Life changes quickly with a diagnosis of heart disease. Whether the doctor says your coronary artery is filled with plaque or your heart muscle isn’t pumping as well as it should, your survival will require treatment. And it’s more than just taking a pill—living with heart disease requires lifestyle changes not just today, but for a lifetime.
While you can’t change your genetics, age or family history of heart disease, there are a number of easy-to-incorporate lifestyle changes that can keep you healthy for years to come. Here are some tips to get you started.
1. Commit to heart-healthy eating
When it comes to a lifelong diet change, it’s much easier to “add” than to “take away.” Consider your current diet and lifestyle and think about ways you might add or swap out less healthy choices for healthier options. Maybe you lack skills in the kitchen, and rely on fast foods or takeout. Instead of eliminating that habit entirely, it can be an easier adjustment to simply add healthier foods to your order, such as including a side salad with your meal or choosing oatmeal with fruit rather than a breakfast sandwich at the drive-thru.
A number of diets have been shown to help when you are living with heart disease, and most follow the same pattern: they’re primarily plant-based. This means they are high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and beans and are low in salt, red meat, refined carbohydrates and sugar-sweetened beverages.
Plant-based foods are great sources of fiber, a crucial nutrient most American diets are lacking. A sure way to add fiber is to add more color to your meals through a variety of fruits and vegetables, choose more whole grains, and replace some traditional protein sources, such as meat, with beans or lentils. For more foods that are good for your heart, click here.
2. Pay attention to dietary fats
Fats are necessary to a healthy diet, but studies on their impact on heart health still remain somewhat controversial. What we do know: certain fats found in foods like olive oil, avocados, walnuts, almonds, chia, flaxseed and seafood like salmon, tuna, and oysters are the most heart healthy.
Saturated fats, conversely, can be healthy in moderation when found in foods such as lean meats, skinless poultry, eggs, fish, and dairy products. I encourage clients to get their fats from primarily whole foods rather than processed products and to limit themselves to no more than two tablespoons (6-7 teaspoons) each day of added fats like oil, butter or ghee.
3. Exercise regularly
Exercise is essential to health and is particularly important when you are living with heart disease. In fact, regular exercise can be the most practical and rewarding way to prevent and improve high blood pressure. Many people diagnosed with heart disease are not regular exercisers, but it’s easy to incorporate into your day by starting small.
Here are a few ideas on how to exercise for heart health at home:
- Try doing a couple sets of modified push-ups against a wall or countertop.
- Add a brisk 10 to 20-minute walk daily. Walking while talking on the phone can help make the time go by faster.
- Take breaks from sitting and use your chair to do a set of modified air squats.
How much exercise do you need to work up to? The American Heart Association recommends at least 150 minutes per week of moderate intensity aerobic exercise (like brisk walking, biking, or swimming), as well as strengthening exercises two days a week. Work to get your heart rate up: the heart is a muscle that needs to be exercised to strengthen it.
4. Quit smoking
Smoking can damage your heart and blood vessels, which is why it is linked to an increased risk for heart attack, stroke and high blood pressure. In fact, even secondhand smoke can put you at greater risk for heart disease.
Because of this, your doctor will ask you to break this habit as soon as possible. Numerous therapies can help you quit smoking, including everything from medication to acupuncture and hypnosis, and your doctor will help you access these resources. It’s never too late to quit. Even long-time smokers can see rapid health benefits when they quit.
5. Get a good night’s sleep
Do you get enough sleep? Studies show that people who get less than seven hours of quality sleep nightly experience health consequences that affect the entire body, including increased risk of:
- Obesity and diabetes
- Cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure
- Depression and anxiety
Make it a priority to get 7-8 hours of sleep. If you are having difficulty getting enough quality sleep, talk to your health care provider. They can help with suggesting behavior modifications, identifying underlying causes of poor sleep, and prescribe additional therapies if needed.
6. Reduce chronic stress
Stress may be affecting your health more than you realize. Chronic stress increases inflammation in the body and can contribute to high blood pressure, lower HDL “good” cholesterol, poor sleep and less motivation to exercise and make healthy food choices.
Being diagnosed with heart disease is a lot to wrap your mind around and work through. Beyond the stress of the diagnosis, your life may be filled with other difficulties: problematic relationships, finances, work or mental health.
It’s important that people with heart disease have strong psycho-social support, so your doctor may also ask questions to get to know what’s going on in your life. In doing so, we can assess where there’s room for relief and build motivation for you to work in healthier habits.
7. Building lifelong habits
Long-term results require long-term habits, and the benefits of diet, exercise and other positive routines benefit you only as long as you commit to them. Don’t aim for perfection, aim for progress. Set reasonable goals you can achieve and maintain. Meeting with a dietitian can help you identify the specific strengths and weaknesses in your diet and help you set nutrition goals that are realistic for you.
If you’re already living with heart disease and looking for ways to prevent progression of the condition, a cardiologist can help. Ask your cardiologist about lifestyle measures that could make a difference in your health.
Not diagnosed with heart disease but worried about your risk? Seeing a preventive cardiologist is an excellent way to be proactive about your health and take the necessary steps today to avoid future heart problems.
About the author
Jessica Betts, MS, RDN, LD, is a registered dietitian with Baylor Scott & White Health Cardiac Rehabilitation.