Health Habits for Heart Failure

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on April 23, 2020

Diabetes can damage your heart and raise your chances of having heart failure. But there are plenty of things you can do every day to build a stronger heart.

Eat the Right Foods

Your diet is key for protecting your heart. It’s important to know the foods that are good for your heart and those that can lead to problems.

Choose foods that fight inflammation. A short bout of inflammation, such as when you’re fighting an infection, can be a good thing. But a condition like diabetes with insulin resistance means your body boosts inflammation for a long time. That can damage your heart and coronary arteries, the blood vessels that feed the heart, making heart failure more likely.

There’s no single food or meal plan that can tamp down inflammation. It’s best to eat a variety of healthy foods every day. Fruits and vegetables are especially important -- they have natural chemicals called phytonutrients that may protect your body from inflammation. Some produce, like berries, leafy greens, and avocados, also have antioxidants -- nutrients that can prevent or repair some damaged cells or tissues in your body.

Mind magnesium. Most people don’t get enough of this important mineral in their diet. And if you take water pills, or diuretics, to treat heart failure or high blood pressure, your body loses more magnesium than it should. But getting the right amount is key for your heart health -- low levels of the mineral can lead to inflammation in your coronary arteries. Also, people with high blood pressure benefit from extra magnesium. Focus on eating foods that are rich in magnesium, such as whole grains, leafy greens, and nuts. 

Pump up potassium. It’s another key nutrient that most people don’t get enough of, especially if you’re taking water pills, which make the body lose more potassium than normal. Not getting enough of this mineral is linked to higher blood pressure and heart disease. Include good sources of potassium in your meals and snacks every day, such as raisins, bananas, potatoes, spinach, lentils, nuts, and milk. You can also swap salt for salt substitutes made with potassium.

Limit foods high in saturated fats and trans fat. Often part of processed foods, these fats may make inflammation worse. Instead, choose monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, which you can find in nuts, seeds, avocados, flaxseed, fatty fish, olive and canola oils, and soy.

Cut back on sodium. Sodium is found in salt and processed food. Too much of it can raise blood pressure, making your heart work harder. This can also make heart failure symptoms worse. People with heart disease should have no more than 1,500 milligrams (mg) of sodium -- a little more than 1/2 teaspoon of salt -- per day.

To get less sodium in your diet:

  • Look for “low-sodium,” “no salt added,” “sodium-free” and “unsalted” options.
  • Use salt substitutes that have potassium instead of sodium.
  • Add flavor to food with herbs and spices instead of salt.
  • Rinse canned foods to remove extra salt.


Exercise to Strengthen Your Heart

Just because you have heart failure doesn’t mean you should be afraid to exercise. Regular physical activity is safe for most people and has many benefits. It can:

  • Strengthen your heart
  • Improve your blood flow
  • Lower your blood pressure
  • Cut inflammation
  • Improve insulin resistance and blood sugar control
  • Help with weight loss
  • Improve your cholesterol
  • Boost your sense of well-being

Talk with your doctor before you start a new workout routine. Ask for ideas about how much or what types of exercise you should do. There are some activities you may need to limit or avoid, like push-ups or sit-ups.

In general, you should try to get about 30 minutes of activity most days. Exercises like walking or lifting light weights are safe ways to work out.

Don’t exercise outside when it’s too hot, cold, or humid. Humidity can make you get tired quickly. Extreme temperatures can put a strain on your heart. When the weather is tough, it’s better to exercise inside.

When you exercise, it is normal to feel short of breath, sweat, and have a faster heartbeat. If you get extremely short of breath, weak, dizzy, or lightheaded, rest and see if you feel better after a few minutes. If not, or if you have chest pain, call your doctor.

If you’re worried or confused about the right ways to exercise, ask your doctor about cardiac rehab. In these exercise programs, a medical team can teach you safe, effective moves for your heart health. They’ll oversee your workouts and create goals just for you.

Choose Healthy Ways to Manage Stress

Stress can cause physical changes -- higher blood pressure, a faster heart rate, and a boost in blood sugar -- that make it harder to control diabetes and heart disease. Also, when you’re stressed, you might be more likely to overeat, drink alcohol, smoke, or deal with your stress in other unhealthy ways.

Find reliable, healthy ways to handle stress in your life. You might try taking a few minutes to sit and take deep, even breaths while thinking of a peaceful place. Or get some exercise to blow off some steam. Even simple habits like listening to music, reading a book, or enjoying your favorite hobby can help ease stress.

Quit Smoking

If you smoke, stop. Smoking damages the heart and blood vessels, raising the risk of a heart attack. Each time you smoke, you raise your heart rate and blood pressure, and your heart has to work even harder to pump blood.

If you need help kicking the habit, ask your doctor. There are many tools that can make it easier, from nicotine gum or patches, to medications, to support groups or counseling.

WebMD Medical Reference



American Heart Association: “Cardiovascular Disease and Diabetes,” “Diabetes and heart failure are linked; treatment should be too,” “The American Heart Association Diet and Lifestyle Recommendations,” “Stress and Heart Health.”

Johns Hopkins Medicine: “Fight Inflammation to Help Prevent Heart Disease.”

Cleveland Clinic: “Heart Healthy Diet,” “Heart Failure: Exercise,” “5 Things to Do Every Day to Keep Your Heart Healthy.”

Mayo Clinic: “Heart-healthy diet: 8 steps to prevent heart disease,” “Cardiac rehabilitation.”

National Jewish Health: “Safe Exercise for Patients with Heart Disease.”

University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics: “Activity and exercise for patients with heart failure.”

CDC: “Prevent Heart Disease.”

Harvard Health Publishing: “5 ways to de-stress and help your heart.”

NIH Office of Dietary Supplements: “Potassium.”

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