7 simple steps for a healthier life – and heart

Did you know your heart beats around 100,000 times a day and pumps 2,000 gallons of blood throughout your body each day? 

Your heart truly is the workhorse of your body. The question is: how well do you take care of your heart? 

A healthy diet and lifestyle are your best weapons to fight cardiovascular disease, according to Jeffrey L. Anderson, MD, a cardiologist and heart researcher from the Intermountain Healthcare Heart Institute in Salt Lake City. 

“It’s not as hard as you may think,” said Dr. Anderson. “But it does require you to be intentional so that you’re actively taking steps in your life to be as heart healthy as possible.”
 
Dr. Anderson points to the American Heart Association “Life’s Simple 7” steps to help you along the way. The AHA has defined ideal cardiovascular health based on seven risk factors (Life's Simple 7) that people can improve through lifestyle changes. They are: 

  1. Blood Pressure 
  2. Cholesterol
  3. Blood Sugar/Glucose 
  4. Physical Activity 
  5. Diet
  6. Weight 
  7. Smoking Status 

1. Manage blood pressure

High blood pressure is a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke. High blood pressure (also known as hypertension) is when your blood pressure, the force of blood flowing through your blood vessels, is consistently too high. When your blood pressure stays within healthy ranges, you reduce the strain on your heart, arteries, and kidneys which keeps you healthier longer. Nearly half of American adults have high blood pressure. Recommended blood pressure: 120/80 mm Hg.

2. Control your cholesterol

High cholesterol contributes to plaque, which can clog arteries and lead to heart disease and stroke. “When you control your cholesterol, you're giving your arteries their best chance to remain clear of blockages,” noted Dr. Anderson

Cholesterol is a waxy substance. It’s not inherently “bad.” In fact, your body needs it to build cells. But too much cholesterol can pose a problem. 

Cholesterol comes from two sources. Your liver makes all the cholesterol you need. The remainder of the cholesterol in your body comes from foods derived from animals. For example, meat, poultry and full-fat dairy products all contain cholesterol, called dietary cholesterol.

  • HDL = GOOD: High-density lipoprotein is known as "good" cholesterol. 
  • LDL = BAD: Low-density lipoprotein is known as “bad” cholesterol. 

HDL helps keep LDL from sticking to artery walls and reduces plaque buildup. This process can lower the risk of heart disease and stroke. 

3. Reduce blood sugar

Most of the food we eat is turned into glucose (or blood sugar) that our bodies use for energy. Over time, high levels of blood sugar can damage your heart, kidneys, eyes and nerves. 

Diabetes is a condition that causes blood sugar to rise. A fasting blood glucose (sugar) level of 126 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL) or higher is dangerous. A fasting blood glucose less than 100 mg/dL is recommended. The first step to managing your blood sugar is to understand what makes blood sugar levels rise. 

The carbohydrates and sugars in what you eat and drink turns into glucose (sugar) in the stomach and digestive system. Glucose can then enter the bloodstream. Insulin is a hormone made in the pancreas that helps the body's cells take up glucose from blood and lower blood sugar levels.

In type 2 diabetes glucose builds up in the blood instead of going into cells because: The body develops "insulin resistance" and can't use the insulin it makes efficiently. The pancreas gradually loses its ability to produce insulin. The result can be a high blood glucose level.

4. Get active

“Living an active life is one of the most rewarding gifts you can give yourself and those you love. Simply put, daily physical activity increases your length and quality of life,” said Dr. Anderson. 

Adults should get a weekly total of at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity or a combination of both, spread throughout the week. Kids and teens should get at least 60 minutes of physical activity every day.

Tips to be more active: 

  • Be strong: Include muscle-strengthening activity (like resistance or weight training) at least twice a week.
  • Add intensity: Increase time, distance, amount or effort for more benefits.
  • Sit less: Get up and move throughout the day.

