Here’s a sobering fact: Nearly half of all Americans are at risk of heart disease.1 Maybe high cholesterol runs in your family. Maybe your blood pressure runs a little too high. But despite all the odds, you’ve got a powerful tool to help tip the scales: lifestyle change.
The choices you make in your everyday life have a profound impact on heart health. And the more positive choices you make, the better you’ll feel. In fact, one study found that 50-year-olds who adopted 4 to 5 healthy lifestyle factors (healthy eating, weight management, exercise, no smoking, and low to no alcohol use) could expect to live longer without cardiovascular disease than those who didn’t — about 9 years longer for men and 10 years longer for women.2
With the help of Mingsum Lee, MD, PhD, a cardiologist at Kaiser Permanente, we break down 6 lifestyle behaviors that might be hurting your heart — and some simple changes you can make right now to take a turn toward better health.
- Reality check: Nearly half of all diabetes, heart disease, and stroke deaths are linked to diets high in salt or processed meat.3
- Big-picture solution: Balancing out an unhealthy diet is key to preventing cardiovascular diseases. That’s why plant-based and Mediterranean diets can be so effective, since they limit sugars and salt for the good stuff, like fruits, veggies, and whole grains.
- Healthy habit: "Portion control is also important, especially for adults who are overweight or obese," says Lee. If you find yourself snacking between meals, take out a small portion and stash the rest. As simple as it sounds, you’re less likely to overeat when food’s out of reach.
Lack of exercise
- Reality check: Physical inactivity can set a heart disease domino effect in motion. If you’re not staying fit, you’re less capable of fighting back against other conditions like obesity, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol — which are all major contributors to heart health. All told, people who don’t exercise are 30% to 40% more likely to develop cardiovascular disease compared to those who do.4
- Big-picture solution: "There’s overwhelming evidence that ‘exercise is medicine,’" says Lee. The American Heart Association recommends at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity (like brisk walking) or 75 minutes of high-intensity aerobic activity (like jogging).5 Not into cardio? One study suggests that an hour of weekly resistance/weight-training exercises could lower your risk for a heart attack or stroke up to 70%.6
- Healthy habit: If you’re tight on time, start working out in 1- to 5-minute bursts. Use your environment and daily routine to your advantage — whether that means storing a barbell at your desk, walking instead of driving to your local grocery store, or taking the stairs instead of the elevator.
- Reality check: It’s the heart’s job to pump oxygen-rich blood throughout your body. But when you smoke, your blood gets contaminated with chemicals that can lead to weaker blood vessels and heart damage. Simply put, smoking is responsible for 1 of 4 deaths from cardiovascular disease.7
- Big-picture solution: Your best bet is to stop smoking. Lee says people who quit smoking will see incredible benefits, incredibly quickly. Living one year puff-free can lower your chance of a heart attack dramatically. Going cold turkey for 5+ years? That can put your risk of a stroke back down to that of a nonsmoker.8
- Healthy habit: It might sound like a longshot, but if you’re looking to kick the habit, try drinking a glass of milk. Dairy is one of the top foods that make cigarettes taste terrible.9
Unhealthy drinking habits
- Reality check: Alcohol abuse can raise your blood pressure, cause irregular heartbeats, and contribute to cardiomyopathy — a condition that makes it hard for the heart to deliver blood. It can also make you 40% more likely to have a heart attack.10
- Big-picture solution: Moderate amounts of alcohol (1 drink per day for women, 2 drinks for men) have been shown to increase levels of HDL, the good cholesterol that helps keep LDL (the bad cholesterol) at bay. But if you’re looking for healthy ways to manage cholesterol, it’s best to just avoid drinking entirely. As Lee puts it, "the heart health benefits of moderate drinking are counterbalanced by alcohol’s effects on other disorders such as liver cirrhosis, breast cancer, and head and neck cancers."
- Healthy habit: Stay mindful of when, where, and why you’re most likely to drink. By being aware of your temptations, you can better anticipate them and prepare yourself to say no. In the heat of the moment, substitute alcohol with healthier alternatives, like drinking a seltzer water or taking a walk around the block. By responding the same way each time, you’ll start building new habits — and won’t have to rely so much on self-control.
- Reality check: Without long periods of deep sleep, your body will release chemicals that make it difficult for your heart rate and blood pressure to stay low. That means higher blood pressure while you’re awake, which can lead to heart disease in the long run.11
- Big-picture solution: A consistent sleep schedule is what you should be aiming for. Most adults need about 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night. If you’re able to hit your sleep sweet spot, you could lower your risk for heart disease by 20% compared to short sleepers.12
- Healthy habit: To get the most bang for your bedtime buck, Lee recommends finding a routine and sticking to it. Start by going to bed and waking up at the same time. Every day. (Yes, even weekends!) This will keep your "internal clock" in check, which naturally leads to more refreshing and satisfying sleep.
High stress levels
- Reality check: Stress spikes your blood pressure by making your heart beat faster. It’s a temporary reaction that’ll return to normal over time, but even short bouts can be enough to cause damage to your heart and blood vessels.13
- Big-picture solution: Don’t underestimate the power of laughter for managing stress. One study shows that highly optimistic people are 38% less likely to die from heart disease.14 It’s also a great way to avoid your vices. Activities that bring you joy, such as spending time with friends or loved ones, can be a great way to help avoid behaviors that further increase risk of heart disease, like physical inactivity, overeating, and smoking.
- Healthy habit: It can be tough to zap stress in one sitting. So why not try a more layered approach by practicing micro-mindfulness throughout the day? Here are 6 quick ways to destress wherever you go.
"By making one healthy lifestyle change, you’ll often snowball the benefits into others," Lee says. "For example, exercise can curb cravings for cigarettes, improve sleep quality, and add a boost to your psychological well-being."
To Lee, it’s all about making changes that truly matter to you. "Understanding your risk factors and working to correct them early is a critical first step down the path of better cardiovascular health."
For personalized support toward setting goals and staying heart healthy, try a healthy lifestyle program today. Or talk with your doctor for more ideas on how to make lasting changes.