Simple Ways to Keep Your Heart Healthy
Your hardworking heart pumps every minute of every day. And in most cases, it’s something you don’t have to think much about. But you might want to give your heart a little more thought: Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S.,1 so it pays to support your heart as much as possible.
Fortunately, there are some simple changes you can make in your day-to-day life to lower your risk for heart disease and improve how your heart functions. Here are 8 ways to keep your ticker in tip-top shape.
Find a relaxing hobby.
When you’re under stress, it can be tough to keep up with heart-healthy habits. Things like making healthy meals, exercising, and getting enough rest take a back seat. But stressful times are exactly when you need those healthy habits the most. Ongoing stress can raise your blood pressure. High blood pressure is a risk factor for heart disease and a contributor to heart attacks and strokes.2
Doing something that relaxes your mind and body can help. Meditation is a great way to reduce stress and worry. It doesn’t have to be hard or complicated. Simply spend a few minutes focused on your breath and being in the moment — and not on your problems.
Activities that keep both your hands and mind busy can also help you relax. Examples include knitting, woodworking, playing chess, and doing crossword puzzles. Try spending 15 minutes each day involved in a hobby or a project that you really enjoy and doesn’t cause stress.
Get your heart pumping.
The heart is a muscle, so working out makes it stronger. “Do something that gets your heart rate up for at least 20 minutes at a time,” says cardiologist Stephanie Coulter, MD. Dr. Coulter is an assistant medical director at the Texas Heart Institute in Houston.
That doesn’t mean you have to hit the gym. You can weed for 20 minutes in the garden, walk around the neighborhood, dance in your living room, or go for a bike ride. Getting regular exercise benefits your whole body in many ways. It helps lower blood pressure and risk of stroke. It also improves mental health and helps fend off excess weight gain.3
Keep an eye on your cholesterol.
Few of us know our cholesterol numbers. That’s okay. This is just a friendly reminder to talk about cholesterol with your doctor during your next visit. Most adults should have their cholesterol checked every 5 years — or more often depending on risk factors.4
What’s most important to know is that healthy cholesterol levels help prevent heart attack and stroke.5 Too-high cholesterol can cause fatty deposits to build up in your arteries and cause blockages. That makes it hard for blood to get through. The deposits can also break off and form a clot, which could cause a heart attack or stroke.
A healthy total cholesterol level falls under 200 mg/dL.4 There are several steps you can take to keep your cholesterol in that good range. A few that top the list:
- Limit the amount of saturated fats you eat to 13 grams a day.6Saturated fats are mainly found in animal products like butter, milk, cheese, fatty beef, and pork.
- Eat more high-fiber foods like fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains. Fiber can help lower your LDL cholesterol, the “bad” kind that can lead to heart disease. Women should aim for 21 to 25 grams per day, while men should aim for 30 to 38 grams.
- Manage your stress levels through exercise and enjoyable hobbies.
- If you use tobacco products, make a plan to quit.
Aim for a healthy weight.
Being overweight raises your risk for diabetes and high blood pressure, two risk factors for heart disease. Excess weight can also directly injure the heart. Scientists have linked obesity with high levels of troponin. This enzyme is released by heart muscle cells when they are damaged.
Here’s the good news: You don’t have to lose a lot of weight to benefit your heart. Studies suggest losing just 5% to 10% of your body weight is enough to greatly improve your health.9 Still, setting out to lose weight can sometimes feel overwhelming, so start with small goals. Some ideas:
- Set a very specific, but doable, exercise goal. That could be walking 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week. You could do it all at once or break it up throughout the day.
- Eat more slowly. It can take 15 minutes or more to know you’re full.9 Eating slowly gives your brain a chance to catch up to your stomach.
