifestyle areas where changes can make a huge difference to your heart health:
Use of sodium
Smoking and Your Heart
Let’s get right to the bad news you probably already know: Smoking hurts your heart and blood vessels — not to mention your lungs. Here’s how:
Nicotine from cigarettes tightens your blood vessels, which causes your blood pressure to rise and makes your heart work harder.
Smoking lowers the amount of oxygen and increases the amount of poisonous carbon monoxide in your blood. Your heart ends up needing more oxygen but has less ability to get it. This increases the chances of having a heart attack.
Smoking and Your Heart continued…
You might think you’re safe if you use low-tar or low-nicotine cigarettes. But any kind of smoking can lead to heart attacks. Even if you’re not a smoker but breathe in smoke from those around you (secondhand smoke), you’re at risk.
Your only healthy solution is to quit. That may be easier said than done, but just because it’s hard doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Most people attempt to quit several times before they are successful. If you’re persistent, you will achieve success, too.
Smoking is one risk factor where you might need a little help. Talk to your doctor about medications that reduce your craving for nicotine. Also, you can find programs and support groups through many organizations, including the American Lung Association, American Cancer Society, local health care groups, and maybe even at your workplace.
Within a few days of quitting, you’ll benefit in these ways:
Your blood pressure will start to go down.
The oxygen levels in your blood will return to normal.
The carbon monoxide levels in your blood will return to normal.
And within a year, you’re likely to notice these advantages:
Coughing will decrease
Shortness of breath will decrease
Your breathing will improve
Your blood flow will improve
Maintain a Healthy Weight to Help Your Heart
By itself, being overweight is a risk factor for heart disease. Even worse, people who are obese are more likely than normal-weight people to die from heart disease.
People who are overweight are also more likely to have sleep apnea, a medical condition in which you stop breathing for short times frequently throughout sleep. Sleep apnea puts you at risk for heart attack, stroke, high blood pressure, and congestive heart failure.
On the other hand, taking steps to get back toward your ideal weight range can reduce your risk of heart problems. Even a small weight loss of 5% to 10% of your current weight can have these heart-healthy benefits:
Lower your blood pressure
Lower your risk of heart attack
Lower your LDL bad cholesterol and raise your HDL good cholesterol blood levels
Lower your triglyceride blood levels
Lower your risk for other serious health problems that can affect your heart health, such as diabetes or sleep apnea
What is your ideal weight? Your doctor can help you determine this. Most health professionals use the BMI (body mass index) — based on the relationship between your height and weight to determine if you are overweight. A healthy BMI for most people is between 18.5 and 25.
Once you know your BMI and what it should be, it’s time to work toward that goal. Weight loss is easiest to achieve and maintain when you do it slowly and gradually, losing no more than 1 to 2 pounds per week. Your best bet is to combine these two strategies:
Eat about 500 to 1,000 fewer calories each day. Make sure to follow a heart-healthy diet, eating foods good for your heart. A great way to reduce calories is to cut back on the amount of fat you eat.
Get more exercise, at least 30 minutes a day. Exercise is especially helpful in keeping weight gain from returning.
In some cases, your doctor may also suggest weight loss drugs to help with your weight management plan.
For a Heart-Healthy Diet: Try DASH or TLC
These are fancy names for relatively simple approaches to eating. The DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet is geared toward lowering blood pressure. The TLC (Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes) program focuses on lowering the bad fat you eat to lower your blood fat and cholesterol levels. Both DASH and TLC can help you in these ways:
Lower your blood pressure (about 8 to 14 points systolic blood pressure when following the DASH diet)
Lower the fat and LDL (bad) cholesterol levels in your blood
Raise the HDL (good) cholesterol levels in your blood
Lessen the burden on your heart
Lower your chances of heart attack
What do the heart-healthy diets called DASH and TLC involve?
Eating more fruits, vegetables, whole-grain foods, poultry, fish, and low-fat dairy products.
Eating less total fat, saturated fat, trans fat, and cholesterol.
Limiting the amount of red meat, sweets, and sweetened beverages you eat.
Ask your doctor for more details about these two eating plans. Or you can find out more yourself online. You may also want to consult a dietitian for advice about heart-healthy eating.
Cut Back on Salt for Heart Health
Sodium is a chemical that makes your blood pressure rise. It’s most often found in table salt and in processed food.
Lowering the amount of salt you eat can help lower the amount of fluid your body holds onto. This lowers your blood pressure and makes it easier for your heart to do its work. Reducing sodium to less than 2,400 milligrams can lower blood pressure two to eight points. People who keep their sodium levels to no more than 1,500 milligrams per day (about a quarter teaspoon of table salt) see the greatest heart-health benefits.
Recent updates to the USDA Dietary Guidelines recommend the following: Reduce daily sodium intake to less than 2,300 milligrams (mg), and reduce intake to 1,500 mg among persons who are 51 and older and those of any age who are African-American or have hypertension, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease.
How can you lower the amount of sodium you eat for a heart-healthy diet? Try some of these suggestions to get started:
Read labels. Look for “salt,” “sodium,” “sea salt,” and “Kosher salt.”
Rinse salty canned food such as tuna before using it.
Substitute herbs and spices for sodium and salt when cooking.
Avoid instant or flavored side dishes, which usually have a lot of added sodium. Instead, try cooking plain rice, pasta, or grains without adding salt. You can add other flavorings or a bit of salt when you serve them.
