Key Steps for a Healthy Heart

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 11.5 percent of the U.S. adult population—or about 26.5 million—had diagnosed heart disease in 2011, the most recent year for which numbers are available. It kills about 600,000 people in the U.S. every year—making it the leading cause of death for both men and women. While heart disease comes in several variations, coronary artery disease is the most common, killing more than 385,000 annually.

Risk factors for heart disease include high blood pressure, high HDL cholesterol, smoking, poor diet, physical inactivity and excessive weight—and they tend to be interconnected. Consider these simple ways to mitigate your risks and reduce your chances of becoming the victim of our nation’s number one killer.

  • Get active. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), nearly 70 percent of Americans don’t get the daily physical activity they need to stay healthy. In the fight against heart disease, any activity is better than being sedentary. If you find it impossible to get 75 minutes of vigorous exercise or 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise each week, squeeze in what you can. Not only will you burn more calories, but you’ll also reduce your risk of developing high cholesterol, high blood sugar and high blood pressure problems.
  • Manage stress. Some studies have linked high levels of cortisol, a hormone produced by your body in times of stress, to heart disease. While a little bit of stress can be good for you—warning you of danger, for example—chronic stress can devastate. Exercise is one way to manage it. Physically active people report experiencing less stress as well as having more energy, an improvement in mood and a healthier outlook on life.
  • Adopt good nutrition. Heart-healthy foods are low in saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol. They’re also low in sodium and added sugars. They are high in whole grain fibers, lean proteins and produce. For optimal health, keep sodium under 1,500 mg a day, include at least 4.5 cups of fruits and vegetables, avoid sugar sweetened beverages, eat fish twice a week, and choose fat free or low fat dairy products.
  • Lower your blood pressure. According to the AHA, high blood pressure, or hypertension, is the most significant risk factor for heart disease. Unfortunately, 90 percent of Americans will develop hypertension in their lifetime. Keep your blood pressure below 120/80 by eating a healthy diet, reducing stress, increasing physical activity and avoiding tobacco smoke.
  • Maintain a healthy body weight. According to the CDC, more than 66 percent of American adults are overweight or obese. Not only does this increase their chances of developing heart disease, but also diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Keep tabs on your body mass index (BMI), an estimate of body fat based on height and weight. If yours is higher than 25, you’re in the overweight category. If it’s over 30, you’re obese. Take steps to lose a few pounds. Better nutrition will help, as will increasing your calories burned through exercise. Even losing 5 to 10 percent of your body weight has impressive health benefits.
  • Don’t smoke. Smoking damages your circulatory system, not only increasing your risk of coronary heart disease but also aneurysms, blood clots and hardened arteries. If you’re a smoker, quit as soon as possible. If you’re not a smoker, avoid exposure to secondhand smoke. According to the American Cancer Society, scientists have linked secondhand smoke to lung cancer, throat cancer and cancers of the brain, bladder, stomach and breast.

While you should try to incorporate each of these key steps for a healthy heart into your life, you don’t have to tackle them all at once. According to the AHA, making positive changes in even one area can make a significant difference. Choose one to begin and add the rest over time for the most dramatic results.