Living a heart-healthy life

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Heart disease is a leading killer of Americans, but you can take steps to avoid it. Learn about the choices you can make every day to lower your risk.

In the struggle against heart disease, you’re wise to know this foe for what it is—a major menace to health and a leading killer of Americans. But you also need to recognize the power you have to help prevent heart disease through healthy living.

Choices you can make about diet and exercise, for example, can help address major threats to heart health, such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure and obesity.

Here are some heart-healthy choices you can start making right away:

Eat well. Your diet should include a variety of nutritious foods from all the food groups, recommends the American Heart Association (AHA).

Here’s some specific advice from the AHA and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI):

  • Choose foods low in saturated fat and trans fat to help keep your arteries free of fatty buildup—a major cause of heart attacks. Foods high in unhealthy fats include fatty or processed meats, whole-dairy products, tropical oils and foods made with partially hydrogenated vegetable oil.
  • Make sure your diet is rich in vegetables and fruits, which are high in nutrients, low in calories and can aid in blood pressure control.
  • Eat whole-grain foods every day. These high-fiber foods may help you manage body weight and lower cholesterol.
  • Include at least two servings of fish a week. Choose oily fish such as salmon or tuna. These fish are high in omega-3 fatty acids, a type of fat that is good for the heart.
  • Cut down on sodium to help control blood pressure.

Move more. Exercise directly benefits the heart by making it stronger and more efficient, and by improving circulation throughout the body. Plus, it helps prevent or control risk factors such as obesity, diabetes and cholesterol problems, according to Gerald Fletcher, MD, an AHA volunteer expert.

“America needs to get out and about and do physical activity,” he says. “We still have only a small percentage of the public that really exercises properly.”

Strive for at least 30 minutes of moderately intense activities 5 days a week and do strengthening exercises twice weekly. Choose activities you enjoy; you’ll be more likely to stick with them. Consider talking to your doctor before beginning an exercise program.

Watch your weight. Being overweight or obese increases your risk for heart disease.

Fortunately, losing just 5 to 10 percent of your current weight will help lower your heart disease risk, reports the NHLBI. Your doctor can tell you if you should lose weight.

Don’t smoke. If you smoke, you are much more likely to develop heart disease compared to someone who doesn’t smoke, reports the AHA. However, after you quit, your heart disease risk can eventually be reduced to that of a nonsmoker, Dr. Fletcher says.

Control blood pressure and cholesterol. You need to have your cholesterol and blood pressure checked regularly to find out if they are elevated, Dr. Fletcher says. If they are, they should be treated—with medicines, if necessary—to help reach the goals you and your doctor set.

Start now. Remember, by making basic changes in your life, you can enormously reduce your heart disease risk, according to the NHLBI.

You don’t have to overhaul your health habits overnight, but you can start making small changes now.

“You can definitely make a difference; there’s ample data to show that,” Dr. Fletcher says.

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