10 Diet and Lifestyle Changes to Boost Heart Health

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You probably already know that having a healthy heart is the key to longevity. But aside from eating right, do you know what else you can do to improve your heart health? Here we take a look at 10 key factors to improving heart health, at any age. By making these simple adjustments you can vastly boost heart health. Plus, it is never too late to start.

Heart Health Guidelines

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for Americans, but there are things you can do to boost your heart health. Just last year the American Heart Association (AHA) published the 2021 Dietary Guidance to Improve Cardiovascular Health, which included 10 science-backed guidelines to promote cardiometabolic.

AHA Guidelines for Heart Health

  • Maintain a healthy body weight
  • Eat a variety of fruits and vegetables
  • Choose whole grains
  • Choose healthy protein including plant-based proteins, fish, low-fat or fat-free dairy, lean meat, and poultry
  • Use liquid plant oils
  • Choose minimally processed foods
  • Minimize intake of beverages and foods with added sugars
  • Choose and prepare foods with little or no salt
  • Limit alcohol intake
  • Adhere to the guidance regardless of where food is prepared or consumed


While the AHA's guidelines are comprehensive in terms of nutrition and exercise, we chose to include sleep and stress relief as well. The evidence supporting the link between these important lifestyle habits and heart health is worth noting.

Get Active

Exercise is an important part of cardiovascular health. In fact, exercise prevents the onset and development of cardiovascular disease.

Benefits of Exercise on Heart Health

  • Reduces blood pressure
  • Improves cholesterol levels
  • Reduces inflammation
  • Reduces stress
  • Promotes weight management
  • Improves vascular contraction and relaxation

Blood Pressure

The effects of exercise on blood pressure and hypertension have been well-studied. Regular aerobic exercise has been consistently shown to improve blood pressure in those with hypertension and reduce the incidence of cardiovascular events.

It seems the blood pressure benefits only occur when exercising regularly, though. One study looked at blood pressure markers after 3 months of no exercise and found that the improvements from exercise were lost despite following a 9-month supervised training program twice per week.

High Cholesterol

High cholesterol levels also are associated with cardiovascular disease (CVD). Meanwhile, high low-density lipoproteins (LDL cholesterol) contribute to atherosclerosis formation—the thickening or hardening of the arteries. But what role does exercise play in offsetting these factors?

Researchers found that high-intensity physical activity was much better at lowering LDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels beyond the type of exercise performed. Yet during resistance training, they discovered it was the increased number of sets and reps that had the greatest impact on cholesterol levels, rather than lifting heavier weights.

Inflammation

Chronic inflammation leads to the deterioration of blood vessels and the health of cell walls. It's also prevalent in other CVD risk factors including obesity, insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, and type 2 diabetes. Even moderate physical activity has anti-inflammatory effects and will benefit heart health.

Heart Health

Your heart is made up of cardiac muscle tissue. The muscle tissue in the heart works to pump blood through your circulatory system so it can carry oxygen where it needs to be. Exercise can strengthen cardiac muscle tissue and help your heart work more efficiently. The key is to exercise consistently.

Physical Activity Recommendations

  • Get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity per week or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity.
  • Incorporate moderate-to-high-intensity muscle-strengthening workouts at least twice per week.
  • Spend less time sitting.
  • Aim to be active at least 300 (5 hours) minutes per week.
  • Increase the amount and intensity gradually over time.

Maintain a Healthy Body Weight

Obesity is a risk factor for CVD and is associated with diabetes, hypertension, and metabolic syndrome. If you are overweight or obese, losing 5% to 10% of your body weight can reduce your risk of CVD; and in some circumstances, if you lose more than that, the benefits are even better.

If you have already lost weight or have a healthy body weight already, maintaining that weight is important for heart health. Currently, body mass index (BMI) is used to measure whether or not your body weight is healthy for your height.

Body Mass Index (BMI) is a dated, biased measure that doesn’t account for several factors, such as body composition, ethnicity, race, gender, and age. 

 

Despite being a flawed measure, BMI is widely used today in the medical community because it is an inexpensive and quick method for analyzing potential health status and outcomes.

