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What specific changes can I make for a healthier heart?

        Health | Heart

You will need to look at all your habits and consider how you might change them to keep your heart healthy. You don't need to do everything at once. Some people may start with the habit they think will be the biggest change - such as quitting smoking. Others may want to make gradual changes. For instance, you may start first by cutting out fatty desserts or by taking short walks. Each week, you can work on another small detail of living a healthier life. The following are the actions you should take for a healthier heart.

Stop smoking. Smoking isn't good for your health. But if you have heart disease, it's even more dangerous. Smoking drastically multiplies the dangers CHD poses. According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, a smoker is two to six times more likely to have a heart attack than a nonsmoker. Every cigarette you smoke increases your risk. If you smoke and have a heart attack, you are more likely than a nonsmoker to die within an hour. Your risk of dying from sudden cardiac death is two to four times greater than that of a nonsmoker.

But, it's not too late to quit. Your body begins to heal the damage that smoking causes as soon as you quit. For help on quitting smoking, see how do I quit smoking?

Lower your blood cholesterol if it is high. The higher your blood cholesterol, the greater your risk is that your CHD will get worse. In fact, high blood cholesterol is one of the primary causes of the artery clogging that leads to atherosclerosis. When high cholesterol is combined with other risk factors, your chance of heart attack or other serious problems increases dramatically.

Keeping your blood cholesterol low can help prevent you from having a first heart attack. If you've already had a heart attack, lowering your blood cholesterol can help prevent you from having another one.

Eating a diet that is low in total fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol can help reduce your blood cholesterol. It can also help you lose weight, and excess weight is another risk factor for heart disease. In addition to changing your diet, your doctor may want you to take medicine to lower your cholesterol. To learn more about how to control your cholesterol, see how do I control my cholesterol?

Control your blood pressure. Having high blood pressure makes your heart work harder and strains your arteries. Many experts think this contributes to clogged arteries, heart attacks, and other serious health problems. Exercising, losing weight, and eating a diet low in saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium can help lower your blood pressure. For positive steps you can take to decrease your blood pressure, see how do I control my blood pressure?

Lose excess weight. Being overweight, especially if you carry extra pounds around your waist, puts you at greater risk for heart attack and for the worsening of your CHD. In addition to making your heart work harder, being overweight can contribute to high blood cholesterol, high blood pressure, and diabetes. All of these are risk factors for the worsening of heart disease. If you need to lose weight, see how do I lose weight? for suggestions that can help you do it.

Be physically active. You can strengthen your heart and reduce your heart attack risk simply by doing moderate-intensity physical activity for at least 30 minutes most days of the week. If you have CHD, though, you should not change your activity level without consulting with your doctor first. Before you start an exercise program, talk with your doctor about what kinds of exercise you should do. Also ask how much exercise is safe for you to do. See how do I increase my exercise? to learn more about exercise.

Manage your stress. An important part of any program for better heart health is stress management. Emotional stress can lead to stress on your heart. It can also contribute to temporary high blood pressure in some people. Studies show that coping with your stress in a positive way leads to better physical health. Practicing stress management can also make it easier for you to stick with the other lifestyle changes you are trying to make.

Think about what happens when you find yourself in a stressful situation. Your body produces stress hormones in response to signals from your brain. These cause your heart to beat faster and your muscles to tense up. In some people, the blood pressure may temporarily rise. Some people react to stress in unhealthy ways that are bad for the heart. These include smoking and overeating. But you can learn to deal with stress in healthier ways.

Avoid stressful situations and practice responding patiently and calmly when things don't go the way you'd like. A strong sense of humor can help you respond to the world in a more relaxed way. Try to fit in time to do things that relax you, whether that's taking a bath or watching the birds. You might also consider relaxation methods such as meditation or yoga.

Get support. Studies have shown that people who feel they are part of a community are more likely to stick with their lifestyle program. Group support makes it easier for you to make lifestyle changes. In addition, studies have shown that support groups can even help you live longer.

Your support group may consist of your friends and family. Or, it could be other people who have heart disease or similar conditions. People who have been through a serious illness understand what you are going through. Sharing your experiences can help you and others. Connecting with other people and talking about your feelings can make you feel less alone. This can have a positive effect on your health.

Avoid drinking excessive alcohol. Drinking too much alcohol can raise your blood pressure, lead to heart failure, cause problems with your heart's rhythm, and increase the level of trigylcerides in your blood. Trigylcerides are a type of fat that is associated with heart disease. According to the American Heart Association, men should not have more than two drinks per day. Women should have no more than one drink per day. If you want to find out more about alcohol and your heart, see how can alcohol affect my heart?

Control your diabetes. Having diabetes means your body can't produce or respond to insulin, a hormone the body uses to convert blood glucose into energy. Being overweight and being physically inactive can both contribute to developing type 2 diabetes. Having diabetes means your risk of complications from CHD is very high. If you already have diabetes, ask your doctor how to keep it under control. Doing so could mean the difference between a healthy, rewarding life and an early death from heart attack.