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Your body mass index (BMI) is a good barometer of whether you're overweight or obese, but your waist-to-hip ratio may be better for evaluating your heart-disease risk, according to a recent study published in the journal Lancet. If you carry excess weight in your midsection, the risks are greater than if the extra pounds settle on your hips.

The good news is that losing as little as 5%-10% of your body weight can reduce your risk of heart disease, by lowering your cholesterol levels and blood pressure and improving blood sugar and insulin sensitivity. You don't need to get to your goal weight to improve your health.

The Exercise Equation

Along with a healthy diet, a lifestyle that includes regular physical activity is key to heart health, says Winston Price, MD. Price advises his patients to strap on pedometers and try to incorporate extra steps into their daily routines.

"The combination of a heart-healthy diet -- a Mediterranean-style one that is rich in fiber, fruits, vegetables, and low- or nonfat diary -- and a commitment to exercise can have a huge impact on the development of heart disease," he says.

Regular physical activity not only burns calories and strengthens your cardiovascular system, but can also raise your HDL "good" cholesterol levels. You can get this heart benefit from brisk walking, jogging, cycling, swimming laps, or other aerobic exercise. Doing the equivalent of 3 miles, four times a week, will provide the greatest benefit.

Two recent studies in the journal Archives of Internal Medicine suggest that walking a half hour a day can add three years to your life and improve your heart health.

See Your Doctor

It's important to keep in mind that, even with a heart-healthy diet and other lifestyle improvements, some people will still need medication. Talk with your doctor and see if you could reduce or eliminate your medications by adopting a heart-healthy lifestyle.

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