This study looked at the ideal BMI and the prevention of coronary heart disease for normal weight, physically active men. Scientists report that maintaining a BMI below 22.5 is optimal for minimizing heart disease risk. You can use the following BMI calculator to determine where you stand.

Unfortunately, BMI does not account for muscle mass, frame size, gender, age, and if you're an athlete, so it's not a great indicator of health, but it does give us some information.

How to Maintain a Healthy Body Weight

Maintaining your weight requires energy balance—you're eating the same number of calories as you are burning each day. If you can achieve energy balance, you will maintain your body weight. If you are out of balance, you will either gain weight or lose weight.

The first step in maintaining healthy body weight is to determine how many calories your body needs at rest. This is called resting metabolic rate (RMR). Once you know how many calories you need to consume each day so you don't lose or gain weight, you can work toward meeting that goal using a food journal or tracking app.

Remember to fill your plate with a variety of foods from all major food groups including fruits, vegetables, protein, carbohydrates, and fats. If you are trying to lose weight, you may benefit from incorporating more nutrient-dense foods in your diet as they offer more volume of food with fewer calories.

It is easy to over-pour or to serve yourself a large portion. To prevent this, focus on serving yourself appropriate portions using a scale, measuring cups, and hand symbol references. You don't have to measure portions forever, just long enough to become familiar with what a proper portion size looks like.

Refrain From Smoking

Smoking causes one in four deaths from cardiovascular disease and wreaks havoc on your heart and other systems. Not to mention, breathing in secondhand smoke increases your risk of developing CVD by 25% to 30%.

Luckily, the earlier you stop smoking, the better reduction in CVD risk. In fact, one study found that cessation at age 40 has an impressive 90% reduction in risk of death.

If you smoke, make a plan to quit. Include any challenges that may arise and ways to overcome those obstacles. Write down strategies you plan to use on your journey to stop smoking. List your reasons to quit and pick a quit day. Commit to it by enlisting a support system and turning to them when needed.

Effects of Smoking

  • Raise triglycerides
  • Lower HDL "good" cholesterol
  • Make blood sticky and more likely to clot, which can block blood flow to the brain and heart
  • Damage cells that line the blood vessels
  • Increase the buildup of plaque (fat, cholesterol, calcium, and other substances) in blood vessels
  • Cause thickening and narrowing of blood vessels

Eat Whole Grains, Fruits, and Vegetables

Whole grains, fruits, and vegetables are rich in dietary fiber and antioxidant vitamins and minerals, all of which provide cardioprotective benefits. It is important to include these items in your meal plan when possible.

We acknowledge that not everyone has access to less processed foods, and it is not always realistic to prepare nutritionally balanced meals at home 100% of the time. Will that influence your risk for heart troubles in the future? Likely not if you practice heart-healthy lifestyle habits the majority of the time.

Fiber

Dietary fiber not only promotes regularity but also improves cholesterol levels by helping to remove cholesterol from the body through waste. This lowers LDL "bad" cholesterol levels in the blood reducing risk of cardiovascular disease.

Fiber is found in whole grains, beans, legumes, fruits, and vegetables. The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for fiber is as follows.

RDA for Fiber

  • Women under the age of 50: At least 25 grams per day
  • Women over the age of 50: At least 21 grams per day
  • Men under the age of 50: At least 38 grams per day
  • Men over the age of 50: At least 30 grams per day

Antioxidants, Vitamins, and Minerals

Fruits and vegetables not only provide dietary fiber but are also rich in essential vitamins and minerals including antioxidants that protect against free radical damage and oxidative stress. One review found that five servings of fruits and vegetables per day are associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and mortality.

Not to mention, high fiber whole grains, fruits, and vegetables are low-energy nutrient-dense foods that fill your belly with fewer calories—perfect for weight management.

Incorporate Plant-Based Oils and Fats

Healthy fats from plant-based oils like olive oil, avocado oil, and flaxseed oil have been shown to improve heart health by improving cholesterol levels. Replacing saturated fats in the diet with unsaturated fats, like those found in plant-based oils, lowers LDL "bad" cholesterol and increases HDL "good" cholesterol. Other ways to get more good fats in your diet include eating more nutritious high-fat foods.

