Over the average lifetime, the heart beats about 2.5 billion times, playing a vital role in pumping blood to every part of the body, carrying oxygen, hormones, and a host of essential cells, while helping to remove waste products. Given the heart's constant workload, it's amazing it performs so well, for so long, for so many people. It may not be at the top of everyone’s to-do lists, but caring for your heart through a healthy diet and regular physical activity is the secret weapon to preventing heart disease.

Heart disease remains the leading cause of death for both men and women, but the good news is that it’s preventable and controllable. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 735,000 Americans have a heart attack each year. Additionally, one out of every four deaths in the United States each year is due to heart disease. The term “heart disease” refers to several different heart conditions that can lead to heart attack, heart failure, chest pain, and an irregular heart rate.

Knowing that heart disease is preventable and controllable can be a big relief. Little changes made day-to-day can lead to life-long changes that can improve your heart health. The American Heart Association has created “Life’s Simple 7” to help you learn seven ways to reduce your risk for heart disease. As you work toward a healthier you, check with your health care provider to make sure you are making changes in a way that is safe for you.

1. Be physically active every day. Daily physical activity increases your length and quality of life. Daily moderate physical activity can lower your risks for heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.

What can you do? Exercise regularly. It is recommended that adults should engage in exercise for at least 30 minutes, five days a week. Aim for moderate-intensity physical activity, such as brisk walking.

2. Keep your total cholesterol healthy. High levels of bad cholesterol, or LDL, contribute to plaque, which can clog arteries and lead to heart disease and stroke. When you control your cholesterol, you are giving your arteries their best chance to remain clear of blockages.

What can you do? Have your cholesterol checked at least once every five years. A total cholesterol level less than 200 mg/dL, a good cholesterol (HDL) 40-60 mg/dL or higher, and a bad cholesterol (LDL) less than 130 mg/dL are good numbers to aim for.

3. Eat a heart-healthy diet. A healthy diet is one of your best weapons for fighting heart disease. Healthy foods are the fuel our bodies use to make new cells and create the energy we need to thrive and fight diseases. If you are frequently skipping out on healthy foods, your body is missing the basic building blocks for a healthy life.

What can you do? Eat a heart-healthy diet consisting of vegetables and fruits, fiber-rich whole-grain foods, fish and other lean meats, and limit salt or sodium.

4. Manage your blood pressure. High blood pressure is a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke. When your blood pressure stays within healthy ranges, you reduce the strain on your heart, arteries, and kidneys, which keeps you healthier longer. High blood pressure often has no symptoms, so it is important to be aware.

What can you do? Manage your stress to help keep your blood pressure down. You should also have you blood pressure checked on a regular basis. You can check your blood pressure at home, at a pharmacy, or at a doctor's office. A blood pressure of 120/80 is typically considered the high end of healthy.

5. Keep a healthy weight. If you have too much fat, especially if a lot of it is at your waist, you are at higher risk for high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, and diabetes. When you shed extra pounds, you reduce the burden on your heart, lungs, blood vessels, and skeleton.

What can you do? If you are overweight, less calories in and more calories out can help you get it under control. In other words, eating healthy foods and exercising can help with weight management. Even losing as few as five or ten pounds can be beneficial.

6. Manage your blood sugar level. Most of the food we eat is turned into glucose (or blood sugar) that our body uses for energy. Over time, high levels of blood sugar can damage your heart, kidneys, eyes, and nerves. If your fasting blood sugar level is below 100, you are in the healthy range. If not, your results could indicate diabetes or pre-diabetes. Although diabetes is treatable and you can live a healthy life with this condition, it greatly increases the risk of heart disease and stroke. In fact, most people with diabetes die from some form of heart or blood vessel disease.

What can you do? Cut back on added sugars and saturated fats. These can increase your blood sugar levels and make you more as risk for diabetes.

7. Avoid smoking and using tobacco products. Cigarette smokers have a higher risk of developing heart disease. Smoking increases your risk for coronary heart disease, hardened arteries, aneurysms and blood clots. Smoking can also reduce your good cholesterol (HDL) and your lung capacity, making it harder to get the physical activity you need for better health.

What can you do? If you smoke, quitting is the best thing you can do for your health. Visit https://smokefree.gov/ for tools and resources.

The thought of making all of these changes might seem a little overwhelming at first. However, here are a few tips to make the changes go smoothly. Just pick one or two things that you can do this week to begin the journey on improving your heart health. Remember: every little step you take brings you closer to a healthier heart. Find a buddy. Making changes with someone else is a lot easier and a lot more fun than by yourself.

Don’t let yourself get discouraged. You may not be able to change everything at once, so just take a deep breath and do whatever you are able to do. Make sure to find time for fun. Reward yourself in little ways when you reach goals or start to make changes. Learn more about the American Heart Association and “Life’s Simple 7” by going to http://www.heart.org/  .


-- Andrew Warlen, MPH, is the director of the Independence Health Department.