Every day, your heart pumps about 2,000 gallons of blood, delivering essential nutrients and oxygen to cells and organs throughout the body. This is an incredible amount of work for a muscle about the size of your fist – the easier you can make your heart’s job, the longer it can keep you alive.
Practicing heart-healthy lifestyle modifications can dramatically reduce the risk of heart disease, which is the No. 1 cause of death among men and women in the U.S. But when we recommend lifestyle changes, we’re not suggesting that you should run five miles a day or eat nothing but salads. Daily, mindful decisions about what you eat and how you move can reduce your heart’s workload and your risk of developing coronary artery disease, hypertension, and heart failure.
- Eating a high sugar and sodium diet can damage your arteries. Unhealthy arteries make the heart work harder to keep blood moving.
- Getting too little exercise increases the risk of developing conditions that lead to heart disease, such as diabetes and high blood pressure. Exercising regularly strengthens the heart and helps your muscles extract oxygen from blood more easily.
Little changes today can result in big benefits over time. I frequently borrow an analogy from a mentor: Think of your health as a retirement account. If you consistently save a little bit over a long period time, it grows, and you reap the financial benefits later in life.
When it comes to heart health, success starts with creating healthy habits you can sustain long term. UT Southwestern’s General Cardiology, Preventive Cardiology, and Family Medicine teams can help you assess the lifestyle factors outside your control – where you live, how easy it is to get fresh foods, etc. – and create realistic goals to improve your heart health.
Several of our physicians are certified by the American College of Lifestyle Medicine and can help patients focus on their overall health by adjusting daily habits such as diet, exercise, sleep, and stress management.
Patients often find success by starting with five diet changes and five exercise tips that are attainable and can be personalized to your unique needs and fitness level.
Related reading: Lifestyle Medicine: How it could save your life
5 diet tips for better heart health
Many patients ask whether they should follow a specific diet plan. The diets I recommend are the only two with research-backed evidence for preventing heart disease:
- DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension), which emphasizes fruits and vegetables, low-fat dairy products, and lightly salted or unsalted nuts
- Mediterranean diet, which encourages monounsaturated fats, such as olive oil, some fish, and plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds
But you don’t have to dive headlong into a strict eating pattern. Start with these five positive changes to establish heart-healthy nutrition habits.
1. Add – don’t subtract. Instead of trying to go cold turkey by removing all treats from your diet, start by adding a few fruits and vegetables to your plate at each meal. The nutrients can reduce blood pressure and cholesterol, and the crunch, sweetness, and fiber may start to satisfy your urge to munch. And you don’t have to buy organic produce. Frozen food is often as nutritious as fresh, and it is highly preferable to canned foods.
2. Change your source of protein. Red meat is high in saturated fat, which can increase cholesterol. Substitute chicken, fish, or beans for red meat at most meals. If you do eat red meat once or twice a week, try to opt for lean cuts such as sirloin.
3. Choose healthier fast-food options. Sometimes we must eat on the run, and certain options are better than others. Choose a salad or grilled item over anything fried. If you’re partial to Mexican fast-food chains, skip the tortillas and opt for veggie-filled bowls with cauliflower or brown rice instead of white rice.
4. Cook with olive oil instead of butter. This easy swap will help your food retain flavor without increasing your cholesterol. Both substances are made of fat, but extra virgin olive oil has much less saturated fat.
5. Replace cold breakfast cereal with oatmeal. Most cold cereals are full of sugar – and not much else. Oatmeal is a whole grain that can help lower cholesterol. Plus, it’s full of fiber, which can help you feel fuller much longer than refined grains found in many cereals.
5 ways to move more during the day
The American Heart Association recommends getting at least 150 minutes of activity per week. When starting a habit, all you need is 15-20 minutes a day. Begin with these five tips to carve out a small chunk of time to exercise.
1. Build movement into chores. Find ways to multitask, whether you’re making dinner, cleaning, or brushing your teeth. Do a few sets of jumping jacks, squats, and lunges while waiting for water to boil. When you bend down to pick something off the floor, get all the way down and do a few push-ups. Walk in place or do calf raises while brushing your teeth. Some movement is better than nothing.
2. Exercise during errands. If you’re able, walk or bike to the store. If you drive, park a bit further away from the store entrance to get in extra steps and do a few laps around the store once you’re inside.
3. Move while watching TV. You’ll feel better about spending a weekend afternoon bingeing your favorite show if you jog in place or do jumping jacks between episodes. You can also use this time to tone your muscles with resistance bands.
4. Play more. Take the kids to the playground or join friends on a walk – both can get your heart rate up. If you’re stuck indoors, turn on some music and have a dance party. Movement should be fun!
5. Walk during your lunch break. I’m not suggesting you replace your meal with movement. Before eating, take a few laps around the block. The break will help your body and mind – exercise also improves brain health.
Related reading: The ‘best’ cardio workout for a healthy heart
Measure what matters
Just as you shouldn’t check your retirement account every day, don’t fixate on numbers you can track daily, such as your weight (which can fluctuate throughout the day). Instead, consult with your primary care provider regularly to monitor important long-term measurables such as blood pressure and cholesterol.
Your doctor can help you understand changes in your numbers and set realistic, healthy goals. For example, if your systolic blood pressure (the “top number,” which measures much pressure your blood exerts on your arteries with every heartbeat) is 130, trying to reduce it to 125 is a good goal that can have long-term gains. Once you achieve that, set another goal to move incrementally closer to the optimal 120/80 reading.
One final tip: The best way to eliminate heart disease risks linked to smoking is to quit smoking. UT Southwestern offers a comprehensive Nicotine Cessation Program with personalized support to help you quit using nicotine and tobacco products.
Our cardiologists and family medicine physicians can help you understand your risk of heart disease and make a plan to reduce your risk. Every small step – from eating more veggies to getting extra steps – can make a difference in your long-term heart health.