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How to prevent heart disease: 8 simple steps for a heart-healthy lifestyle

By Kathleen Drinan, DO, UChicago Medicine

Cardiovascular disease, including stroke, is the leading cause of death in the United States. The American Heart Association estimates up to 90% of cardiovascular diseases may be preventable with education and action. With over 30 years of heart disease prevention experience, I know that reducing your risk is possible, and I want everyone to understand how small changes can have big impacts on long-term heart health.

The best thing you can do to improve heart health is to create a good lifestyle plan that is designed to strengthen your cardiovascular system. A good plan should start with the 8 simple steps below.

Include Physical Activity in Your Day

Exercise and physical activity can provide many benefits, both to the body and brain. Nearly half of the population does not meet the minimum recommended amount of exercise for heart health. A good way to start strengthening your heart is carving out 75 minutes or more per week of vigorous aerobic activity or 150 minutes or more per week of moderate intensity aerobic activity.

If you are new to exercising, do not let this discourage you. This can easily transfer to 15 minutes of vigorous exercise 5 days a week or 30 minutes of moderate exercise 5 days a week. Try breaking up your exercise into three to four sessions over the course of a week. For example, 10 to 15 minutes of brisk walking at a time can be a more manageable goal.

Tips for Success:

  • Set Goals: Establish realistic goals and make small, lasting changes to set yourself up for success.
  • Keep Going: Once you reach these goals, don’t stop. Gradually increase your activity and intensity to gain even more health benefits.
  • Walk More: There are many ways to get active. You may find walking the easiest way to start. When you are ready, you can add other activities, such as hiking, running, dancing, water aerobics, swimming and more.
  • Add it Up: Find ways to move throughout your daily routine, whether it’s at work, on your commute or at home. Every active minute counts toward your goal.
  • Make a Habit: Do something active every day at about the same time so it becomes a regular habit. Put it on your schedule so you’re less likely to miss a day.

Learn How Food Impacts Your Heart

We have all heard how important it is to eat a “heart-healthy diet,” but what does this mean?

If you are looking for ways to lower your risk of heart disease, small changes can have a big, positive impact. Start by focusing more on plant-based foods and emphasizing whole grains, fruits and vegetables, legumes, nuts and other high-fiber options to help reduce your overall cardiovascular risks.

For those who have (or are at risk for) hypertension, the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet stresses lessening your sodium intake to reduce your blood pressure and prevent heart disease.

Additionally, to decrease the risk of obesity, diabetes and metabolic syndrome, we should all try reducing the amount of carbohydrates, processed food and trans fats we eat.

Control Your Cholesterol

High cholesterol contributes to plaque, which can clog arteries and increase risks of heart disease and stroke. When you control your cholesterol, you are giving your arteries their best chance to remain clear of blockages.

If you currently have high cholesterol, you should discuss if lifestyle changes and/or adding a cholesterol-lowering medication, such as statins, is an appropriate way to help control your cholesterol long term. Identifying this early and working with your physician on a plan will help prevent heart disease moving forward.

Monitor Your Blood Pressure

Nearly half of Americans have high blood pressure, which may not sound life threatening, but if it’s not controlled quickly, it can lead to heart disease, kidney disease, stroke, blindness and more.

Checking your blood pressure regularly, whether from your doctor or even the cuff at the pharmacy, can keep hypertension from sneaking up on you. The earlier it is detected, the sooner you can get and keep control of your blood pressure. For some people, mild diet changes and exercise is enough, while other may benefit from medications in addition to lifestyle changes. Talk to your physician about what you can do to prevent or control hypertension.

Lose Weight

When you shed extra fat and unnecessary pounds, you reduce the burden on your heart, lungs, blood vessels and skeleton. You give yourself the gift of active living, you lower your blood pressure and you help yourself feel better, too. Weight management, including medical weight loss, can help you with a long-term plan.

Quit Smoking

The number one thing anyone can do to prevent disease – heart or otherwise – is to stop smoking. Smoking, including e-cigarettes, is the most preventable cause of death in the United States. Giving up the habit can have a tremendous effect on your health, life span and ability to enjoy life down the road.

Being open with your doctor about your tobacco use is important so we can help understand what barriers may exist that slow your progress and help you quit. There are many programs available for patients interested in quitting, like Courage to Quit, which offers both virtual or in-person options, as well as different nicotine replacement and pharmacologic options to help you quit.

Manage Your Blood Sugar

The first step in managing your blood sugar is to understand what makes blood sugar rise.

The carbohydrates and sugars in what you eat and drink turns into glucose (sugar) in the stomach and digestive system. Glucose enters into the blood stream, and insulin – a hormone made in the pancreas – helps glucose in the blood remain in a healthy range.

Track Levels and Know Your Numbers

Healthcare provider can take blood glucose readings and provide you with recommendations if your glucose levels are concerning. If you’re diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, you will need to monitor your blood sugar regularly. Our diabetes specialists can help you manage type 2 diabetes.

Get Enough Sleep

Sleep is a foundational element of human biology and a requirement for life. Sleep health is multidimensional and impacts daytime alertness. It has been shown that people who do not regularly receive enough sleep, at least 7 to 8 hours a night, are more likely to have high blood pressure and heart disease. Conditions like sleep apnea, when your airway is blocked while sleeping, and insomnia can impact your heart health over time. If you consistently have problems sleeping, working with a sleep specialist to regulate your sleep schedule can improve your sleep quality and protect your heart health.

This article originally appeared on UChicago Medicine.

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