The health of your ticker is largely dependent on lifestyle changes—here’s what you can do.
Fact: Heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the US. While some factors like genetics may make you more prone to heart disease, the best way to avoid cardiac issues is to take good care of your heart health. Doctors swear that making smart choices now can set you up for better heart health down the road.
“Lifestyle is huge with your heart health,” Holly S. Andersen, MD, an attending cardiologist and associate professor of clinical medicine at the New York-Presbyterian Hospital, Weill Cornell Medical Center, tells Health. “It’s more important than genetics—about 80% of heart disease is preventable.”
Jennifer Haythe, MD, co-director of the Women’s Center for Cardiovascular Health at Columbia University Irving Medical Center and cardiologist at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia, agrees. “A lot of heart disease is preventable,” she tells Health. “If people take care of their heart in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, they won’t need to see a cardiologist for most of their life.”
So what exactly can you do to get better heart health? Here’s what doctors suggest you add to your routine.
Exercise most days of the week
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends getting at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise a week. Can’t swing that? You can work out harder for a shorter period of time: The AHA also says that 75 minutes a week of “vigorous aerobic activity” or a combination of moderate and intense exercise works, too.
Keep in mind that the AHA recommends spreading out your exercise through the week vs. trying to jam it all into one or two days. “Physical activity is the fountain of youth,” Dr. Andersen says. “It makes your cardiovascular system more efficient.” If squeezing in an actual workout every day is tough, Dr. Andersen recommends aiming to do something “to get your heart rate up” every day. (Walking counts, by the way.)
See your doctor regularly
Annual physicals are there for a reason. Your doctor can check you for symptoms of heart disease and also stay on top of your blood pressure, Dr. Haythe says. Knowing your blood pressure is especially crucial. There are no specific symptoms of high blood pressure, but having uncontrolled blood pressure can lead to heart disease, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says. If you and your doctor are on top of your blood pressure, you can take steps to fix it if it starts to creep up.
Look into the DASH diet
While the Mediterranean diet gets a lot of airplay for its emphasis on healthy fats and fresh ingredients, both the AHA and MedlinePlus name-check the DASH diet as being good for heart health. In case you’re not familiar with it, the DASH diet is an eating plan based on research from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI). Research shows that DASH lowers high blood pressure and improves cholesterol, reducing your risk of heart disease. These are the basics of the diet, per Medline Plus:
- Eat plenty of vegetables, fruits, and whole-grains
- Have fat-free or low-fat dairy products, fish, poultry, beans, nuts, and vegetable oils
- Limit foods that are high in saturated fat, like fatty meats, full-fat dairy products, and tropical oils like coconut, palm kernel, and palm oils
- Limits sugar-sweetened beverages and sweets
“Making dietary changes like avoiding unhealthy saturated fat will help create a heart-healthy life,” Annapoorna Kini, MD, director of the Cardiac Catherization Lab at The Mount Sinai Hospital, tells Health.
Do your best to minimize stress
Seriously. Stress itself can be tough on your heart, but it can also lead to things like being inactive and overeating, which can cause high blood pressure and high cholesterol, the AHA says. And that can up your risk of heart disease.
Still, it’s tough to avoid stress. “We’re all so stressed out right now,” Dr. Haythe says. “It’s hard.” Dr. Kini recommends adding things like meditation and deep breathing exercises to your day—they only take a few minutes.
Most people are aware by now that smoking is linked to all kinds of serious health issues, but it never hurts to repeat it. Cigarette smoking raises your blood pressure and puts you at a higher risk for having a heart attack and stroke, Medline Plus points out. “Smoking is bad for the heart and lungs—it’s bad in every way,” Dr. Kini says. Avoiding smoking is so important that Dr. Haythe says this is the “single most important thing you can do” to lower your risk of heart disease.
RELATED: 17 Worst Habits for Your Heart
Consider reserving alcohol for special occasions
There are some confusing messages surrounding alcohol and heart health. Some research has suggested that having a glass of red wine a day can lower your risk of dying from heart disease, but there’s nothing out there that proves drinking red wine will improve your heart health. “There’s a lot of hype about red wine being good for the heart but, in general, alcohol is a toxin to the heart,” Dr. Haythe says.
That’s why she generally recommends that people try to only drink on special occasions. Currently, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that women have no more than one alcoholic drink a day and that men have no more than two drinks a day.
Aim for the right amount of sleep
Everyone’s needs are a little different, but the National Sleep Foundation recommends that most adults get between seven and nine hours of sleep a night. Consistently dip below that, and you could be hurting your heart. “Poor sleep has been linked to high blood pressure and can make it difficult to lose weight,” Dr. Andersen says. It can also make you less likely to want to exercise—and that’s not great for your heart, either.
Sleep is also a good time for your heart to recharge, Dr. Kini says. “When you sleep, your heart rate goes down, your hormones settle down, and you’re not under a lot of stress,” she says. “It’s good for your heart and your overall wellbeing.”