Recently, I wrote about the worst things you could do for your heart. Now, we’ll review the seven best actions to take for heart health. The more of these habits you can adopt, the lower your risk for heart disease will be.

1. Stop smoking. Smoking is the top cause of preventable death and disease. Smoking causes blood vessels to narrow, which forces the heart to work harder. This increases blood pressure and heart rate, thus increasing cardiovascular risk. Secondhand smoke can lower your HDL (good) cholesterol, increasing risk of heart disease.

2. Achieve a healthy weight. Fat cells release substances that increase inflammation, promote insulin resistance and contribute to arthrosclerosis. The scale may not be the best indicator of fat, however, because where the fat is located is more important than overall weight. If you have excess belly fat, you probably also have deeper, visceral fat, which wraps around important organs and is more dangerous than fat you can pinch. Keep your waist measurement at less than 31.5 inches for women or less than 37 inches for men. 

3. Get active. Any amount of exercise will improve your cardiovascular health. Even just a few minutes of daily exercise helps. Exercise increases HDL (good) cholesterol, lowers triglycerides, reduces blood pressure and heart rate, lowers inflammation, improves blood sugar control, and increases insulin sensitivity. Aim for 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise (running, swimming, brisk walking) each week, plus two 30-minute sessions of resistance training (yoga, lifting weights, using resistance bands, pushups). Or better yet, get 75 minutes of vigorous exercise each week that gets your heart pumping at 75 to 85 percent of your maximum heart rate. To find your maximum heart rate, take 220 minus your age. Of course, check with your doctor first.

4. Eat better. Foods that are good for your heart include plant foods (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, beans), seafood, poultry, fermented foods (sauerkraut, yogurt, kefir) and healthy fats (liquid vegetable oils). Foods that are bad for your heart and to be avoided as much as possible include added sugar, refined carbs (pastries, white bread), processed meat (bacon, lunchmeat), and packaged foods with added salt, preservatives or artificial ingredients. Foods that are OK in moderation include butter, cheese, red meat, milk and eggs.

5. Avoid high blood pressure. High blood pressure is any reading greater than 130/80, according to the 2017 revised guidelines from the American Heart Association. Elevated blood pressure puts mechanical stress on artery walls, causing narrowing and stiffness. This ultimately makes the heart weaker and thicker. You are especially vulnerable to high blood pressure if you are 60 or older, are black, or have diabetes or other health concerns, including sleep apnea, kidney disease, obesity, a high stress level or heavy alcohol consumption. You can lower your blood pressure by exercising, losing weight, decreasing alcohol intake, and limiting salt and sugar intake.

6. Know your cholesterol. Have your cholesterol checked at least every four to six years. Diet, exercise, and lifestyle changes can improve your cholesterol levels, plus there are medications to help. Fatty fish, nuts, pectin-containing fruits (apples, citrus), unsaturated fats and plant/fiber foods all can lower cholesterol. High-HDL levels correlate to better cardiovascular health, while high-LDL levels have been strongly linked to heart disease. Elevated triglycerides are linked to both heart disease and diabetes.

7. Know your blood sugar level. Routinely check your blood sugar level, especially if you are at risk for diabetes because of your age, weight or family history. People who have diabetes are four times more likely to die of heart disease. Fasting blood sugar should be less than 100. If your fasting blood sugar runs between 100 and 125, you may have prediabetes. Two or more fasting blood sugars greater than 125 may indicate type 2 diabetes. 

In addition to these seven important health habits, reducing stress, getting good sleep, taking care of your teeth and even getting a pet can help reduce your risk for heart disease.

Give Your Heart Some Love

Check up on your heart at Lake Regional’s Cardiovascular Screening, 7:30 to 10 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 17, at the hospital. This event will offer free and low-cost screenings that check for heart disease. Learn more at


Anita Marlay, R.D., L.D., is a dietitian in the Cardiopulmonary Rehab department at Lake Regional Health System in Osage Beach, Mo.