Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States. But there is good news; there are steps that you can take to reduce your risk for developing heart disease and live a more heart-healthy lifestyle.

Take action for your heart health with these steps:

Get Moving

Being physically active supports your overall health, from boosting energy and mood, strengthening bones and maintaining muscle mass, and achieving a healthy weight.

To get your heart pumping, the American Heart Association suggests getting in “at least 150 minutes (two and a half hours) of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity each week,” according to the American Heart Association.

“Aerobic activity” is a cardio workout—activity that gets your heart rate up and benefits your heart by improving cardiorespiratory fitness.

If you’re just getting started in a workout regimen, don’t get caught up in how long you work out. Just start moving and spend less time sitting. Even light-intensity activity can offset some of the risks of being sedentary. A sedentary lifestyle can lead to doubling your risk of developing cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and obesity, according to the World Health Organization.

Maintain a Healthy Weight

As mentioned above, regular physical activity can help you maintain a healthy weight. And that’s not just so you can fit into those skinny jeans. Being overweight or obese can put you at higher risk of developing heart disease, as it raises blood pressure, blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels and lowers HDL (good) cholesterol levels.

Watching and worrying over the number on the scale isn’t the best way to determine if you’re overweight or obese, however. Body mass index (BMI), the ratio of your weight in relation to your height, is the best determiner. A BMI between 18.5 and 25 kg/m² indicates a normal weight, according to the American Heart Association. You can check your BMI online with this BMI calculator from the NIH’s National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.

Eat for Your Heart

A sedentary lifestyle combined with poor diet can combine for a “double whammy” that leads to heart disease. A nutritious diet can go a long way in maintaining a healthy weight and your heart health. With so many diets out there and new diet trends popping up all the time, what diet should you follow?

The DASH eating plan ranks as one of the best diets for heart health. Standing for “Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension,” the DASH diet emphasizes vegetables, fruits, whole grains, fish, poultry, beans, nuts and vegetable oils, with fat-free or low-fat dairy products. In turn, you limit your intake of foods high in saturated fat (e.g., fatty meats, full-fat dairy foods and tropical oils like coconut and palm oils) and added sugars, such as desserts and sugar-sweetened drinks.

The Mediterranean Diet, with a similar emphasis on whole grains, nuts, seeds, fruits, vegetables, fish, and extra virgin olive oil, has been found to reduce the overall risk of heart disease in numerous studies.

The Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes (TLC) diet, developed by the National Institutes of Health to help reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke, promote optimal cholesterol levels and a healthy weight,  with more specific thresholds, such as getting no more than 25–35% of your daily calories from fat, limiting saturated fat to no more than seven percent of your daily calories, and limiting dietary cholesterol to no more than 200 mg per day.

Stress Less   

Life is stressful, and the last two years of living through a global pandemic have been especially so. Your body response to stress is increased heart rate and narrowing of the blood vessels. Over the long term, this can have serious health consequences. Those suffering from chronic stress are more likely to have high blood pressure, heart disease, and suffer a heart attack. Chronic stress also increases the likelihood of developing diabetes, obesity, and sleep difficulties—all of which can contribute to heart disease.

You may not be able to reduce the stressful situations in your life, but you can help to control your body’s stress response. Here’s some de-stressing activities to try:

  • Deep breathing: Shifting your mental focus away from the stressful situation and onto something pleasing while taking deep breaths can lower your heart rate and blood pressure.
  • Meditation: This can help you to calm your mind and body by refocusing your attention onto a positive word, object, or your breath. Work mediation into your day by getting into a comfortable position in a quiet location with few distractions.
  • Physical activity: Besides helping you maintain a healthy weight, your workout can help you to re-balance and blow off steam. Even a calm, mid-day walk can help to re-focus and remove yourself from the stressful situation. 

Get a Good Night’s Sleep

If you’re stressed, you’re probably not sleeping well. And not getting enough quality sleep can set you up for a whole host of health problems, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity—all of which can raise the risk for heart disease, heart attack, and stroke.

Your sleep cycle is the time for your body to reboot and repair, from maintaining healthy hormonal balance for growth and development to supporting healthy brain function to healing and repairing the heart and blood vessels.

Adults need seven to eight hours of sleep a night. However, more than one in three American adults say they don’t get the recommended amount of sleep, with one in two Americans suffering from insomnia at some point in their lifetime, according to the CDC.

One of the biggest interrupters of sleep is blue light from electronic devices. Setting a regular bedtime, avoiding food and drink within a few hours of bedtime, and turning off the screens in favor of reading or listening to music before bed can help you to get a more restful night’s sleep.

Connect with Others

People who have close relationships, whether at home, work, or in their community, tend to be healthier and live longer. In fact, studies have found that social relationships may help reduce stress and heart-related risks, such as high blood pressure and weight gain. Strong social ties and positive, close relationships can benefit overall health, helping to combat loneliness and social isolation, which are linked to poorer health, depression, and increased risk of early death.

Another reason relationships can be important to health is that they provide support and accountability. You’re more successful in achieving your health goals when you work toward them with others, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute

So, as you start taking the above steps for a healthier heart, invite a friend, co-worker, or loved one to take them with you. Relationships can do a heart good!