Healthy eating and exercise probably come to mind right away, but there are other things you should also do to help keep your heart in top shape. A key is to get some key numbers -- and then take action.
Start with these key steps.
Check the Big 3
These are blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar. You want all of them to be in a heart-healthy range.
1. Blood pressure:
- Normal: 119/79 or below
- Prehypertension: 120 to 139 (the first number) and/or 80 to 89 (the second number)
- Hypertension: more than 140/90
2. Cholesterol: Too much of the “bad” kind or not enough of the “good” type raises your heart risk. Healthy cholesterol levels depend on your age and gender. Desirable levels for adults are:
- Total cholesterol: under 200 mg/dL
- LDL (“bad”): less than 100 mg/dL
- HDL (“good”): 60 mg/dL or higher
- Triglycerides: under 150 mg/dL
If your levels are higher than that, you’ll want to talk with your doctor about whether it would help to change what you eat, add more exercise, and possibly also take medication.
3. Blood sugar: A fasting blood sugar test, which is done after you don’t eat or drink anything but water for at least 12 hours, is most commonly used to diagnose type 2 diabetes. If you do have type 2 diabetes, it raises your risk for heart disease.
- A normal fasting blood sugar level is 100 or less.
- Prediabetes is a fasting blood sugar of 101 to 125.
- A fasting blood sugar of 126 or greater indicates diabetes.
Think Beyond Your Weight
It’s true that people who are overweight or obese are more likely to get certain conditions, including heart disease, than other people. But the numbers on the scale don’t always tell the whole story.
For instance, where your extra pounds are matters. Belly fat is thought to be particularly risky. So your waist circumference is a good thing to check -- and it’s simple. All you need is a tape measure. Men with a waist that measures 40 inches or more, and women with a waist of 35 inches or more, are more likely to get heart disease and type 2 diabetes than those with smaller waists. Plus, your weight doesn’t say how much of your body is muscle. So athletes may seem like they’re overweight but have a lot of muscle.
But if you’re overweight, chances are, you’ve heard this all before -- and maybe ended up feeling worse for it. For many people, dieting is a frustrating cycle, instead of bringing positive, lasting change. Too often, it gets wrapped up in ideas about willpower or about being “good” or “bad.” And anything that leaves you feeling ashamed or less-than is definitely not healthy.
So don’t obsess about the number on the scale. A better starting point may be to check in with your doctor about your health in general, not just your size or shape -- and the best steps to improve it, whether it’s working on fitness, adding more vegetables, cutting back on sugar, or managing a health condition you didn’t know you had. If weight loss ends up being one of the goals you choose, you may not need to lose as much as you think for health benefits.
Experts recommend getting at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise (like a brisk walk) 5 or more days per week. (It’s fine to work up to that gradually, if you’re not active now.) But this tip isn’t just about working out. It’s about making your whole day more active, cutting way back on the time you spend sitting down.
Even if you exercise, and then spend the rest of your day sitting down, you’re missing out. So make sure you break up long periods of sitting. Walk to pour yourself a glass of water, talk with a co-worker, do a simple chore, take a quick stretch -- just keep moving throughout your day.
Address Your Stress
Some stress is a good challenge. But if you’re under too much stress for a long time, it can affect your body. Exactly how it affects your heart can vary. Maybe you drink more, smoke, or eat more unhealthy foods when you’re stressed. Or it’s harder to get time to exercise or sleep well. Over time, that all adds up.
You want to take the edge off, in a healthy way. Taking time to relax, socialize, and do something fun is good medicine. So is therapy, if there are issues that get to you and won’t let go.
Tobacco smoke is bad for your heart, along with the rest of your body. It raises your blood pressure and can make blood clots more likely -- and some clots can lead to a heart attack or stroke. Ask your doctor for help with quitting. Also, avoid other people’s smoke.