Tips for Maintaining a Heart-Healthy Lifestyle

Cassie Vanderwall, MS, RD, LD, is a registered dietitian at Rush and a certified personal trainer. Here are some of her suggestions for maintaining a heart-healthy lifestyle.

Why is a heart-healthy lifestyle good for everyone?

Good nutrition and exercise significantly reduces your risk — by 50 percent — of heart disease and stroke, which remains the No. 1 killer of Americans. The Diet and Lifestyle Goals for Cardiovascular Disease Risk Reduction, published by the American Heart Association, are proven lifestyle changes to promote heart health, which leads to lower total and LDL cholesterol levels, decreased triglycerides, reduced blood pressure and blood glucose control.

What does a heart-healthy meal plan include?

Heart-healthy eating includes everything, in moderation. This style of eating focuses on foods that are lower in sodium, healthier fats and proper portion sizes.

What types of fat should I consume on a daily basis?

Heart-healthy fats are those that are fluid at room temperature, such as olive oil, fish oil, and the oils from nuts and seeds. Fats that are solid at room temperature are called saturated fats, and they are known to increase LDL cholesterol and promote cardiovascular disease. If saturated fat is bad, then trans fat is worse. Trans fats have been found to both increase “bad” (LDL) cholesterol and decrease “good” (HDL) cholesterol.

What are omega 3 fatty acids?

Omega 3 fatty acids are unsaturated fats that are found in fish oil, flaxseed oil, walnut oil and many other nuts and seeds. This type of fat has been shown to decrease triglycerides, lower blood pressure, decrease the risk of arrhythmias and decrease the growth of arterial plaque. Eating fatty fish — such as mackerel, lake trout, herring, sardines, albacore tuna and salmon — two times per week will meet this recommendation.

Is chocolate really good for my heart?

Yes, three and a half ounces of dark chocolate daily is heart healthy! Dark chocolate has 65 percent more cacao flavonoids than milk or white chocolate. Flavonoids provide both the pungent taste and the health benefits, such as decreasing blood pressure and blood cholesterol.

How much salt is too much?

The recommended daily allowance for sodium is 2,300 mg., or one teaspoon of salt. Salt can easily sneak up on you because it is the most common preservative in packaged foods.

Does sugar affect my heart?

Yes. Elevated blood sugar levels and people with diabetes are at an increased risk for heart disease and stroke.

What are some easy ways to include heart-healthy exercise in my daily routine?

  • Aerobic exercises help to keep our hearts strong. These exercises include walking, jumping rope, jogging, stair climbing, dancing, etc. To include exercise daily, try any of the following activities:
  • Count your steps! Use a pedometer and work your way up to 10,000 steps per day.
  • Grab a friend or a pet and go for a walk.
  • Dance to your favorite music.
  • Park farther away from the store, or take public transportation.
  • Forget elevators and escalators, and take the stairs.

What other lifestyle changes will benefit my heart and cardiovascular system?

Besides good nutrition and daily exercise, the following changes will help you to achieve a heart-healthy lifestyle:

  • If you smoke, stop smoking.
  • Drink eight glasses of water per day.
  • Relax and find ways to lower your stress level.

If you are interested in learning how to apply these guidelines, or have additional questions, please contact a registered dietitian at (312) 942-DIET (3438) or via e-mail at

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