When it comes to having a healthier heart, the most important person is the one you see in the mirror. “
State-of-the-art heart care is better and more accessible than ever,” says Shaiful Islam, MD, a specialist in heart disease with WellSpan Cardiology in Chambersburg. “But if you have heart disease or high blood pressure, or if you’ve had a heart attack, you have the most control in returning to the highest quality of life possible.”
The reason: Being as active as you can be and eating well are the two most important factors in heart health, he says. And those lifestyle factors can improve conditions like diabetes, high cholesterol, and being overweight, which impact the heart.
“Taking medicines as prescribed is also important,” he says. “But that’s third on the list. Diet and exercise are the first two.”
What's happening in the heart
When the heart is pumping at its best, it pumps blood freely through the entire body—taking a path of about 60,000 miles to send nutrients and oxygen up to the brain and down to the toes! That’s a lot of important work. And both a strong heart muscle and healthy blood vessels are key to its success. Below are some conditions that you can improve by making lifestyle changes that will help your heart do its work.
- Heart failure—when the heart muscle is weak and cannot pump enough blood into the heart or out of the heart, or both.
- Atherosclerosis—when clogged blood vessels prevent good flow of blood to the heart (coronary artery disease) and other organs.
- Heart attack—when the muscle of the heart is damaged and cannot pump as effectively as it needs to.
- High blood pressure (hypertension)—when the force of blood against your artery walls is too high. This damages the arteries over time.
Taking the right steps
Dr. Islam says that the right foods, exercise, and medicines can improve the heart in ways you can actually feel. His advice:
Regular exercise can improve breathing and make the heart muscles stronger. In turn, you feel better and can do more, which makes you even stronger. Exercise can also improve cholesterol and blood pressure. Talk to your doctor about the best way to improve your physical activity.
Eat the right foods in the right amounts
This can help in a couple of ways, but it can also be one of the hardest steps, says Dr. Islam. “It might take time to learn how to eat better and then to make changes, but it’s possible—and effective,” he says.
- Look for foods that are actually good for the heart. Learn about the DASH diet or the Mediterranean diet. Both focus on heart-healthy foods like fish, whole grains, beans, fruits, and vegetables.
- Find out what foods to avoid. Salt (or sodium) is top on the list, says Dr. Islam, as are extra sugars. Also, eat less of foods that have saturated fats and trans fats, which are found in fatty meats and prepackaged foods. Alcohol can make blood pressure rise and has lots of calories.
Smoking can cause the blood vessels to narrow (a condition called atherosclerosis). To learn about WellSpan Summit Health’s “Freedom from Smoking” program, call 1-800-QUIT-NOW. Find out about tools, including apps and medications, that can help you quit smoking at www.BeTobaccoFree.gov.
Research what you need to know for your condition
Learn about health signs and symptoms to watch for. Find out about exercise classes (see Get Fit Now sidebar) or walking paths in your area. Sign up for a healthy cooking class and research healthy recipes. Find other people who have similar interests.
Partner with your doctor
Keep regular appointments. Take medicines in the amounts and at the times prescribed. If you have trouble getting medicines, ask about programs that can help. Don’t be shy about asking for assistance to make the changes you need to make.
“When it comes to risks for heart disease, the only thing we can’t control are age and family history,” says Dr. Islam. “All these other things, we can change, and your doctor can help. These changes can have a big impact on the health of your heart and lead to a longer, healthier, more enjoyable life.”