Staying Heart Healthy

May 23, 2023

woman lifting weight to stay heart healthy

The key to ensuring a healthy heart is living a healthy lifestyle. That’s a good motto to live by but putting it into action isn’t so simple.

The heart is a complicated organ that requires a lot of care — everything from eating healthily to knowing your parents’ heart-health history. It also requires regular checkups with your doctor.

Here are some basics that apply to everyone who wants to maintain a healthy heart.

Eat an appropriate diet

A great place to begin staying heart healthy is at the grocery store. It can be difficult to know what’s healthy and what’s not when you’re strolling among the hundreds or thousands of products on the stores’ shelves.

There’s an easy way to find the right food products and ingredients for a heart-healthy diet, says Helen-Valentine Chukwu, DO, internal medicine, Memorial Primary Care.

Just follow this one simple rule: Look for the Heart Check.

The mark is a tool developed by the American Heart Association (AHA) to help shoppers identify foods that are healthy for the heart and rest of the body. For a product to become Heart-Check certified, it must meet three criteria:

  • Nutrients: It must have at least 10 percent of your daily value of one of the following nutrients: vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, calcium, protein or dietary fiber.
  • Low in bad fats: The food must have 1 gram or less of saturated fat per serving, or get 15 percent or less of its calories from saturated fats. Certified foods must also have less than a half gram per serving of trans fats, and they may not contain partially hydrogenated oils.
  • Limited sodium: The AHA has four sodium limits, depending on what type of food is being evaluated. They are up to 140 mg, 240 mg, 360 mg or 480 mg per serving.

Stay active

You don’t need to train for a marathon or spend hours pumping iron to get your heart the exercise you need. In fact, the amount you need to help your heart is just 75 minutes per week of rigorous exercise or 150 minutes of brisk walking, Dr. Chukwu says.

“Share your goal with others to help you become more accountable,” she suggests.

It’s important to be as consistent as possible when it comes to exercise, and telling your friends or family about your goals can help you stick to them. Better yet, ask them to join you on a walk. Or find a gym buddy and make a schedule for when you’ll work out together.

If you’re newer to exercise, though, it’s also important to talk to your doctor about any concerns about whether you’re healthy enough to begin a fitness routine.

It’s also important to know that certain types of exercise can worsen any heart problems you already have. If you notice symptoms such as sudden dizziness, cold sweats or upper body pressure, don’t ignore it. Call your doctor, according to recommendations from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

The benefits of exercise far outweigh the risks in most cases, though. In addition to helping your heart, it may also help prevent certain cancers, slow bone loss and strengthen your lungs.

How to Stay Heart Healthy

Watch to learn about staying heart healthy.

Know your risk factors

Some conditions related to heart health have risk factors caused by lifestyle choices or that run in the family. The lifestyle choices that can lead to poor heart health include:
  • Unhealthy eating
  • Engaging in little to no exercise
  • Smoking

The way to fix this is simple: Eat healthier foods (like the ones with the Health-Check mark), exercise more (start with the targets mentioned above) and work to quit smoking (health experts can help with that).

The factors that you can’t control have to do with family history. For example, if your dad or brother was diagnosed with heart disease before age 55, or if your mom or sister was diagnosed before turning 65, that is considered a risk factor for heart disease.

Women also have slightly different risks for heart disease. They tend to get it about a decade later than men, according to the NIH. And once a woman goes through menopause, her estrogen levels decrease, which can contribute to heart disease.

The NIH also notes that women who had preeclampsia (high blood pressure during pregnancy) have an increased risk of coronary heart disease. Unfortunately, that is an uncontrollable heart disease risk factor, the NIH says, but women who had it are encouraged to be extra watchful of their blood pressure and other contributing factors.

High cholesterol runs in families, too. If there’s a history of having high cholesterol in your family, be sure to tell your doctor. The physician may recommend checking your cholesterol levels more often.

See your doctor regularly

Keeping annual appointments with your primary care doctor or cardiologist, if you have one, is critical so you can develop a customized heart-health plan with them, says Chukwu, the Memorial Primary Care expert. In addition to sharing your family health history and any other concerns you may have, it’s important to ask your doctor about your heart health during annual checkups. The NIH has a list of questions to consider asking your doctor each year. It includes questions like:

  • What does my blood pressure mean, and do I need to address it?
  • What about my cholesterol levels?
  • Am I exercising enough to help my heart stay healthy?
  • What heart disease screenings should I get?

The heart health advice you find online can help only to a certain point. To get specific guidance tailored to you, regular doctor visits are key. To schedule a Memorial Primary Care appointment, call 954-276-5552.