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Heart-Healthy Diet and Exercise

Your doctor says you need to make some changes in your life: Start a heart-healthy diet, exercise a little, stop smoking, and more. You also walked away with some medication to take. Perhaps you're wondering: Why can't medicine alone do the trick? Does lifestyle really make a difference?

The Truth About Lifestyle and Heart Disease

The truth is, drugs won't cure heart disease, though it can certainly help control it. That means your lifestyle does matter -- a lot.

For starters, it's likely that some aspects of your lifestyle may have put you at risk for heart disease. These are called risk factors. Here's a list of common risk factors for heart disease:

  • Smoking tobacco
  • Having high blood pressure
  • Being overweight
  • Having unhealthy blood fat and cholesterol levels
  • Having diabetes
  • Being physically inactive
  • Being over 55 years old for men and over 65 years old for women
  • Having family members who had heart disease or a heart attack early in life: under 55 for your father or brother; under 65 for your mother or sister

There are some heart disease risk factors you can't control, such as your age or health problems of your parents. However, some risk factors are related to your lifestyle, such as smoking, being overweight, and having an unhealthy diet. These lifestyle factors may contribute to your risk of heart disease. And these same risk factors will cause heart disease to get worse if you already have it.

Luckily, the opposite is true as well. Adopting a heart-healthy diet and a healthier lifestyle can improve your health, even if you already have high blood pressure or other forms of heart disease. Here's what a heart-healthy lifestyle can do for you:

  • Lower your blood pressure
  • Lower your bad cholesterol and triglyceride (blood fat) levels
  • Ease the stress on your heart
  • Lower your risk of heart attack
  • Lower your risk of stroke
  • Prolong your life

Choosing a heart-healthy diet and lifestyle can even help your medications work more effectively. In some cases you might even be able to reduce or eliminate some medications.

But what exactly is a heart-healthy lifestyle? And how do you get started in making changes toward one? Let's take a closer look at seven lifestyle areas where changes can make a huge difference to your heart health:

  • Smoking
  • Body weight
  • Diet
  • Use of sodium
  • Exercise
  • Alcohol
  • Stress control

Smoking and Your Heart

Let's get right to the bad news you probably already know: Smoking hurts your heart and blood vessels -- not to mention your lungs. Here's how:

  • Nicotine from cigarettes tightens your blood vessels, which causes your blood pressure to rise and makes your heart work harder.
  • Smoking lowers the amount of oxygen and increases the amount of poisonous carbon monoxide in your blood. Your heart ends up needing more oxygen but has less ability to get it. This increases the chances of having a heart attack.
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