Key Lifestyle Changes for Cardiovascular Wellness
While genetics play a role in heart problems, many can be prevented or delayed by eating a healthy diet, not smoking and getting regular exercise. Keeping blood pressure, cholesterol and glucose levels in the normal range also can help prevent heart disease.
The six key lifestyle changes to supporting cardiovascular wellness include: eat a whole-food, plant-predominant diet, limit alcohol consumption, get regular physical activity and sleep well.
1. Eat a Healthy Diet
While many risk factors for heart disease cannot be changed, your diet is a factor that can. A heart-healthy diet can help reduce cholesterol and blood pressure levels, control diabetes and maintain a healthy weight.
A heart-healthy diet limits red meat, which is a source of saturated fat, and instead emphasizes foods that are high in plant proteins such as nuts, seeds and legumes. You should also choose lower-fat dairy products and cook with vegetable oils like olive or canola, rather than butter.
Finally, a heart-healthy diet limits added sugars, which add calories without essential nutrients, and sodium, which can increase blood pressure and make your heart work harder. You can make these changes by starting with one change, such as replacing butter with olive oil, and gradually adding other healthy habits to your routine.
2. Exercise Regularly
A diet based on whole grains, fruits, vegetables and healthy proteins can greatly improve heart health and help control other controllable risk factors like blood pressure, cholesterol and weight. It’s also important to limit sodium and saturated fats and opt for unsaturated fats.
Regular physical activity also helps to strengthen the heart. Just like other muscles, the heart requires exercise to stay strong and healthy, but when it isn’t used regularly, it can become weak and diseased.
Aim for 150 minutes of moderate exercise, such as brisk walking or swimming, each week. If that isn’t feasible, try to incorporate small bursts of exercise throughout the day — take the stairs instead of an elevator or walk your dog. You may even consider interval training, which alternates brief bouts of intense exercise with short recovery periods.
3. Quit Smoking
Smoking causes chemicals to build up in your body, which can damage your heart and blood vessels. It also lowers oxygen levels, which makes it harder for your heart to pump blood throughout your body. As a result, smokers have twice the risk of heart disease as nonsmokers.
Quitting smoking has a direct effect on reducing your risks of heart disease. The benefits of quitting begin almost immediately. It decreases your risk of a heart attack, and it slows the progression of atherosclerosis.
Tobacco cessation also improves your lung function. This is important because it helps to prevent chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD). It also reduces your risk of stroke and other conditions. It may even reverse some plaque deposits in your arteries. It’s best to work with your primary care provider to develop an effective strategy for quitting smoking.
4. Get Enough Sleep
Heart disease is the number one cause of death in America. While some risk factors, such as family history or sex at birth, can’t be changed, there are many ways to help maintain a healthy cardiovascular system.
Getting a good night’s sleep can be just as important for heart health as exercise, diet and not smoking. In fact, a recent study found that adults who sleep seven to nine hours each night have a lower risk of developing hardening of the arteries than those who don’t get enough sleep.
A lack of sleep increases your chances of developing calcium buildup in the arteries and can lead to high blood pressure, high cholesterol and obesity. These factors increase your chances of having a heart attack or stroke.
5. Drink Water
While you can’t change some risk factors for heart disease (such as age, family history or sex at birth), there are plenty of things you can do to protect your heart. Changing your diet to one based on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy and protein is a great start.
A healthy diet also helps lower blood pressure, reduce bad cholesterol and keep excess weight under control. Avoid salty foods and processed food to avoid high sodium levels, which increase your risk of developing heart problems.
Drinking water is another important part of a heart-healthy lifestyle. Make sure to drink enough to stay hydrated, especially when spending time outside on a hot day or exercising. Incorporate other beverages that are rich in water such as low-fat milk, 100% fruit or vegetable juice and herbal teas, avoiding those with added sugars.