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.

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. Check with your healthcare provider first if you haven't been exercising regularly. Build to 150 minutes weekly of moderate aerobic activity. This is 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 stay away from 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. Replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats is linked to lower levels of total cholesterol and LDL ("bad") cholesterol. It also lowers your risk for 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. Also limit how much trans fat you eat. Trans fat is 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. Diets with lower levels of cholesterol are linked to a lower risk for cardiovascular disease. Check that 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, sugar-sweetened drinks, and alcohol.

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 part of the total sodium that Americans consume. The AHA recommends that all Americans limit their daily sodium to 2,400 mg. 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 prevent 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. Exercise, yoga, and meditation are great ways to help control stress and keep your heart, lungs, and body healthy.

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 healthy. Buy fresh ingredients and make meals from scratch. This helps you control how much fat, sugar, and salt goes into the foods you are eating. This also limits preservatives.

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. Group fitness activities may be helpful. You can get and give support to others who may be working toward the same goals you have.

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. Don't order cream sauces, cheese sauces, or 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 into 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.

© 2000-2020 The StayWell Company, LLC. 800 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

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