Coronary heart disease is the number one cause of death in the United States today. While death rates from heart disease have been dropping over the past decade, it’s still a widespread problem. So what can you do to prevent heart disease? The answer is in building healthy habits and cutting out the unhealthy ones.
Everyone can benefit from developing heart-healthy habits. And with a little education and a lot of dedication, these habits can go a long way toward preventing heart disease. There is evidence some habits can even reverse certain types of heart disease.
Get regular exercise – Our bodies are not designed to sit at a desk or in a chair all day. That sedentary behavior is literally killing us. We need to move to stay healthy. Experts recommend getting up and walking at least once per hour to help keep your blood circulating. If you work at a desk all day, consider a standing desk. For a healthy heart, it’s important to exercise most days of the week. You don’t have to be a marathon runner to reap the benefits of exercise, but you do have to move. Most exercise experts say you can fit your exercise in by doing a little bit here and a little bit there, but sustained aerobic exercise is important too. If you can’t make time on all days for a straight hour or more of exercise, breaking it up into smaller increments is definitely better than not bothering at all. If you need to, start with small, easily attainable goals and build up to more exercise as you get stronger. Talk to your doctor about how much exercise you should get and what type is best for you, then come up with a plan that works for your lifestyle.
Eat a heart healthy diet – This is so important too. What you put into your body powers your body and offers it the nutrients it needs to thrive. A heart-healthy diet doesn’t have to be boring and bland. There are many recipes and cookbooks available that can make it easy for you to be heart-conscious when you eat. Here are some good diet “dos.”
- Eat lots of vegetables and fruits – When it comes to vegetables, the more color variety and depth of color, the better. Vegetables and fruits are full of nutrients and fiber that help keep your whole body healthy and strong. It doesn’t matter if they’re fresh, frozen, canned, or dried – as long as they don’t have added salt.
- Don’t skimp on the whole grains – Whole grains give you fiber, protein, and other important nutrients that can help prevent chronic disease, such as heart disease. Wheat, oats, and rice are all whole grains. If you choose wheat bread, make sure it’s “whole-wheat” bread, and opt for brown or wild rice instead of white rice.
- Eat nuts and legumes – Nuts, beans, and other legumes provide you with lots of protein, fiber, and minerals, but they don’t have saturated fat like many animal proteins do. Beans and nuts can help improve your blood cholesterol numbers and can make you feel full longer so you’re less likely to snack.
- If you have dairy, choose low-fat options – Dairy can provide you with important nutrients like calcium and vitamin D, but high-fat dairy also has a lot of fat and cholesterol. Limiting dairy or opting for low-fat milk and cheese can give you the benefits without all the cholesterol.
- If you eat meat, go for lean, skinless poultry and fish – You don’t have to avoid all red meat and processed meat all the time, but you should choose lean, fresh poultry or fish most of the time you eat meat.
- Limit saturated fat, trans fat, salt (sodium), processed sugar, sugar substitutes and red meat – Unless your doctor says you should totally avoid these things, you can have them once in a while. But ideally, you should limit these things significantly.
- Read labels and know what you’re eating – If you can’t pronounce the ingredients or sugar, salt, fat or sugar-substitutes are in the top few ingredients on the list, think about making another choice.
- Watch your calorie intake – If you’re following the advice above, watching calories won’t be as hard as it seems. When you first start tracking your calories, it will take some work. But after you get into the habit, you will know what you should do and not do to keep your calories in check.
- Be mindful of portion size – In the US, portions are often huge. We don’t need as much food as most of us eat. Keep track of your servings, and use smaller plates and bowls when serving food to help you pay attention to how much food you’re eating. You can eat large portions of foods like leafy greens and other green vegetables without worry. It’s the high-fat, high-carb, high-processed-sugar foods you should limit.
Take steps to reduce and manage stress – Stress can take a toll on our bodies and our minds. Stress is a fact of life, but you can reduce it and also learn how to manage inevitable stress better. Take up yoga, learn to meditate, pray or practice deep breathing exercises. Just taking a walk outside and enjoying the fresh air can do wonders for stress reduction.
