A better heart may be as easy as a walk in the park. Sounds simple, doesn't it? But that is precisely what the American Heart Association wants to get across with its 2010 "Simple 7" guidelines for good cardiovascular health: Get active, control cholesterol, eat better, manage blood pressure, lose weight, reduce blood sugar and stop smoking.
Here, Cleveland Clinic clinical and interventional cardiologist and Joseph Martin, MD, explains how each one relates to cardiovascular health and offers tips for accomplishing the goals:
1. Get active – Aerobic exercise is a crucial factor in managing your cardiovascular risk, Dr. Martin says. It aids in lowering blood pressure, improves your cholesterol profile, assists in weight management and lowers inflammation.
"Most people have the impression that you need a membership at a gym or to purchase ‘high- tech’ equipment to improve cardiovascular fitness," he says. "This is not necessarily the case. Simply walking with an initial goal of 30 to 45 minutes daily at a pace that leads one to break a sweat and makes one short of breath, yet able to carry on a conversation, will suffice."
2. Control cholesterol — Bad cholesterol, or LDL, is the substance that circulates in the blood and is the major component of plaque, or blockages, in blood vessels.
"This comes from either what you eat or what your body makes," Dr. Martin says. "Therefore, you can limit the amount of bad cholesterol in your blood by dietary modification and medications. Some medications are powerful at lowering cholesterol and reducing your risk of cardiovascular events (heart attack and strokes). Check with your doctor to see if medical intervention is indicated."
3. Eat better — Dietary modification is a potent way to lower your cardiovascular risk, Dr. Martin says.
"Typically, a low-sodium, low-cholesterol diet aids in management of your blood pressure and cholesterol profile, and is advised in most situations," he says. "If you have questions, contact your doctor and discuss an evaluation by a dietician."
4. Manage blood pressure — Blood pressure is known as the "silent killer," Dr. Martin says, noting that elevated blood pressure can damage the body without patients experiencing symptoms.
"Hypertension, or high blood pressure, is the leading cause of stroke and a significant risk factor in development of heart and kidney disease," he says. "You can lower your blood pressure through diet modification (low sodium), aerobic exercise and weight loss. Get your blood pressure checked and review findings with your doctor."
5. Lose weight — Being overweight can exacerbate several other health problems that lead to cardiovascular disease, such as hypertension, diabetes and high cholesterol, Dr. Martin says.
"Weight loss through diet and exercise is another very useful way of controlling your cardiovascular risk," he says, adding that patients should consult their physician about options for weight loss.
6. Reduce blood sugar — Diabetes, or elevated blood sugar, can act like a wrecking ball on the cardiovascular system, promoting accelerated atherosclerosis, or blockages in the blood vessels, which lead to heart attacks and stroke, Dr. Martin says.
"Diet and medications can be very successful at controlling your blood sugar and lowering your risk," he says, encouraging those with diabetes to talk to their doctor about actively and aggressively managing the disease.
7. Stop smoking (!) — Dr. Martin acknowledges that this is among the most difficult of the "Simple 7" to do, but says it is critical to heart health. Smoking increases the risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer — the two leading causes of death in the United States.
"Each time you pick up a cigarette, think of the money you are spending to destroy yourself," he says. "You probably did not start smoking a pack a day when you started, so it may take some time to completely quit. Start now. Try to limit to a few cigarettes a day to start and build from there."
Again, he advises seeking assistance from a health care provider for help with smoking cessation.