Getting your heart pumping and eating heart-healthy foods lowers your chance of heart failure and other heart problems. If you already have heart failure, these healthy habits can help you get better. This is especially important for Black and Hispanic people, who have higher rates of heart failure than white people. Black people in particular get heart failure at a younger age, and they are more likely to die from it than people in other racial and ethnic groups.
One reason for these differences is that Black and Hispanic people more often have conditions that raise their odds of heart failure, like:
- High blood pressure
- Chronic kidney disease
A healthy diet and an exercise routine can help with all of these.
What’s the Role of Diet and Exercise in Heart Health?
What you eat and your physical fitness both play a vital role in fighting off heart failure and other illnesses that lead to it. Here’s a closer look at each, including some unique treatment concerns for Black and Hispanic people.
Diet. High blood pressure is a major cause of heart failure. If you’re Black or Hispanic, you’re more likely than other groups to have the condition and have trouble managing it.
Changes to your diet, like how much salt you get, help control high blood pressure. Most Americans eat around 7 to 10 grams of salt a day. Health experts say you should cut that down to about 3 grams daily. This is especially important for Black people who may be particularly salt-sensitive.
Like high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes is another illness that can lead to heart failure. Unfortunately, it’s also a disease that’s more common in Black and Hispanic people. The food you eat is critical in managing diabetes.
Cut back on “bad carbs” or foods high in sugar and low in fiber and nutrients. These foods include:
- White bread and pastries
- White pasta, white rice
- Fruit juice
- Processed foods that have sugar or high-fructose corn syrup
A heart-healthy diet includes plenty of:
- Whole fruits and vegetables
- Whole grains, like whole wheat bread and brown rice
- Lean proteins like chicken and fish
Exercise. Staying active can help ward off heart failure and other related illnesses. Exercise is safe and works well to improve your overall quality of life. It may also keep you out of the hospital and slash your odds of death from heart failure.
Some racial minority groups face unique physical fitness challenges. For example, 48% of Americans meet the CDC’s suggested exercise levels. But this rate drops to 34% for Black women, the least physically active of all groups.
A study in the journal Women’s Health examined personal, cultural, environmental, and other barriers to exercise for Black women. Researchers found that some challenges, like a lack of time or motivation, are universal. But others are more specific to Black women. This group highlighted challenges such as:
- Their role as caretakers
- No family or friends to exercise with them
- The idea that exercise is “selfish or self-indulgent”
When it comes to exercise, every little bit counts. You can start with just 10 to 15 minutes a day and work up to the suggested 150 minutes per week to lower your chances of heart failure. Exercise doesn’t have to happen at a gym. You can do any type of movement that gets your heart pumping, such as yard work, dancing, walking, or biking. Remember to add strength training – that’s working with weights or your body’s own weight – to your workout routine a couple of days a week.
Talk to your doctor before starting an exercise program.
Cardiac rehabilitation. If you’ve had heart failure, your doctor might suggest cardiac rehab. It’s a program for better heart health. You’ll work with health care professionals to learn how physical fitness, food, and other lifestyle changes can improve your heart and stop heart failure from happening again.
The overall rate of referrals to cardiac rehab is low. And doctors are even less likely to suggest it to certain racial and ethnic minorities with heart failure. One study found Black and Hispanic people were 20% and 36% less likely than white people, respectively, to get a doctor’s referral for cardiac rehab.
Barriers to Better Diet and Exercise
We know that a healthy diet and plenty of exercise are essential to lowering your chances of heart failure. But Black and Hispanic people often face barriers to each of these healthy habits.
Minorities tend to be more likely to live in neighborhoods where they don’t feel safe getting outdoors and exercising. They might also be more likely to work long hours or night shifts that make it hard to schedule exercise.
Many racial and ethnic minorities don’t have consistent access to healthy food. People from minority groups are more likely than white people to live in “food deserts.” These are low-income areas with limited access to nutritious food. For example, the only sources of food may be convenience stores that only sell high-fat and high-sugar processed foods and snacks. Residents may not have a grocery store nearby where they can buy fresh, whole fruits and vegetables. People who live in food deserts tend to be Black, have lower incomes, and lack private health insurance.
Researchers studied the link between hospital visits for heart failure and food deserts. They found that people with heart failure who live in food deserts are nearly twice as likely to visit the hospital for the condition compared to those who live outside of these neighborhoods.
While you can take action to eat a heart-healthy diet and get enough exercise, addressing and removing these barriers is a critical step toward health equity for Black and Hispanic people living with heart failure.
Photo Credit: kali9 / Getty Images
Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine: “Heart failure in African Americans: Disparities can be overcome.”
Current opinion in cardiology: “Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Heart Failure.”
American Heart Association: “What is Cardiac Rehabilitation?”
The University of Arizona Health Sciences: “Let’s Increase Awareness of Health Disparities in Heart Failure.”
CDC: “Mission Possible: Addressing Health Disparities in Heart Disease and Stroke Outcomes,” “Hispanic or Latino People and Type 2 Diabetes,” “How much physical activity do adults need?” “Health Equity.”
UChicago Medicine: “Heart disease and racial disparities: Why heart disease is more common in Black patients and how to prevent it.”
The American journal of cardiology: “Relation of Living in a 'Food Desert' To Recurrent Hospitalizations in Patients With Heart Failure.”
American College of Cardiology: “Latest Evidence on Racial Inequities and Biases in Advanced Heart Failure.”
Mayo Clinic: “Diabetes prevention: 5 tips for taking control.”
Journal of the American Heart Association: “Sex and Racial Disparities in Cardiac Rehabilitation Referral at Hospital Discharge and Gaps in Long‐Term Mortality.”
Women & Health: “Barriers to Physical Activity Among African American Women: An Integrative Review of the Literature.”