Take care of your teeth – Poor dental hygiene has been linked to heart disease. So make sure you brush at least twice per day and floss once a day.
Get enough sleep – Poor sleep habits can hurt your health
Avoid habits that can harm your heart
We like to focus on the positive things you can do to improve your heart health, but we should also mention the habits you should avoid (or break) to optimize your health and reduce your risks for heart disease.
If you smoke, quit – Also, avoid any type of tobacco and second-hand smoke.
If you drink alcohol, do it in moderation – Unless your doctor says you shouldn’t drink at all, you don’t have to cut alcohol consumption completely. But you should limit it to a drink or two a day. Most experts recommend a maximum of one drink per day for women and two drinks for men.
If you are sedentary, get up and move – Experts recommend that you walk at least once per hour and exercise at least thirty minutes per day, every day.
Make sure you see your doctor
An important part of disease prevention is going for your regular recommended checkups. Don’t skip your annual wellness exams, and if you have a heart condition or are at high risk for one, you should see a cardiologist at least every year as well. And don’t forget those recommended heart screenings. Talk to your doctor about the screenings that are right for your age and overall health, then make sure you make an appointment and have the tests.
Stay on top of your health
While medical and surgical treatments for heart disease have come a long way, it’s always best to prevent heart disease in the first place. You can take control of your health by adopting heart-healthy habits, learning to listen to your body, seeing your doctor regularly and following his or her recommendations, and finding healthy ways to combat stress. If you have trouble finding time to exercise or cook a healthy meal, think about how you spend your time.
Similar to how you might cut a budget to make room for an extravagance you really want, look for ways to cut your time spent doing things like watching TV or playing on the computer so you can make time for the heart-healthy habits that can prevent heart disease – and go a long way to giving you more time in the long run to do the things you enjoy. If you just can’t cut your TV or computer use, consider exercising while you’re having screen time. You can ride a stationary bike, walk in place, do resistance training, stretch, that sort of thing.
Find ways to make healthy habits stick
It’s never easy to revamp your lifestyle. So what can you do to make healthy habits stick? Here are some tips:
Start slow – If you jump in too fast, you may not be as likely to stick with it. Once you’ve gotten in the habit of exercising every day, increase the time you do it.
Give yourself permission to be imperfect – Some of us feel like we have to be perfect or we should not bother trying. Remember, any forward steps are good. If you take a step back, just take another step or two forward. You can do this. Even if you aren’t perfectly adhering to an exercise, diet, and healthy lifestyle plan, you are doing something. And that’s the important part.
Make it fun – Find an exercise you enjoy, and find healthy foods you really like to eat. The more enjoyable these habits are for you, the more likely you’ll be to make them a permanent part of your life.
Reward yourself – Set small goals, and reward yourself when you achieve them. For example, try limiting your processed sugar intake to 10 grams or less every day for a week (or even start with a day or two). When you reach the goal, give yourself a reward. Then increase your goal the next time.
Find an accountability partner – Some of us do better in reaching our goals if we have a partner who is helping us along the way. Find an exercise buddy and challenge and support each other.
Track your diet and exercise – There are many programs and apps that can help you track how much and what you eat and how often you exercise. These can help you see your progress, which can be a great motivator. (Just don’t lose motivation if you have an off day or two. You can always start fresh.)
Try a new heart-healthy recipe each week – It can be difficult to change your diet when you’re used to cooking high-fat foods without incorporating a lot of fruits, veggies, whole grains, nuts, and beans. Start slow. Check out recipes online or in a cookbook, and try out some heart-healthy options. When you find things you like, start incorporating them into your meal plan.
Allow yourself a treat once in a while – Unless your doctor or nutritionist tells you otherwise, it is okay (and even good) to treat yourself to a little indulgence once in a while. Have an ice-cream sundae or a slice of cake here and there. Eat pasta with cream sauce. Have a big, juicy burger. Just don’t do it all the time. Limit it to once or twice a week at most.