A few simple lifestyle choices can prevent many types of heart disease, including heart attack and stroke. Even a single adjustment can be huge.
But change can be tough, especially as you get older. These simple practical steps can help protect your heart.
Don’t Smoke or Vape
Smoking probably causes more harm than any other health choice you make. And it may take an extra toll on Black Americans. The added strain may help explain why Black people have twice as many strokes as white people, says Michael Hall, MD, an associate professor at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson.
But no matter who you are or how long you’ve smoked, your heart gets healthier once you quit.
That said, quitting is hard. Lots of people try and fail dozens of times before they quit for good. But medicine, counseling, and quit-smoking programs found in most hospitals can help.
Don’t try to tough it out. Reach out and get support.
There’s no one-size-fits-all option, but exercise is a great first step for most people, says Alan Rozanski, MD, a cardiologist and professor of medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital Morningside in New York City. “Exercise is a tonic for the body. I see it all the time. You get people moving, and it can change their life.”
Rozanski says exercise helps your mind and spirit as well as your heart. For example, studies show that physical activity can ease depression as well as, or better than, antidepressant meds.
But what if exercise seems hard or boring? The key is just to start moving.
“Once you get going, momentum will carry you,” Rozanski says.
You might also want to recruit an exercise buddy. You’re more likely to stick with it, and you’ll have more fun.
How Much Is Enough?
Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous aerobic exercise most days. If that seems like a lot, break it into 10-minute chunks. Go hard enough to get sweaty and a little out of breath.
Mix it up, too. Stream a tai chi class one day; take a brisk walk or bike ride the next. Toss in a couple of days of strength training to keep your muscles in good shape.
Try to be more active in your everyday life too.
“Get around and move more,” says Todd Miller, MD, a cardiologist and co-director of Mayo Clinic’s Sports Cardiology Clinic in Rochester, MN.
To get more activity into your daily routines, you can:
- Take the stairs.
- Bike instead of drive.
- Walk the dog.
- Dig in the garden.
- Take phone calls standing up.
- If you use an activity tracker, add more steps each week or two.
There are so many diets out there. How do you know what’s good for you and your heart? The DASH and Mediterranean diets are good options. These are more than diets, they’re long-term plans for healthy eating. Both feature loads of veggies along with fruit, nuts, fish, and healthy fats like olive oil.
Rozanski likes both options but says no single diet is right for everyone. You can’t go wrong if you focus on vegetables, fruit, nuts, whole grains, and lean poultry. And be sure to avoid added sugar, salt, and highly processed food.
Watch Your Weight (but Not Too Closely)
Extra weight is bad for your heart, especially if it’s around your belly. Drop even a few pounds, and your chance of heart disease drops too.
But Rozanski says not to worry about the scale too much. If you exercise and eat right, you’ll lose weight without trying to. Keep in mind: When you start to move more, you tend to lose fat and gain muscle. The numbers on the scale might not budge a lot, but you'll feel better and you and your heart will be healthier.
Stress Less About Stress
Stress can cause you to do things that are bad for your heart, like smoke, eat junk food, or drink too much.
But stress isn’t always a negative.
“It’s a double-edged sword, and we shouldn’t oversell it as a bad thing,” Rozanski says. “When you feel stress that’s producing negative emotions, then you have to really start to deal with it. But it’s also a vehicle that we can manage and grow from.”
Rozanski says stress relievers like yoga and deep breathing are great. But it may take more to get at the root cause of stress.
“It could be time management or finding meaning in your work or relationship or having a supportive person who can guide you,” he says.
Other healthy ways to manage stress include:
Keep a positive attitude. “Tap into positive emotions,” Rozanski says. “There’s a very strong link between depression and heart disease. Make sure you have strong social connections and work on little things that make you feel better. Every day, write down at least three things you’re grateful for.”
Afton Hassett, PsyD, a psychologist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, suggests that you do five kind things for others and one kind thing for yourself at least once a week.
Exercise. Once mood-boosting endorphins kick in, stress melts away.
Meditate. This is one of the best ways to ease stress. It’s simple, free, and you can do it anywhere. It might protect your heart, too. There are lots of meditation apps to get you started.