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Small changes can have a big impact on your heart

Olive oil pouring over a wooden spoon.

You don't have to overhaul your health habits overnight to help your heart.

In the struggle against heart disease, you're wise to know this foe for what it is—a major menace to health and a leading killer of Americans. But you also need to recognize the power you have to help prevent heart disease through healthy living.

Even the smallest of choices you make about diet and exercise, for example, can help have a big impact on major threats to heart health, such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure and obesity.

What follows are some manageable heart-healthy changes you can start making right now. Once you're comfortable with these, you can move on to some other steps that will help your heart.

Eat well

A healthy diet includes a variety of nutritious foods that are prepared in heart-friendly ways. To get started:

Cook with healthy oils. Replacing bad fats—like saturated and trans fats—with healthier fats—like mono- and polyunsaturated fats—is good for your heart. One easy step in the right direction is to use nontropical vegetable oils when cooking. The American Heart Association (AHA) suggests using these "better for you" oils:

  • Canola.
  • Corn.
  • Olive.
  • Peanut.
  • Safflower.
  • Soybean.
  • Sunflower.

Have some fish. Fish is a good source of omega-3 fatty acids. Both healthy people and those who have cardiovascular disease benefit from eating omega-3 fatty acids, which can lower unhealthy cholesterol levels and blood pressure and slow the progress of hardening of the arteries.

The AHA recommends eating fish—particularly fatty fish—at least two times a week. Fatty fish are higher in omega-3 fatty acids. These kind of fish include:

  • Salmon.
  • Mackerel.
  • Herring.
  • Lake trout.
  • Sardines.
  • Albacore tuna.

Take a walk

Exercise, particularly aerobic exercise, can get your heart pumping faster and your lungs working harder. Regular physical activity can have a positive effect on many heart disease risk factors. For instance, it can help you:

  • Lower the bad type of cholesterol that harms your heart.
  • Raise the good kind of cholesterol that helps protect your heart.
  • Control your blood pressure.
  • Lose weight if you're overweight

Does that mean you need to become a marathon runner? No. You can just take a walk. If it's been a long time since you exercised, commit to taking a brisk 10-minute walk, such as after dinner or during your work break, most days of the week. After a while, it might become a habit—even something you enjoy. That's when you can start thinking about tacking more minutes onto your stroll, aiming for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity per week.

Seek help for a smoking habit

If you smoke, quitting may be the best thing you can do for your heart. It's also one of the hardest. So rather than commit right now to ending your habit, talk first to your primary care provider (PCP) about programs and products that can help you quit. Or consider joining a support group of like-minded, would-be quitters. The support from your PCP and peers may make quitting more doable.

Start today

You don't have to overhaul your health habits overnight. But you can start by making small changes now.

reviewed 1/13/2020

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