If you buy “convenience” foods, look for “low sodium” on the labels.
Your doctor can recommend a dietitian to work with you on finding more ways to reduce salt in your diet.
Exercise for a Healthy Heart
Doesn’t exercise make heart disease worse? In fact, the opposite is true. If you have heart disease, remaining inactive is the worst thing you can do. Here’s what lack of physical activity can lead to:
Worsening heart disease
Higher blood pressure
Diabetes, another heart disease risk factor
Getting even as little as 30 minutes of moderate exercise on most days can have these benefits:
Help you lose weight
Reduce heart disease complications
Reduce your chances of stroke
Lower your blood pressure four to nine points
Reduce your risk for diabetes, another heart disease risk factor
Lower your chances of developing other serious medical problems
What qualifies as “moderate” activity? Take a look at these examples:
Outdoor chores such as car washing, gardening, or raking leaves
Indoor chores such as housecleaning
And about those 30 minutes — you can split them up into three 10-minute periods if you need to. Your goal is to reach at least 30 minutes for the day.
Before you start, check with your doctor to see if there are activities that aren’t appropriate for you. Then select activities that you enjoy and that you can work into your day. You don’t have to do the same thing every day. You might find that it’s easier to stay motivated if you involve friends or family members in your activities.
Stress Control for Heart Health
Does stress really affect your heart? Absolutely. Here’s how:
Emotional stress — especially anger — is a common heart attack “trigger.”
Reactions to stress can include overeating, drinking too much alcohol, or smoking, all of which are dangerous for your heart health.
Dealing with stress in healthy ways can accomplish great things for your heart:
Protect your heart.
Lower your risk of heart disease complications.
Help prevent heart attacks.
Help prevent repeated heart procedures.
Some techniques that can help you manage stress in healthy ways include these:
Getting regular physical activity
Attending stress-management programs
Having close relationships with people who can support you
If you think you’ve got a lot of stress in your life, don’t ignore it. Talk with your doctor about ways to manage it — before it makes your heart disease worse.
A Heart Healthy Diet and Alcohol Use
Is alcohol good or bad for you? That depends. Here’s the bad side of alcohol use. Drinking too much alcohol can make heart disease worse. Alcohol can:
Raise your blood pressure
Increase your chances of stroke
Increase your risk of dying if you do have a heart attack
Damage your heart muscle and lead to heart failure
On the other hand, moderate use of alcohol may have these two benefits:
Lower your blood pressure two to four points
Increase the levels of HDL good cholesterol in your blood
“Moderate” alcohol means the following:
No more than two drinks per day for men
No more than one drink per day for women
This doesn’t give you permission to drink whatever or whenever you want. Check with your doctor for advice on the appropriate use of alcohol and your heart health. The potential problems associated with drinking may outweigh the possible advantages of moderate alcohol use.
Steps for Making Heart-Healthy Diet and Lifestyle Changes
How do you start to make the changes to help your heart?
People make changes in all different ways. A few brave people see a problem, stop what they’re doing, and jump right into a whole new way of living. On the other end, many people feel so overwhelmed by a long list of what they need to do that they do nothing at all.
Your goal is to get past that feeling of being overwhelmed and begin — slowly — to make changes that will benefit your heart health. These five steps can help.
1. Assess yourself and create your overall heart-healthy plan.
What are your risk factors? Which changes would lower these risk factors? If you’ve tried to make changes in the past but failed, what prevented you from implementing the change? What obstacles to change exist in your life now: Time? Money? Lack of social support? Busy schedule? Are you ready to make these changes?
2. Pick one heart healthy-lifestyle area to start with.
Yes, you’ll probably need to make many lifestyle changes overall. But you’re more likely to have success if you start to work on them one at a time. Write down one goal, including what you want to accomplish and the steps it takes to get you there. Try to come up with a timetable for making the changes.
3. Line up your resources and supporters.
Many health care professionals can help with lifestyle changes. Your doctor can steer you to these resources. Dietitians can help you determine ways to follow the DASH or TLC meal plans. Health educators, nurses, and counselors can help you with strategies for all the lifestyle changes. Friends, family, or co-workers who have “been there” can lend their own advice and support. Your employer or health care insurance plan may have support groups, gym memberships, and other programs you can take advantage of for little or no cost.
Steps for Making Heart-Healthy Diet and Lifestyle Changes continued…
4. Start with a few small healthy changes and make them part of your routine.
Let’s say you want to try the heart-healthy DASH diet. You know you need to add more fruit and vegetables to your meals, but how should you start? If you only eat a vegetable at dinnertime, try adding one at lunchtime, too. Have fruit as a snack instead of chips or cookies. Perhaps you want to add exercise into your life. You could start by parking your car further away at work or when shopping. Repeat these changes every day. Soon you may even find yourself looking forward to your fruit snack in the midmorning or your time to walk out to the back of the parking lot after work.
5. Reward yourself and keep at it.
Rewards can help you stay motivated and keep you moving onto the next change. After you’ve made a lifestyle change part of your daily routine, celebrate: Rent a movie. Go to a concert. Visit with a friend. Read. Take a trip to the beach. Then get ready to choose and start on another goal.
What might at first have seemed overwhelming can end up becoming an enjoyable, new way of living. And the benefit — a healthier heart — is well worth your effort.
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