In 2020, the terrible toll of the COVID-19 pandemic largely overshadowed the affliction that remains the leading cause of death in this country: heart disease. In the United States last year, at least twice as many people died from cardiovascular causes as those who died from complications from SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus.
While the challenges from the virus are new, experts have been studying heart disease for decades — and everyone can benefit from that knowledge. “The lifestyle habits that keep your heart healthy may also leave you less vulnerable to serious complications from infections such as COVID-19 and influenza,” says cardiologist Dr. Deepak L. Bhatt, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and editor in chief of the Harvard Heart Letter.
So what exactly are those heart-healthy habits? The American Heart Association refers to them as “Life’s Simple 7.” Put simply, they are:
1) Stop smoking
2) Eat better
3) Be active
4) Lose weight
5) Manage your blood pressure
6) Control your cholesterol
7) Reduce your blood sugar
Choosing three steps to jump-start heart health this year
But seven steps may seem like too much to manage, or may even seem overwhelming. So, let’s make it even simpler by focusing on just a few. Of course, not everyone needs to lose weight or lower their blood sugar. And in reality, most Americans don’t smoke, so step one doesn’t apply to very many people.
Unfortunately, that’s not the case for steps two and three. Most people don’t eat enough plant-based foods like vegetables, whole grains, beans, and fruit. And few Americans get the recommended amounts of exercise. That’s at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity (like brisk walking) each week, plus muscle-strengthening activity (like lifting weights) at least two days each week.
Of course, improving both your diet and your exercise game will help you lose weight (step four). But did you know that eating better and moving more can also help with steps five, six, and seven?
Start with one small change, then add on
In 2021, do your heart a favor by doing these three things.
Make one small change to your diet. Some suggestions: Swap meat with beans in one of your favorite dinner recipes. Eat a slice of whole-grain bread instead of white bread. Try a vegetable you’ve never had before.
Do a heart rate-elevating exercise for 10 minutes. Some suggestions: Take a brisk walk around your neighborhood. Hop on a treadmill or other exercise machine. No machines handy? Do some simple calisthenics, like a combination of jumping jacks, squats, leg raises, and arm circles.
Know your numbers. It’s easy to track these four key values. Step on a scale, then use your weight and height to calculate your body mass index. Measure your blood pressure (many pharmacies have machines). Check your medical records for your latest blood test results, which should include cholesterol and fasting blood sugar values.
Here are the standard targets:
- body mass index between 18.5 and 25 (see this BMI calculator)
- blood pressure below 120/80 mm/Hg
- total cholesterol of less than 200 mg/dL
- fasting blood sugar (glucose) below 100 mg/dL.
It’s important to note that your individual targets may differ, depending on your age and medical and family history. Talk with your doctor about this, then work together to achieve or maintain these four values in the optimal range for you. This might include taking medications. And in the meantime, start making small tweaks to your diet and exercise routine. Gradually adding more healthful foods and spending more time exercising can really make a difference to your heart and overall health.