But many risk factors that contribute to cardiovascular disease can be managed, says Steve Attanasio, DO, a clinical and interventional cardiologist in Chicago at Swedish Covenant Hospital and assistant professor of medicine at Rush University Medical Center. “There are some steps we can take to reduce the risk of developing cardiovascular disease,” he says.
Attanasio regularly counsels patients on what they can do to make a difference and improve their heart health. Here’s what he tells them.
- Make exercise part of your routine. First, talk to your doctor about a workout that will be safe for you. For patients who haven’t had previous surgeries or heart conditions, Attanasio suggests building up exercise gradually, starting with walking. “Forty to 50 minutes a day of walking most days of the week is enough to help your heart health,” says Attanasio. “I think if exercise is done like a medication, it’s something that you remember to do every day, then it has a higher chance of being incorporated into your daily lifestyle and habits,” he says.
- Choose heart-healthy meals. Attanasio counsels his patients to follow a Mediterranean diet, which includes an abundance of fruits and vegetables and whole grains, is rich in monounsaturated fats, such as raw almonds and olive oil, and is low in saturated fats. Small amounts of fish and chicken are a regular part of the diet, while red meat consumption is kept to a minimum.
- Track your data. Technology makes it easier than ever to be accountable. Attanasio suggests that patients wear a pedometer and strive to get 10,000 steps a day. “Under 5,000 steps is technically a sedentary lifestyle, which we know has deleterious effects on cardiovascular heath,” he says. Same goes for calories. He tells patients who are trying to lose weight to keep track of what they’re eating by jotting it down or using a calorie-tracking app. “If you’re way overdoing it on the calories then you’ll always be fighting an uphill battle,” he says.
- Know your family history. Cardiovascular disease runs in families. Speak with relatives on both sides of your family and find out if it’s something that others have encountered.
- Know your numbers. Visit the doctor regularly and stay on top of measurements such as weight and body mass index (BMI), cholesterol, blood pressure, blood glucose and triglycerides. By tracking these numbers, you can respond quickly if changes occur.
- Listen to your body. Attanasio says that if you feel any potential symptoms of cardiovascular disease, such as chest pain or shortness of breath, or if you’re unable to exercise like you used to, talk with your doctor or get immediate medical attention including, if appropriate, calling 911. Don’t ignore it and think it’ll go away.
- Stop smoking. Smoking is a contributor to cardiovascular disease. According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, smoking harms almost every organ in the body, including the heart and blood vessels, and leads to one in five deaths in the U.S. every year.
- Manage your stress. Find something you enjoy doing that helps you relax, says Attanasio. “Stress may lead to situations where you may be making yourself more prone to adrenalin surges and things like that, and that can be more harmful to blood vessels in your heart,” he says. He tells patients to think about what’s causing the stress and deal with it the best they can. He adds that participating in yoga and meditation can be helpful to people interested in those activities.
According to the American Heart Association, heart disease claims more lives than all types of cancer. By developing a few new habits, you can take a proactive role in your own heart health.
 “How Does Smoking Affect the Heart and Blood Vessels?” NHLBI.gov [paragraphs 1 and 2]
 “Heart Disease, Stroke and Research Statistics At-a-Glance,” American Heart Association