Ask an Expert: What Lifestyle Actions Should People Take to Improve Their Heart Health?

This article is part of Health Divide: Heart Disease Risk Factors, a destination in our Health Divide series.

Ask an Expert Dr. Velarde

Julie Bang / Verywell

Meet the Expert

Gladys Velarde, M.D. is a member of the American College of Cardiology Prevention, Disparities of Care Work Group, and on the editorial board. Dr. Velarde's clinical interests include heart disease in women and other populations along with preventive care.

Verywell Health: What lifestyle actions should people take to improve their heart health?

Dr. Velarde: There’s a whole list of healthy lifestyle actions we can recommend. I always start by telling my patients to be proactive. Being engaged with your health and being an informed consumer is a lifestyle choice. Making changes to improve your heart health is hard when you haven’t done it before, but it becomes much easier when you make it part of your lifestyle.

When patients come to me for a preventive consultation, I ask them what they hope to get out of the visit. Sometimes they are very explicit and specific. For example, they may be concerned about their blood pressure or their cholesterol.

But oftentimes they have general concerns or fears. They say, “I’m worried about my heart health. I’m worried something may happen, and I might suffer a heart attack or stroke.” This is often because something happened to someone they know.

So, my first suggestion is to be proactive.

When patients come to medical visits, they are being proactive, so I openly acknowledge and applaud their efforts. This lays a good foundation for partnering with the patient to improve their cardiovascular health.

I take the opportunity to learn what unhealthy risk markers they may have, whether it be high blood pressure, smoking, or sugar intake. These risk markers can all be modified by lifestyle changes. And all of them can be monitored by a primary healthcare provider or a cardiologist that can help people improve them.

Sometimes patients are not being proactive for specific reasons or because of certain circumstances, so we need to dig in a little to get that information. But in many cases I tell them, “If you don’t care about your own health, no one else is going to.” You have to care. You have to know your own personal risk.

The second major lifestyle change people can make to improve their heart health is eating healthy.

I try to avoid the word “diet,” especially with certain populations, like the Latinx community, because in many communities, "diet" equates to "suffering." It means restraining yourself from things you enjoy. So instead, I engage them in a conversation about eating healthy and considering what they put into their bodies.

I recommend:

  • Eating more fresh fruits and vegetables
  • Eating whole grains
  • Minimizing animal fat
  • Reducing sugar and sugar-sweetened beverages
  • Avoiding foods that serve no nutritional purpose (empty calories)

It also helps to establish eating routines, so eating according to a meal schedule. If necessary, and not uncommonly, I refer them to a dietitian or nutritionist, who can go over this information in detail.

Another lifestyle change is incorporating movement into everyday life.

Again, I try to avoid the word “exercise,” because exercising often sounds intimidating, or can be perceived as too demanding or challenging. Particularly for the Latinx community, exercise can equate to struggling.

So instead, I recommend movement. I give patients tips for how to incorporate movement into regular daily activities. This can include things like:

  • Try to walk 10,000 steps a day.
  • Take the stairs instead of the elevator.
  • Park your car farther away from wherever you’re going.
  • If you’re taking your dog on a walk, go for 30 minutes instead of 15.

In addition, for the Latinx community in particular, dancing is a major pastime. It is an excellent form of exercise, or purposeful movement, that fulfills not only the movement requirement but also brings joy.

For older patients who have a difficult time moving around or might be confined to their homes, I ask them to walk wall-to-wall a certain number of times per day, or try to walk around the house as much as they’re able to and in short bursts.

These are some basic actions that people can more easily incorporate into their daily lives than intense aerobic exercise.

That said, there are specific exercise recommendations: 150–300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise a week. This particularly applies to people who want to achieve a healthy weight. In those cases, people may need to exercise on the higher side, toward 300 minutes (five hours).

1 Source
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  1. American Heart Association. American Heart Association recommendations for physical activity in adults and kids.