Nearly half of all Americans are at risk of heart disease.1 Maybe high cholesterol runs in your family. Or maybe your blood pressure is a little too high. Fortunately you’ve got a powerful tool to help tip the scales: lifestyle change.
The choices you make in your everyday life have a big impact on your heart health. And the more positive choices you make, the better you’ll feel. One study found that 50-year-olds who adopted 4 to 5 healthy lifestyle habits— such as eating healthy, exercising, and not smoking, could expect to live longer without cardiovascular disease than those who didn’t.2
Mingsum Lee, MD, PhD, a cardiologist at Kaiser Permanente, shares 6 lifestyle behaviors that might be hurting your heart — and offers simple changes you can make to improve your health.
- Reality check: Many processed foods like hot dogs, bacon, deli meats, and frozen dinners have high amounts of sodium. Eating too much sodium can cause high blood pressure and other health issues. One study found that eating both processed and unprocessed meats can increase the risk of developing heart disease.3
- Big-picture solution: Making healthy eating choices is key to preventing cardiovascular diseases. That’s why plant-based and Mediterranean diets can be so effective. They limit sugars, salt, and sodium. Instead the focus is on eating fruits, veggies, legumes, beans, and whole grains. You can start by making small changes to your diet, for example, having a "Meatless Monday" meal.
- 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. 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 active, it's harder to prevent conditions such as obesity, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. And not getting enough physical activity can lead to heart disease — even if you don’t have other risk factors.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 short on time, start working out in 1- to 5-minute bursts. Or try making small changes to your daily routine. It can be as simple as walking instead of driving to your local park or taking the stairs instead of the elevator. And remember to pace yourself and start slow if you’re beginning a new exercise routine. It’s important to listen to your body — stay hydrated, take breaks when you need them, and stop if you feel short of breath.
- 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. Smoking is responsible for 1 out of 5 deaths from heart 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 or more years? That can put your risk of a stroke back down to that of a nonsmoker.8 You can go over your plan for quitting smoking with your doctor. They may also recommend medications to help you quit.
- Healthy habit: One important step in quitting smoking is to identify your smoking triggers. Triggers can be emotional (like stress) or physical (like drinking a cup of coffee). Once you know what your triggers are, you can find an activity to do instead of smoking. After a stressful meeting, for example, take a 10-minute walk or listen to a guided meditation.
Drinking too much alcohol
- Reality check: Drinking too much alcohol can raise your blood pressure, cause irregular heartbeats, and contribute to cardiomyopathy — a condition that makes it hard for the heart to deliver blood.
- Big-picture solution: Light to moderate alcohol consumption (1 drink per day for women, 2 drinks for men) may 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 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 prepare yourself to say no. Substitute alcohol with healthier alternatives, such as drinking a seltzer water or taking a walk around the block. By responding the same way each time, you’ll start building new habits.
Lack of sleep
- 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.9
- Big-picture solution: Most adults need about 7 to 8 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 with short sleepers.10
- Healthy habit: 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 sync, 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 of high blood pressure can be enough to damage to your heart and blood vessels.11
- Big-picture solution: Spending time in nature can help relieve stress and anxiety — and help you feel healthier and happier.12 You can also get more stress-fighting benefits by inviting friends or loved ones on your next nature walk. Connecting with others is a great way to boost your mood. They can also offer support and help you avoid behaviors that further increase risk of heart disease, like physical inactivity and smoking.
- Healthy habit: It can be tough to zap stress in one sitting. So try practicing micro-mindfulness throughout the day. Here are 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."
Your guide to heart health
From better understanding risk factors to healthy lifestyle programs, we have many resources to support your total health. Learn more about heart health and our cardiac care.