6 Ways to Lower Your Heart Risk

Reviewed by James Beckerman, MD, FACC on May 02, 2019

You can take steps to prevent heart attacks and strokes when you have diabetes. Lifestyle changes can make a big difference. In people under age 75, a quarter of deaths from heart disease and stroke could be prevented. It’s a really good idea to be proactive when it comes to your heart health when you have diabetes. That’s because your risk of stroke or heart attack is double that of someone without it. Here are six ways to help bring down your risk.

1. Get Moving

Exercise strengthens your heart, lowers your blood pressure, burns calories, and improves your blood sugar and cholesterol levels. Together, this adds up to strong protection. And you don't have to join a gym to get active -- unless you want to, of course. A brisk 30-minute walk at least 5 days a week lowers your chances of heart disease and stroke. If 30 minutes seems like too much, start with less and build up slowly. The key is to walk at a brisk pace and to increase how long and how often you move.  


Tip: Consider buying a pedometer (step counter). You can use it to track how many steps you take a day. It can motivate you to be more active.

2. Choose Heart-Healthy Fats

The kinds of fats in the foods you eat affect the cholesterol in your bloodstream. Skip processed snacks and sweets, fried foods, whole milk and cheese, solid fats like butter, and fatty red meats. They have saturated and trans fats, which are not good for your heart. Instead, pick unsaturated fats. They come mainly from plants, like vegetable oils, nuts, and seeds. They are thought of as "good" fats because they improve your cholesterol levels, which is good for your heart. Omega-3 fats are also heart healthy. They help keep your arteries from clogging. So try to eat non-fried fish at least twice a week. Pick healthy fatty fishes like salmon, albacore tuna, sardines, rainbow trout, and mackerel to boost your omega-3 healthy fats. Soybean products, walnuts, flaxseed, and canola oil are other good sources of omega-3s.

Tip: For the best heart benefits, go out with the "bad" fats and add "good" fats at the same time. Instead of a burger or ribs (which have unhealthy saturated fats), order grilled salmon or trout. Instead of using butter when cooking, use vegetable, olive, or canola oil. Instead of cheese on your sandwich, try a little avocado on it instead.

3. Fill Up on Whole Grains, Fruits, and Vegetables

Whole grains, fruits, and vegetables are high in fiber and low in calories. That makes them ideal foods for staying at a healthy weight. A 2009 study found that people cut their risk of heart disease by 81% and their risk of stroke by 50% if they:

  • Kept their weight down
  • Exercised 3.5 hours or more a week
  • Didn't smoke
  • Ate whole grains, fruits, and vegetables

And a large 2011 study showed that Swedish women who ate a lot of antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables cut their risk of stroke by 17%. Citrus fruits and dark orange, red, yellow, and green vegetables and fruits are good sources of antioxidants.

Tip: Set a goal of filling half of your plate with fruit and vegetables.

4. Stay at a Healthy Weight

Losing extra weight and keeping pounds off isn’t easy. But research shows that staying at a healthy weight lowers your risk of heart disease and stroke. Lose weight by making long-term lifestyle changes such as cutting calories and getting regular exercise.


Tip: Don’t lose heart if it takes time to drop the pounds. Even if you don’t lose weight, you'll cut your risk of heart disease and stroke by exercising and choosing healthy foods.

5. Be a Quitter

Smoking is hard on your heart, not just your lungs. Smoking cigarettes makes a person two to four times more likely to have heart disease and twice as likely to have a stroke. Quitting isn't easy. But it helps to know that other people do. Today there are more former smokers than current smokers.

Counseling (individual, group, and telephone), therapies that focus on problem solving, and program treatments via cell phone all work in helping people quit. Nicotine patches, inhalers, and prescribed drugs also work. Counseling and drugs together work better than either by itself.

Tip: Call a quit-smoking line or talk to your doctor about getting help to stop.

6. Know Your Numbers

Taking care of your diabetes lowers your chances of heart disease and stroke. If you keep your blood pressure, cholesterol, and A1c (which is your average blood glucose over the past 2 or 3 months) levels in check, you're on a good path. But to do this, you need to know your numbers. Get checkups often that include blood tests and a physical exam.

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