- Eat foods that are high in fiber and protein and contain some healthy fats. These nutrients can help you feel fuller longer so you’re less likely to want seconds. Good fat sources include salmon, nuts, and avocado.10
Sugar is in almost everything we eat. But too much added sugar — the kind that’s not naturally found in the food you’re eating — can raise your risk of dying with heart disease, according to a study in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine.11
To cut back on added sugar, you can make the biggest dent by avoiding top sources in the American diet. The sugar in these four categories make up more than half of the added sugar consumed in the U.S.:
- Sugary beverages (especially soda)
- Desserts and sweet snacks like doughnuts and pastries
- Coffee and tea (unless it’s black)
Instead, drink 64 ounces of water per day, choose low-fat or nonfat dairy, and opt for lower-sugar dessert options. 12
Sleep, sleep, sleep
“Sleep is so important for heart health,” says JoAnne Foody, MD. Dr. Foody is the chief medical officer of Esperion, a company focused on finding cholesterol-lowering therapies. “People who get the right amount of sleep tend to have lower blood pressure, a steadier heart rate, and a healthier weight.”
Most adults need 7 or more hours of sleep a night.13 If you’re falling short, make sure you have healthy sleep habits. That includes:
- Going to sleep and waking up around the same time every day
- Getting enough natural light during the day
- Keeping your bedroom cool and dark
- Getting enough exercise (just not too close to bedtime)
Cancer is not the only health risk from smoking cigarettes. Of the more than 800,000 heart disease deaths every year, about 20% are due to smoking. Chemicals in cigarette smoke can damage the heart and blood vessels. Smoking also can cause plaque buildup in the arteries. That can lead to a disease called atherosclerosis and, over time, heart attack or stroke.14
The good news for quitters: Your body starts repairing itself soon after the ﬁnal puff. Quitting is a challenge, but it’s easier when you have support. Counseling, oral medications, and nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) products like the nicotine patch or gum can all help. Using counseling and medication together has been shown to give you the best odds of success. One health insurance benefit many people don’t know about: many plans offer free smoking cessation programs through a digital health advocacy app like Wellframe. Ask your plan or employer if that’s something it offers. 15
 “Heart Disease.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, https://www.cdc.gov/heartdisease/index.htm. Accessed March 30, 2022.
 “High Blood Pressure Symptoms and Causes.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, https://www.cdc.gov/bloodpressure/about.htm. Accessed March 30, 2022.
 “Physical activity: Why it matters.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,
www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/about-physical-activity/why-it-matters.html . Accessed July 15, 2021.
 “Getting Your Cholesterol Checked.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, https://www.cdc.gov/cholesterol/cholesterol_screening.htm. Accessed March 30, 2022.
 “State Heart Disease and Stroke Prevention Programs Address High Blood Cholesterol.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, https://www.cdc.gov/dhdsp/data_statistics/fact_sheets/fs_state_cholesterol.htm. Accessed March 30, 2022.
 “Saturated Fat.” American Heart Association, https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/fats/saturated-fats. Accessed March 30, 2022.
 “Does Fiber Lower Cholesterol?” Healthline, https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/fiber-and-cholesterol. Accessed March 30, 2022.
 “Weight: A silent heart risk.” Johns Hopkins Medicine, www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/weight-a-silent-heart-risk. Accessed July 15, 2021.
 “Aim for a Healthy Weight: Guide to Behavior Change.” National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/educational/lose_wt/behavior.htm. Accessed March 2, 2022.
 “Whole grains, refined grains, and dietary fiber.” American Heart Association,
 Yang Q, Zhang Z, Gregg EW, et al. “Added Sugar Intake and Cardiovascular Diseases Mortality Among US Adults.” JAMA Internal Medicine, vol. 174, no. 4, 2014, pp: 516-524.
 “Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025.” United States Department of Agriculture, https://www.dietaryguidelines.gov/sites/default/files/2020-12/Dietary_Guidelines_for_Americans_2020-2025.pdf. Accessed July 15, 2021.
 “1 in 3 adults don’t get enough sleep.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2016/p0215-enough-sleep.html. Accessed March 30, 2022.
 “How Smoking Affects Heart Health.” U.S. Food & Drug Administration, www.fda.gov/tobacco-products/health-information/how-smoking-affects-heart-health. Accessed July 15, 2021.
 “Smoking and Tobacco Use: How to Quit.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,
www.cdc.gov/tobacco/quit_smoking/how_to_quit/index.htm. Accessed July 15, 2021.