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ABCs of Keeping Heart Healthy

Lifestyle changes that are within your control can change the course of your heart health in dramatic ways, Johns Hopkins research shows. Learn how you can substantially lower your risk of dying from heart disease—or any related cause.

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Ideas for Making Heart-Healthy Progress

Though the keys to a healthier lifestyle are straightforward, sticking to them is easier with approaches like these:

Remember your incentives. Think about why you want to get healthier: To be alive when your grandchildren grow up? To work longer? To look better?

Tell others. If friends and family know about your goals, they’ll provide support for your efforts. And knowing they’re expecting you to do well can help keep you accountable.

Measure exercise momentum. Try to keep an accurate diary of your daily exercise, or use a pedometer to count your steps and distance. These records offer objective proof of your efforts.

Get a good night’s sleep. Sleeping between six and eight hours every night is a critical part of heart health. Prioritize healthy sleep patterns and you may see your blood pressure and waistline improve.

Set yourself up for success. Decide you’ll exercise before watching TV rather than after, for example. You’ll be more likely to follow through successfully once you put healthy habits first. 

Having a heart attack or stroke may seem like just a terrible twist of fate. But researchers are learning that there are quite a few things a person can do to help avoid such an outcome.

“Basic lifestyle factors within a person’s control are the root causes of known heart risks like diabetes and high blood pressure,” says Johns Hopkins cardiologist Michael Blaha, M.D, M.P.H.

The following behaviors have been shown to reduce the development of not only cardiovascular disease but also other health issues as well, Johns Hopkins research shows.

They reduce heart risks by helping to prevent the formation of damaging plaque in the arteries. As plaque accumulates, it forces the heart to work harder and can lead to angina, heart attack and stroke.

The ABCs of staying healthy:

A. Abstaining from smoking

Quit—or better yet, never start. Smoking is the No. 1 heart-disease risk factor that you can control, Blaha says. In addition to causing damage to arteries, the nicotine and other constituents of tobacco smoke affect every organ in the body. This raises the risk of cancer as well as heart attack and stroke.

B. Body mass index (BMI) management

Body mass index is a measure of body fat based on weight and height, and it should read below 25. Calculate yours by using the BMI calculator in the Johns Hopkins Health Library. The range considered normal is between 18.5 and 24.9. You can better control your BMI through diet.

C. Controlling stress

Everybody has some stress in their lives. But prolonged stress can raise your blood pressure and heart rate and keep them at higher rates longer than is healthy. So managing your stress levels in healthy ways—through exercise, deep breathing or other relaxation approaches—helps to safeguard your heart. (Excessive alcohol and eating, on the other hand, are examples of unhealthy ways to cope with stress.)

It’s also heart-smart to get treatment for conditions that can be related to stress, such as depression or anxiety.

D. Diet

A Mediterranean-style diet reflects the principles of the type of heart-healthy eating that cardiologists recommend. In a nutshell, that’s a low-carb, healthy-fat, lean-protein diet, Blaha says.

It includes lots of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, unsaturated fats like fatty fish and olive oil, and limited consumption of red meats, animal fats, added sugars and processed foods.

E. Exercise

Aim for the amount of physical activity recommended by federal guidelines: 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise a week, or 30 minutes a day at least five days a week.

You don’t have to run marathons or join a gym: All movement counts—and adds up. Simply walking between 5,000 and 10,000 steps a day keeps you on the path of ideal activity. Try using a pedometer to measure your steps and stay motivated.

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