Small changes in food, diet and exercise can yield big heart health dividends.

The American Heart Association recently revised its guidelines for achieving optimal heart health. Their goal is to improve the cardiovascular health of all Americans by 20 percent and reduce deaths from cardiovascular diseases and stroke by 20 percent, both by the year 2020. The guidelines are easier than you might think. Here are seven things you can do reduce your risk of heart disease—starting today:

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1. Exercise for a Healthy Heart

Regular physical activity lowers blood pressure, increases HDL ("good") cholesterol levels, keeps blood sugar in check, and helps you control your weight. Try to do moderate exercise (such as walking) for at least 150 minutes per week or vigorous exercise (like bicycling or jogging) for 75 minutes per week.

2. Eat a Heart Healthy Diet

A heart-healthy diet includes:

  • At least 4 1/2 cups of fresh fruit and vegetables per day
  • At least two 3.5-oz servings of fish per week. Ideally, you should choose fish that contain omega-3 fats, like salmon, mackerel, lake trout, sardines, and herring
  • At least three 1-oz servings of whole-grain products that are high in fiber (1.1 g or more of fiber per 10 g of carbohydrate)
  • Less than 36 oz of sugar-sweetened beverages per week (that's less than three 12-oz cans of soda)
  • No more than two servings of processed meats per week
  • No more than 1,500 mg of sodium per day if middle-aged or older.

In addition, you should avoid trans fats and choose low-fat and fat-free dairy products, lean meats, and skinless poultry.

3. Manage Cholesterol

A total blood cholesterol level of 200 mg/dL or higher puts you at risk for a heart attack or cardiovascular disease. Keep yours below that level by eating foods low in cholesterol and saturated fat and free of trans fat, by exercising regularly, and by taking cholesterol-lowering medication if your doctor prescribes it.

4. Control Blood Pressure

High blood pressure is the single most significant risk factor for heart disease. It's not curable, but it is controllable. Ideally, your blood pressure should be below 120/80 mm Hg. You can reduce your blood pressure by eating a heart-healthy, low-salt diet, getting regular exercise, maintaining a healthy weight, managing stress, limiting alcohol, and avoiding tobacco smoke. Your doctor may also prescribe a blood pressure-lowering medication.

5. Maintain a Healthy BMI

Body mass index (BMI) assesses your body weight relative to your height and indicates your level of body fat. An ideal BMI is lower than 25. To calculate your BMI, multiply your weight in pounds by 703, divide by your height in inches, then divide again by your height in inches. If your BMI is 25 or more, increasing physical activity and modifying your diet can help you lose weight.

6. Quit Smoking

Smoking by itself increases the risk of coronary heart disease. When it acts with the other factors, it greatly increases your risk from those factors, too. The health benefits of smoking cessation begin almost immediately. If you've never smoked, don't start. If you do smoke, make an effort to quit.

7. Reduce Blood Sugar

Adults with diabetes are two to four times more likely to have heart disease or a stroke than adults without diabetes. There is also evidence suggesting that high blood sugar or high blood glucose can contribute to heart disease in people who don't have diabetes. If your fasting blood glucose level falls in the category of "prediabetes"—a level between 100 mg/dL and 125 mg/dL—weight loss can help get your blood glucose down.

Publication Review By: Roger S. Blumenthal, M.D. and Simeon Margolis, M.D., Ph.D.

Published: 07 Mar 2011

Last Modified: 22 Jul 2015