12 Weeks to a Heart-Healthy Lifestyle

Heart disease is a killer, but you can do plenty to reduce your risk and prolong your life. Research shows that making lifestyle changes can lower your risk for heart disease.

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Adopting heart-healthy habits over the next 12 weeks will start you on the road to better health and a longer life.

12-week plan

  • Week 1: Commit to getting fit. The American Heart Association (AHA) reports that a large number of deaths each year result from not getting regular physical activity. Try to start exercising 3 times a week. Be sure to check with your healthcare provider first if you haven't been exercising regularly. Build to 150 minutes weekly of moderate aerobic activity (30 to 40 minutes a day, 4 to 5 days a week). The more you can exercise, the greater the benefit to your health.

  • Week 2: Stop smoking. You can have the most positive impact on your heart health by quitting smoking. It's also one of the hardest changes to make, so sign up for a smoking cessation program. If you don't smoke, make an effort to avoid secondhand smoke. Being around smoke can increase your risk for heart disease.

  • Week 3: Eat less fat. Fat is the most concentrated form of energy and calories. Cutting back on fat helps you lose weight and reduces your risk for heart disease and some forms of cancer.

  • Week 4: Limit how much saturated and trans-fats you eat. Evidence has shown that replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats is associated with reduced levels of total cholesterol and LDL (bad) cholesterol as well as reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. Aim for getting no more than 5% to 6% of your daily calories from saturated fat. If your daily calorie goal is about 2,000 calories, saturated fats should make up no more than 120 calories of that total. In addition, the percent intake of trans fats should be limited, such as oils found in margarines, snack foods, and prepared desserts. Choose lean cuts of meat and low-fat dairy, and use oils instead of solid fats. Limit baked goods, processed meats, and fried foods.

  • Week 5: Improve your cholesterol levels. Try to limit your dietary cholesterol to 300 mg per day. Studies have shown that diets with lower daily intake of cholesterol are associated with reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. Make sure your daily menu includes plenty of vegetables, fruits, whole-grains, and low-fat dairy. Choose fish and skinless chicken instead of fatty cuts of red meat. Add beans (legumes) to your diet, and use soft (tub) margarine, canola oil, and olive oil in moderate amounts. Limit sweets and sugar-sweetened drinks.

  • Week 6: Eat less salt (sodium). The average American age 2 or older has twice the recommended amount of sodium per day. Most sodium comes from salt added during food processing. Salt added at the table and in cooking is only a small portion of the total sodium that Americans consume. The AHA recommends that all Americans limit their sodium intake to 2,400 mg per day. Leave the saltshaker off the table and eat fewer processed foods.

  • Week 7: Eat more fiber. Fruits, vegetables, and whole grains contain dietary fiber. Depending on your recommended daily calories, work up to 3 ounces to 5 ounces of whole grains, 2 cups of fruits, and 3 cups of vegetables each day. Drink more fluids to avoid constipation. High-fiber foods help keep cholesterol in check.

  • Week 8: De-stress. Stress increases your risk for heart disease and speeds its progression. People who are constantly angry or stressed have higher rises in blood pressure than people who aren't. This constant unrest can damage the heart. Be aware of stress and find ways to control it.

  • Week 9: Become a savvy grocery shopper. Most foods include important nutrition information on their labels. Paying attention to these numbers will help make sure you eat healthfully.

  • Week 10: Find a new activity. This week, try a new sport or activity you enjoy. You might enjoy water-walking, circuit training, inline skating, or slide aerobics.

  • Week 11: Know what's on the menu. When you eat out, try to eat as well as you do at home. Ask your server how food is prepared. Avoid cream sauces, cheese sauces, and fried foods. Choose broiled, steamed, or stir-fried dishes. Be mindful of the calories, fats, and sugars in foods in restaurants. Many restaurants have nutrition information available or you can research this before going out to eat on the restaurant's website. Know what is going in to your body. 

  • Week 12: Eat breakfast every day. Everyone needs energy first thing in the morning, yet many people skip breakfast. Plan ahead and have healthy foods ready to go.

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