How to Manage Heart Failure With Lifestyle Changes

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on June 08, 2021

When you have heart failure, your heart doesn’t pump blood as well as it should. Your doctor may recommend lifestyle changes as part of your treatment.

“A good therapeutic approach is essential, and consistency is key,” says Eliscer Guzman, MD, a cardiology specialist at SOMOS Community Care in New York City.

Healthy choices can ease symptoms and help with conditions that make heart failure worse, like high blood pressure and diabetes. Here’s what you need to know.

Don’t smoke.

Smoking damages your heart and blood vessels. It also raises your heart rate and blood pressure, and lowers your blood’s oxygen levels. Talk to your doctor if you need help quitting.

Lose weight.

“Obesity is increasingly being recognized as a major risk factor for heart failure,” says Guzman. If you’re overweight, work on shedding the extra pounds. Even a little bit helps. Your doctor can recommend programs to help you reach a healthy weight.

Watch for weight changes.

Suddenly losing or gaining weight could be a sign of heart failure or that it’s getting worse. “Weigh yourself every day before you eat or drink,” says Guzman. “Slight weight increases of 1-2 pounds can be water retention. Catching a buildup of excess fluid early can prevent hospital admission.” Call your doctor right away if you notice this.

Eat well.

To boost your heart health, try to eat more:

  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Whole grains
  • Low-fat dairy
  • Skinless poultry and fish
  • Nuts and legumes
  • Non-tropical vegetable oils

Lower your salt intake.

“Salt is the ultimate enemy in heart failure,” says Satjit Bhusri, MD, founder of Upper East Side Cardiology in New York City. “An increase in added salt or foods high in salt, like pizza and ice cream, will lead to water retention and increase pressure on a failing heart.” Aim for 2,000 milligrams or less per day.

Cut back on sugar.

Avoid sugary drinks and sweets. “If you thought salt was bad, sugar is worse,” says Bhusri. Sugar turns into fat, which makes your heart work overtime. Eating less or none at all is an easy step you can take to lose weight and ease pressure on your heart.

Learn to cook for yourself.

Cooking your own food makes it easier to get what you need and avoid what you don’t. It also means fewer processed foods, which are high in sodium. “Learn how to manage your portions and replace salt with healthier choices that add flavor, like herbs, lemon, onion, and garlic,” says Guzman.

Watch your liquids.

Heart failure makes retaining fluid more likely. Your doctor may recommend scaling back on how much you drink or prescribe diuretics. Ask your doctor what’s best for you.

Limit alcohol.

Alcohol can raise your blood pressure and risk of heart problems. Keep it to less than one to two drinks a day if you’re a man or one drink if you’re a woman.

Ask your doctor about herbs, vitamins, and prescriptions.

Talk to your doctor before you try a new herb, vitamin, or medication. Some -- like over-the-counter cough and cold medications, and pain relievers like ibuprofen and naproxen -- can make heart problems worse.

Exercise regularly.

“The heart is an engine. It needs to keep moving. Movement will tell your heart to get stronger and more efficient,” says Bhusri. Try to exercise every day. Walking, cycling, and jogging are good choices. Ask your doctor what’s safe for you.

Manage stress.

Stress can make your heart beat faster and make it harder to breathe. Help yourself stay calm with relaxation techniques. Practice mindfulness. Sit quietly, breathe deeply, and picture a peaceful scene for 15 minutes. Try a yoga class. Put your feet up. If something upsets you, count to 10 before you react.

Sleep better.

It improves your cardiovascular system and immune system. To sleep better, you should:

  • Prop your head up with pillows.
  • Try not to nap.
  • Don’t eat big meals before bed.

Dress comfortably.

Choose loose clothing and layers. Tight socks and hosiery slow blood flow to your legs and could lead to blood clots. Manage temperature changes by adding or removing layers, like a sweater, when you need to.

Get support.

Let your family and friends know what you need, whether it be help with meal prep and running errands, or just a listening ear. Join a support group for people with heart failure or similar conditions to share experiences and get advice.

Show Sources


Satjit Bhusri, MD, Upper East Side Cardiology, New York City.

Eliscer Guzman, MD, SOMOS Community Care, New York City.

American Heart Association: “Lifestyle Changes for Heart Failure.”

Detroit Medical Center: “Heart Failure and Lifestyle Changes.”

NYU Langone Health: “Lifestyle Changes for Cardiomyopathy & Heart Failure.”

University of Michigan Medicine: “Heart Failure.”

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