Back to Living Better

Stop heart disease in its tracks.

In America, heart disease is the number one killer, but the good news is heart disease is largely preventable.

Even if you have a predisposition for certain kinds of heart disease, there are ways to reduce your risk. A lot of it depends on your lifestyle: what you’re eating, your level of activity and the amount of stress that’s in your life.

Experts have learned from decades of research that lifestyle modifications and certain medications can halt and even reverse the progression of heart disease.

This means your parents’ medical history doesn’t have to be yours. You can do something about it.

A heart-healthy meal plan

One of the first steps in preventing cardiovascular disease is examining your diet. While a complete diet makeover may be overwhelming, start by focusing on two food groups – fats and fresh produce – for two very different reasons.

"The soluble fiber in vegetables can help reduce cholesterol and control blood sugar, and it helps keep you full for relatively few calories," says Lena Beal, MS, RDN, LD, a therapeutic dietitian at Piedmont. "Eating vegetables can help with weight control, thereby reducing obesity, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes, which are risk factors for heart disease."

If you decrease your saturated and trans fat intake while increasing your vegetable and fruit intake, you can significantly lower your risk of coronary heart disease, heart attack and stroke.

Saturated fat is usually solid at room temperature and is found in red meats, dairy, eggs and other animal products, as well as in many baked goods and plant oils (such as coconut, palm and palm kernel oils). The American Heart Association recommends that no more than 7 percent of your daily caloric intake come from saturated fats.

"Saturated fats are mainly found in animal products as well as fried and many pre-packaged foods," she explains. "They are unhealthy because they increase LDL ("bad") cholesterol, which increases the risk of heart disease."

Even more dangerous are industrially manufactured trans fats, which can be found in fried and packaged foods, such as doughnuts, pizza, crackers and stick margarines. The AHA recommends getting no more than 1 percent of your daily calories from trans fat. If possible, avoid trans fats completely.

"Trans fats naturally occur in some meats and dairy products, but the most harmful trans fats are found in processed foods," says Beal. "To avoid trans fat, check your nutrition labels for ingredients like partially hydrogenated oils or shortening."

Increase your activity level

With your doctor’s permission, developing a regular exercise routine can make a huge impact on your heart health. You only need 30 minutes a day of cardiovascular exercise five times a week, which meets the AHA’s exercise recommendations. If your schedule doesn’t allow for 30 minutes of daily activity, you can split your workout into two 15-minute sessions.

“This is great news because if you’re pressed for time and not exercising, that should no longer be an excuse,” says Jennifer Lavoie, M.S., ACSM-HFS-CET, director of Employee Wellness, Worklife and Fitness at Piedmont.

Some ideas to get you started:

  • Walk for 30 minutes most days of the week.

  • If you can’t make it to a gym, purchase a few exercise DVDs so you can work out in the comfort of your own living room.

  • Take a class, whether it’s yoga, Zumba, aerobics, spinning or weight training.

  • Hire a medically-based exercise physiologist for one to three months. A trainer can develop a personalized exercise plan that meets your needs and fitness goals, and can teach you proper form.

  • If you struggle with joint pain, try swimming. Many fitness centers and YMCAs offer pool access with a membership.

  • Track your steps with a pedometer, take the stairs when possible and park as far away from the store as you safely can to squeeze more exercise into your daily activities.

Stress management

By keeping anxiety to a minimum, you can reduce the amount of stress on your heart as well as your risk for a serious cardiac event. Yacoba Hudson, M.D., an internal medicine specialist at Piedmont Physicians Group, recommends the following stress reduction tactics:

  • Maintain a regular exercise routine, with a combination of cardiovascular activity, weight training and stretching.

  • Limit the amount of alcohol you consume, and never drink and drive.

  • Stop smoking and don’t turn to cigarettes when you are anxious.

  • Get at least seven to eight hours of sleep each night.

  • Meditate, pray, get a massage, knit or read a book – any activity that helps you relax.

  • Eat a healthy diet and save the treats for special occasions, like a party. It is okay to indulge occasionally, but don’t turn splurging into a weeklong event.

  • If you have too many commitments, “delegate, delegate, delegate.” For example, ask your children to help clean up after dinner or your spouse to pick up the dry cleaning.

When lifestyle changes are not enough

While many people can reverse cardiovascular disease with stress management, diet and exercise, for some people that is not enough. For example, some people with genetic predispositions could run marathons and maintain a healthy diet, yet still have cholesterol levels that will cause coronary disease or predispose them to strokes.

In these cases, a doctor can prescribe medication to lower cholesterol levels.

The bottom line is that cardiovascular disease, by and large, is preventable through lifestyle changes like diet, exercise and stress reduction, and medications when needed.

More Resources

Related Stories

Schedule your appointment online