5. Eat better

A healthy diet is one of your best weapons for fighting heart disease. When you eat a heart-healthy diet, you improve your chances for feeling good and staying healthy – for life. 

Dr. Anderson recommends making smart choices and swap to build an overall healthy eating style. Watch calories and eat smaller portions.

  • ENJOY: Vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, legumes, nuts, plant-based proteins, lean animal proteins, skinless poultry, fish
  • LIMIT: Sweetened drinks, sodium, processed meats, refined carbohydrates like added sugars and processed grain foods, full-fat dairy products, eggs, highly processed foods, tropical oils like coconut and palm
  • AVOID: trans fats and partially hydrogenated oils (found in some commercial baked goods and fried foods)

Dr. Anderson recommends learning how to read and understand food labels so you can make healthier – and more informed – choices. When you have more than one choice, compare nutrition facts. Choose products with lower amounts of sodium, saturated fat and added sugars.

  • Watch your calorie intake: Eat only as many calories as you use up through physical activity. Understand serving sizes and keep portions reasonable
  • Cook at home: Take control over the nutritional content of your food by learning healthy preparation methods.
  • Look for the "Heart-Check": The Heart-Check mark helps you find foods that can be part of a healthy eating plan.
  • Learn the "Salty Six": Limit the amount of sodium you eat each day. Learn the "Salty Six". These common foods can be loaded with excess sodium: Breads & rolls, pizza, sandwiches, cold cuts/cured meats, soups, and burritos/tacos.

6. Lose weight

“When you maintain proper weight, you reduce the burden on your heart, lungs, blood vessels and skeleton,” said Dr. Anderson. “You give yourself the gift of active living, you lower your blood pressure and you help yourself feel better, too.”

How to manage weight:

  • Keep track: Understanding how many calories you take in and your activity level can help you identify changes you want to make. To lose weight, you need to burn more calories than you eat.
  • Reduce calories in: Keeping track of what and how much you’re eating can help you know whether you’re eating out of habit, stress or boredom instead of real hunger.
  • Increase calories out: An activity tracker can help you track how much physical activity you get.
  • Learn your Body Mass Index (BMI): Your BMI is a numerical value of your weight in relation to your height. It can help you know whether you're at a healthy weight. BMI less than 25k/m2 is recommended.

Tips for Success:

  • Control portions: Learn about portion sizes and how much you might really be eating. 
  • Get active: Sit less, move more and add intensity to burn more calories and improve your overall health. 
  • Eat smart: Follow a healthy eating pattern that emphasizes vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, legumes, nuts, plant-based proteins, lean animal proteins and fish. Limit sweetened drinks, processed meats, refined carbohydrates like added sugars and processed grain foods, full-fat dairy products, eggs, highly processed foods, tropical oils like coconut and palm, and sodium. Make smart substitutions when cooking, snacking, and dining out. 
  • Get help: If you aren't able to lose weight successfully on your own, talk with your health care provider.

7. Stop smoking

Cigarette smokers have a higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease. If you smoke, quitting is the best thing you can do for your health. The first step to quitting smoking, vaping and using tobacco is to understand the risks and health effects for you and your family: 

  • Smoking is the most preventable cause of death in the U.S. It's linked to about one third of all deaths from heart disease and 90% of lung cancers.
  • Cigarettes, e-cigarettes and tobacco products contain many toxic chemicals, as do their smoke, vapor and liquids.
  • About half of U.S. children ages 3-11 are exposed to secondhand smoke and vapor.
  • Tobacco use and nicotine addiction is a growing crisis for teens and young adults.\You can be one of the millions of people who successfully quit every year.
  • Within one year after quitting, your risk of heart disease goes down by half.

"All of these seven measures have one unique thing in common," said Dr. Anderson. “Any person can make these changes, the steps are not expensive to take and even modest improvements to your health will make a big difference,” he said. “Start with one or two. This simple, seven step list has been developed to deliver on the hope we all have – to live a long, productive healthy life.”