Nutritious High-Fat Foods


Focus on Lean Protein

Lean protein is important for weight management and provides satiety to a meal. Studies show that diets high in protein from dairy, fish, poultry, and plants are associated with a 13% to 30% lower risk of cardiovascular disease compared to high-fat protein sources.

First, you'll need to determine how much protein you need to eat per day. From there, aim to include a lean protein with each meal—breakfast, lunch, and dinner. If you're not sure where to start or how to incorporate more protein into your diet, a registered dietitian can help guide you and create your ideal protein goal.

Limit Alcohol

If you don't drink alcohol, don't start. And if you do drink alcohol, the AHA recommends limiting intake to one to two drinks per day for men, and one drink per day for women.

Alcohol has detrimental effects on the heart. It is associated with elevated blood pressure, widening of the arteries, heart failure, increased lipid levels in the blood, atherosclerosis, altered platelet response (hindered blood clotting), inflammation, and alcoholic cardiomyopathy (ACM)—a heart-muscle disease found in people with a long history of alcohol consumption.

Overall, drinking alcohol is not good for heart health. It's also problematic for those trying to lose weight, which is important for a healthy heart. But reducing your alcohol intake may be challenging at times.

Tips for Reducing Alcohol

  • Create a plan for social events.
  • Pick a "go-to" mocktail you can order in place of alcohol.
  • Prepare a "no thanks" response such as, "I don't drink," or "I have an early day tomorrow."
  • Find a support system online or in person.
  • Drink a glass of water between each cocktail.

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.


Prioritize Sleep

Sleep disturbances and disorders, like sleep apnea and insomnia, are associated with greater CVD risk. Finding ways to sleep better, in turn, will help prevent cardiovascular disease.

But that can be easier said than done, especially with the amount of stress and other obligations that keep people up at night—like kids, work, and anxiety. The National Sleep Foundation recommends adults get between 7 and 9 hours of sleep each night. Make sleep a priority and improve your sleep hygiene.

How to Improve Sleep

  • Stick to a sleep schedule/routine even on weekends.
  • Incorporate a relaxing bedtime routine.
  • Choose a mattress and bedding that is supportive and comfortable.
  • Minimize disruptions (turn the phone on silent, use blackout curtains, use a sound machine).
  • Adjust bedroom temperature.
  • Turn off screens and devices a half-hour or more before bed.
  • Avoid caffeine and alcohol in the hours before bed.



Reduce Stress

Chronic stress is a direct CVD risk factor. Not only is it associated with negative stress responses in the body including high blood pressure, irregular heart rate, and reduced blood flow to the heart, but it is also associated with poor health behaviors that contribute to CVD.

For instance, stress contributes to weight gain, poor sleep, alcohol intake, smoking, an unhealthy diet, and lack of physical activity. Spend at least 10 minutes each day focusing on stress relief.

Stress Relief Techniques

  • Breathing meditation
  • Exercise
  • Mindfulness
  • Yoga
  • Body scanning techniques
  • Self-care (bath, massage, quiet time, etc.)
  • Things that make you feel good (listening to music, walking, reading a book)



A Word From Verywell

No matter your age, it is never too late—or too early—to start thinking about heart health. In addition to making diet and exercise changes, you can also boost heart health by reducing stress, quitting smoking, and practicing good sleep hygiene.

If you are concerned about your heart health, be sure to talk to a healthcare provider. They can help you make sense of any symptoms you are experiencing as well as provide input on what types of exercise are right for you.

They also can provide direction on smoking cessation (if needed) as well as offer tips on how to change your meal plan. You also can work with a registered dietitian in structuring a meal plan that helps you reach your heart health goals if you prefer.

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Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading

By Shoshana Pritzker RD, CDN, CSSD, CISSN
Shoshana Pritzker RD, CDN is a Sports and Pediatric Dietitian, the owner of Nutrition by Shoshana, and is the author of "Carb Cycling for Weight Loss." She's been writing and creating content in the health, nutrition, and fitness space for over 15 years and is regularly featured in Oxygen Magazine, JennyCraig.com, and more.