Good health habits help protect your heart. And the sooner you start them, the better.
Early in adulthood, the health of your heart may not be something you give a lot of thought to. But cardiologists have a message for you: It should be.
“[Heart disease] is your number one health threat,” says Tracy Stevens, MD, spokesperson for the American Heart Association (AHA). And it doesn’t always wait until later in life to strike.
Some heart problems, like high blood pressure, can affect even children. Others, such as coronary artery disease, typically progress over time, fueled by years of unhealthy habits. But they can become serious even at a young age—and be deadly.
To protect your health both now and later in life, it’s important to start taking heart healthy steps now. Here are eight such steps worth taking now:
1. Choose a doctor.
Do you know if you have risk factors for heart disease?
A doctor will. So it’s good to develop a relationship with one. He or she can educate you and guide you through the steps that can help you change any risk factors you do have. Forming that relationship is likely to be easier now than in the midst of a medical crisis.
A relationship with a doctor will also help ensure that you get routine screening tests—like blood pressure and cholesterol tests—as recommended. That way you’ll be able to spot any unhealthy changes and take action to correct the problem early on.
You can do this today: Learn more about choosing a doctor here.
2. Uncover your family health history.
Your chances of developing heart disease increase if relatives have had it. When heart disease runs in your family, it’s especially important for you to work to improve any other risk factors you have.
You can do this today: Use this tool from the U.S. surgeon general to create a record of your family health history. Take the completed form to your next doctor visit.
3. Don’t smoke.
Of all the things you can do to protect your heart, avoiding tobacco may be the most important, according to Dr. Stevens. Heart attacks are likely to occur 20 years earlier in smokers than in nonsmokers, she says. Often, they come without warning and they’re severe.
“Smokers have the highest risk that their first heart attack will be sudden death,” she says. “It’s that spontaneous. Boom. Plaque ruptures, a clot forms and you’re a goner.”
Quitting can make a real difference. Within a short time, you’re likely to look and feel better. And by a year or two after kicking the habit, your chances of developing heart disease drop significantly.
You can do this today: If tobacco is a challenge for you, visitwww.smokefree.gov. Whether you’re thinking about quitting, preparing to quit or trying to stay quit, you’ll find advice to help.
4. Control your weight.
Carrying extra weight can strain your heart. It may also affect your blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and raise your diabetes risk.
Exercise and a good eating plan—both of which are important for your heart in their own right—are key to managing weight. And a proper weight not only benefits your overall health—it can help you feel more energetic and self-confident.
You can do this today: To determine if you’re at a healthy weight, calculate your body mass index. Discuss your results with your doctor.
5. Eat well.
Foods high in saturated fats, trans fats, sodium and cholesterol can all take a toll on heart health. So it’s a good idea to limit these foods and focus on filling your diet with fruits and vegetables, fiber-rich whole grains, nuts, legumes, seeds, and fish—especially oily varieties like salmon.
You can do this today: A good first step toward heart-healthy eating is to choose whole foods rather than processed ones at your next trip to the grocery store.
“I just keep it simple in my mind,” says Dr. Stevens. “Eat foods without a nutrition label.”
6. Manage stress.
No one escapes stress entirely. But trying to manage it while you’re young is important because long-term stress can increase heart rate, blood pressure and inflammation—the mechanism believed to be behind heart attacks, according to Dr. Stevens.
Stress may also cause you to skip exercise or overeat. Plus, it leads to the release of cortisol, a hormone that contributes to belly fat.
In addition to helping your health, effectively dealing with stress can boost your sleep, productivity and happiness.
You can do this today: Visit the Stress and Anxiety health topic center, where you’ll learn more about stress and limiting its impact. Different strategies work best for different people, so you may need to experiment to see what’s most helpful for you.
7. Exercise regularly.
Most young adults should get at least 150 minutes of aerobic activity each week. In addition to helping manage your weight, exercise plays a valuable role in helping control blood pressure, cholesterol and glucose.
Muscle-building exercises done two or more days a week can also be beneficial. The more muscle you have, the more calories you’ll burn, even at rest.
While there are long-term benefits of physical activity, there are also more immediate rewards. You may find that exercise boosts your mood, lessens stress and improves your overall outlook on life, according to the AHA.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reports being more active can even help you make better food choices simply because doing so “feels good.”
You can do this today: If you’re not active already, walking can be a great way to get started. The AHA offers a website, startwalkingnow.org, where you can get personalized walking plans, track your activity and more.
8. Know the risks of alcohol.
According to Dr. Stevens, drinking too much causes high blood pressure, abnormal blood fats and high glucose levels. Excessive alcohol use can also weaken the heart muscle and add to your waistline.
You can do this today: If you’re concerned that you may be drinking too much, you can assess your alcohol use here.
A battle worth fighting
With heart disease being the nation’s leading cause of death, doing what you can to prevent it makes good sense. And remember, there’s much you can do.
“Through life, we all have to pick our battles,” says Dr. Stevens. “This is one battle you need to pick.”