Preventing Heart Failure With Lifestyle Changes

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While certain preexisting conditions can cause congestive heart failure, lifestyle factors can play an important role. Being overweight, smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, and being sedentary, can substantially increase your risk of heart disease, while adopting healthy eating habits and getting regular exercise can help stave off serious cardiovascular disease.

Senior woman exercising
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In addition, if you have already been diagnosed with heart failure, eating better and exercising early in the progression of the disease can keep heart problems from worsening.

The bonus of adopting a better lifestyle for your heart is that it will improve your overall health and wellness too, lessening your changes of developing a host of chronic conditions, including diabetes, cancer, stroke and chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder.

Adopt a Healthy Lifestyle

Research has shown that certain lifestyle factors are a big predictor of who will develop heart failure and who won't. Studies have shown that a healthy lifestyle, defined by maintaining regular physical activity, a healthy diet, a normal body mass index, and not smoking, results in 45% to 81% reduction in heart failure incidence. Furthermore, studies have shown a graded reduction in heart failure risk in parallel to the number of healthy lifestyle practices followed. In one Swedish study of more than 33,000 men and 30,000 women, study participants adhering to four healthy lifestyle habits (exercising, eating a Mediterranean diet, not smoking, and maintaining a healthy weight) had a 62% and 72% lower risk of heart failure, respectively, compared to those who maintained none of those habits. The top lifestyle interventions include the following:

Get Regular Exercise

Physical activity is a powerful prevention tool not only for congestive heart failure but for numerous other chronic diseases, and it's great for supporting cardiovascular health. Aerobic workouts that specifically increase heart rate, such as high-intensity interval training (HIIT) have been shown to help strengthen the heart and help improve functionality by boosting circulation. (Be sure to check with your doctor before embarking on interval training or any vigorous exercise program if you have never exercised before and you have heart failure.)

The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends:

  • At least 30 minutes per day (150 minutes per week) of moderate-intensity exercise, such as gardening, brisk walking, dancing, or doubles tennis OR
  • 15 minutes per day (75 minutes per week) of vigorous-intensity exercise, such as running, swimming laps, hiking uphill, or singles tennis
  • 30-minute sessions broken down into three 10-minute sessions or two 15-minute sessions if that is easier to fit i into a busy schedule
  • Working with your primary care physician and/or a certified personal trainer to outline an exercise regimen that's right for you

Anyone can develop heart failure, even though it is relatively uncommon for those under the age of 70.

Maintain a Healthy Weight

Carrying extra body weight on your frame can make blood circulation more difficult and result in added pressure and stress on the heart. Losing a few pounds may make a big difference in preventing heart failure and promoting general heart health.

Utilizing certain tools for weight loss such as goal setting and using a food journal to log daily intake may be helpful in keeping you mindful of portions and the types of foods you regularly consume.

To estimate your ideal daily calorie intake for weight loss, use a calculator to find your personalized target goal.

Quit Smoking

The chemicals found in cigarettes are a direct contributor to the arterial damage that can lead to congestive heart failure. Secondhand smoke can be just as harmful, as carbon monoxide and can take the place of oxygen in your blood, making your heart have to pump harder to supply your system with vital oxygen.

Avoid taking up smoking, and if you're already a smoker, implement tools to help you quit, such as developing a custom program for yourself, harnessing your willpower, and utilizing certain cessation products to help you kick the habit.

Eat More Fruits and Vegetables

In general, a healthy diet is one in which whole, unprocessed foods take center stage. Limit saturated fat, trans fat, sodium, red meat, sweets and sugar-sweetened beverages. If you choose to eat red meat, compare labels and select the leanest cuts available. Current research suggests that one of the best ways of eating for heart health is the Mediterranean Diet, which seems to play a protective role for the heart. In general, the Mediterranean Diet includes:

  • An abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables at every meal
  • Legumes, including lentils and beans
  • Foods high in monounsaturated fats—including nuts, seeds, and olive oil
  • Low to moderate consumption of red wine
  • High-fiber grains, including whole grain, oatmeal, and barley
  • Use of leans cuts of poultry in some foods
  • Moderate consumption of fish—including fish high in healthy omega-3 fats, such as salmon and anchovy
  • Low consumption of refined sugars
  • Low consumption of red meat
  • Low to moderate use of dairy products, including milk, yogurt, and certain cheeses, such as Parmesan and feta cheeses

Reduce Sodium

As part of eating healthier, you should also reduce sodium-laden foods that cause fluid to accumulate within the body, adding stress on the cardiovascular system. If you have high blood pressure, a primary risk factor for heart failure, it may be necessary to reduce your intake of table salt, processed foods, and high-sodium foods, such as bacon, ham, and chips. If you're eating a Mediterranean Diet, you will find that you will naturally eliminate your intake of such foods.

Canned soups and canned vegetables may have hidden sodium, too; look for low-sodium varieties. Focus your diet on heart-healthy foods, such as plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, lean protein, high fiber foods such as beans and oats, and healthy fats such as olive oil, salmon, and avocado.

Limit Alcohol

A 2014 study showed that excess alcohol can lead to increased cardiovascular risk and is one of the most frequent causes of reversible hypertension and atrial fibrillation. Light to moderate drinking, defined as two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women, however, is associated with reduced mortality risk.

Keeping within the defined range of light drinking seems to be the ticket for preventing the risk of heart failure. However, alcohol is a known carcinogen, so even one drink daily may still increase your risk of cancer.

Consider visiting your doctor if one or more of your family members has congestive heart failure. Remember that heart failure can progress slowly and many people at first show no symptoms of the disease,

Manage Chronic Conditions

If you have high blood pressure or coronary artery disease—the two most common causes of heart failure—it's important to work with a practitioner to get them under control. Establishing a baseline of blood and lipid panels and other biomarkers with your primary care physician can be helpful in the early detection of any potential risk.

Other chronic diseases that may contribute to congestive heart failure include diabetes, high cholesterol, and thyroid disorders.

The same dietary changes you adopt to help your heart will also improve chronic conditions. In addition to the Mediterranean Diet, you might try the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet, a research-backed and effective method of reducing high blood pressure. Work with your doctor or seek out a nutritionist to create an action plan for incorporating new diet and lifestyle changes.


Symptoms and Complications of Heart Failure

Recognize Symptoms Early

One important lifestyle change does not involve exercise or eating, but is about keeping a watchful awareness of your health. If you notice heart failure symptoms, see your doctor promptly.  Symptoms include:

  • Weight gain, and swollen feet, ankles or abdomen caused by fluid buildup
  • Enlarged neck veins
  • Poor appetite, indigestion, nausea, or vomiting
  • Shortness of breath or wheezing during activities or while lying down
  • Trouble sleeping or difficulty concentrating
  • Fatigue and feeling faint
  • Heart palpitations
  • Dry, hacking cough
  • Frequent nighttime urination

Heart Failure Doctor Discussion Guide

Get our printable guide for your next doctor's appointment to help you ask the right questions.

Doctor Discussion Guide Old Man

A Word From Verywell

Although congestive heart failure is a serious condition, you have more control over the progression of the disease than you might think. Aside from medications or medical interventions, lifestyle can play a major role in preventing the disease in the first place. And if you develop heart failure, lifestyle interventions can prevent the progression of the disease. It's important to monitor your health, work closely with your doctor, and stay positive and proactive about the sustainable, healthy changes you can make for the sake of your heart.

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