Keeping your heart healthy is simple when you look at the big picture: Get exercise. Eat right. Stress less. Watch your weight. Don’t smoke.
Putting those goals into action, of course, isn’t so simple. Which matter most? How can you put them into daily practice?
Here are practical hints for a way of life that makes you feel great while it strengthens your heart.
1) Make Time to Play
Adults need at least 30 minutes of exercise five or more days a week for heart health. Make exercise playtime and you’re more likely to get it done. Play kickball with your kids, walk the dog, or shoot hoops, or go “mall-walking” with co-workers on your lunch break.
Go for a total of at least 30 minutes of exercise daily — and break it up, if you like. Aim for a 10-minute morning walk, workout with hand weights at lunch, and some digging in the garden before dinner, and you’ve met your goals.
“Folks should get their heart rate up so they’re somewhat breathless, but can still carry on a conversation,” says Susan Moores, RD, MS, of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. All kinds of exercises are important, from strength training and aerobics, to flexibility and stretching exercises.
2) Add the ‘Food Rules’ to Your Memory
- Limit Bad Fat: If you eat a typical American diet, this one change can bring dramatic results: Eat less saturated fat. You can “reduce your risk of heart issues by half,” says Christine Gerbstadt, MD, RD. Start by switching to low-fat meat and dairy, and change to healthier fats like olive and canola oils.
- Cut the Salt: Cook without salt, limit processed foods, and go easy on the salt shaker. Aim to bring down the sodium you eat to 1,500 milligrams, the American Heart Association’s daily limit.
- Pump Up Produce: Eat at least 2 1/2 cups of vegetables and fruit every day. You’ll lower your risk for heart disease, stroke, and cancer. And there’s a slimming bonus: “For all the nutrients fruits and vegetables provide, you’re also getting few calories,” says Kerry Neville, MS, RD, “And they fill you up.”
- Go for Grains: Whole grains help lower cholesterol and blood pressure, and may help prevent type 2 diabetes . Think about corn tortillas, whole wheat pancakes and pasta, bulgur wheat, oatmeal, quinoa, and chewy, delicious brown rice or wild rice.
3) Soothe Stress
Doing absolutely nothing can be a big part of keeping your heart healthy. Be sure to “relax and unplug daily,” says Moores. “Stress is a significant villain of heart health and really any health issue. It can wreak havoc.”
Carve out time for yourself regularly. Walk away from the computer, the phone, and other distractions. Make time to recharge your batteries, to find both energy and calm.
4) Work Toward a Healthy Body Weight
Gaining weight is a constant threat for most Americans in our world of cheap, convenient, and decadent foods. And extra pounds — especially if you tip into obesity — raise the risk of a heart attack, stroke, and high blood pressure.
Now the good news: Losing even a few pounds starts you on the road to a healthier heart. Lose a few more and you’re likely to have more energy and sleep better, too. Here are the basics:
- Go for good nutrition: Choose foods that are rich in nutrients, not just empty calories. A can of regular cola has over 120 calories and a lot of added sugar. Added sugar can give you a lot of empty calories without a lot of nutritional benefits. For a nutrient-packed snack worth the calories, try a palmful of mixed nuts. That has about 165 calories and is packed with protein and heart-healthy fats.
- Balance calories: Be aware of the balance between the calories you eat and the calories your body needs. To lose weight, eat fewer calories than you burn.
- Get physical: Get moving at least 30 minutes daily, most days of the week. Children and teens need at least 60 minutes of activity each day.
5) Find Your Personal Best Way to Quit Smoking
Cancer, lung disease, a higher chance of a heart attack : The damages smoking can do are well-known. Did you know that tobacco is also linked to early menopause, infertility, and pregnancy complications?
There’s no best way to quit smoking. Medicine, support groups, counseling, or a combination of all three may be what it takes to help you quit. Reach out, get help.
6) Schedule Checkups
Regular blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol checks, as well as physical exams, are important to keep your heart healthy. Two conditions that can hurt your heart — high blood pressure and high cholesterol –– are “silent.” That means you typically won’t know you have them unless you get tested. Ask your doctor how often you need a heart checkup and put the next one on your calendar now.