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HEART Insight:
doi: 10.1097/01.HEARTI.0000443047.51251.cf
Departments: Life's Simple 7

Modest Lifestyle and Behavioral Changes That Can Improve Your Health

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Tips for starting a physical activity program

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By making the simple choice of getting up and moving, you'll be getting quite a few payoffs: People who are physically active typically eat healthier and smoke less, report less stress and feel better about their lives in general. Yet 80 percent of Americans don't get the physical activity they need. Don't be one of the 80 percent–here are some tips to help you get started!

First, visit your healthcare provider and get a baseline health screening to make sure you're healthy enough for physical activity. Once you've got the green light to get moving, start out by taking a walk. It's free and easy! Wear comfortable clothes and sneakers (or flat shoes with laces). Start slowly, and gradually build up to at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity (like brisk walking) on most or all days of the week–your doctor will let you know what's best for you.

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An exercise companion can help you stay motivated, so grab a friend! Or join an exercise group, health club or local YMCA. Also check out churches and senior centers–many of them offer exercise programs, too.

Be sure to drink a glass of water before, during and after activity. Again, your doctor can advise you on how much water you need to stay hydrated.

Note your activities in a journal, calendar or logbook. Write down the distance and length of time of your activity and how you feel after each session. Make physical activity a regular part of your day–let it become a habit! Add it to your calendar and treat it like any other important meeting or event. And if life gets in the way, don't get discouraged if you stop for a while. Just get started again and work up to your previous pace.

To keep from getting bored, mix it up. Walk one day, ride your bike on another, take a yoga class on the weekend. The American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity a week, and they also recommend strength training with weights or resistance bands two to three times a week. A combination of these two types of exercise can help you stay healthy. Exercise is just one of the components of the AHA's “Simple 7” steps to a healthier heart.

Remember that exercise doesn't have to be a scheduled event. Look for ways during your day to be more active–take the stairs instead of the elevator, park farther away from the mall entrance, walk the dog after dinner instead of sitting down in front of the TV. You'll be surprised at how many opportunities for physical activity you'll find during the day. The important thing is to incorporate physical activity into your life whenever you can–and once you get started, keep it up!

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Guidelines for healthy eating

Advice about “healthy eating” is everywhere, but what exactly does that mean? When you're filling up your grocery cart or preparing dinner, what foods should you choose? Having a list of guidelines can help you pick foods that will fight heart disease.

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The AHA's Heart Healthy Diet Recommendations include the following, based on a 2,000-calorie per day diet:

  • Balance the number of calories you eat with physical activity to maintain a healthy weight. Don't eat more calories than you need.
  • Try to eat 9 to 10 servings, or 4½ cups, of fruits and vegetables every day. They're high in fiber, vitamins and minerals and low in calories.
  • Choose whole grains and high-fiber foods, and try to eat three 1-ounce servings every day. Fiber can help you feel full longer so you don't give in to cravings!
  • Twice a week, make it a point to eat fish like salmon or albacore tuna to get healthy omega-3 fatty acids in your diet.
  • Choose lean meats, select fat-free (skim), 1 percent or low-fat dairy products and avoid hydrogenated fats like margarine, shortening, cooking oils and foods made with them. A good guideline: A person needing 2,000 calories per day should consume less than 16 grams of saturated fat, less than 2 grams of trans fat and between 50 and 70 grams of total fat. Limit cholesterol to no more than 300 milligrams each day.
  • Limit the amount of added sugars you eat. A good guideline: No more than 100 calories from sugar each day for women (about six teaspoons/day), 150 calories for men (about nine teaspoons/day).
  • Aim to keep your sodium intake to 1,500 milligrams or less each day to keep your blood pressure in check. Limit processed meats like cold cuts, sausage and hot dogs to fewer than two servings a week.
  • Try to eat four servings of nuts, legumes and beans each week.
  • Consume alcohol in moderation–one drink per day for women, one to two for men.
  • When eating out, pay attention to portion sizes and calorie counts.

By following these guidelines, you'll have “healthy eating” in the bag!

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Life's Simple 7 in a Nutshell

Cardiovascular health encompasses two basic components: ideal health behaviors and ideal health factors.

The behaviors include not smoking, maintaining a healthy weight, meeting or exceeding AHA recommendations for physical activity and eating a healthy diet.

The health factors include blood pressure, fasting blood glucose and total cholesterol levels that are within the AHA's recommended range–preferably without needing medication to keep them there.

Modest lifestyle or behavioral changes can move you in the right direction. And those who make behavioral changes before developing any serious health risks can look forward to a better quality of life and moving toward excellent heart health.

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Using your mobile device to get healthy

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Smartphones and tablets have made health information available right at our fingertips, and there are a lot of apps and mobile-friendly websites that can help you keep an eye on your health. They can help you keep track of the medicines you take, keep a food diary, track the number of steps you take or the miles you walk or run, record your blood pressure and so much more. Most are free or cost just a dollar or two.

You can keep track of what you eat every day with apps like Lose It! ( loseit.com) and MyFitnessPal ( myfitnesspal.com). These apps have large databases of foods that provide nutrition info, so you can not only track calories but also the percentage of fats, carbs and protein you're taking in each day. They also allow you to scan a food's bar code to get instant nutrition information. And you can use them to track your physical activity and help you set weight loss goals.

Keeping track of your medicines is made easy with apps like My Med Schedule ( mymedschedule.com) and Med Helper ( medhelperapp.com). They remind you when to take your medicines, allow you to create and print schedules, track prescriptions and refills and send reports directly to your doctor.

Monitoring your blood glucose is a snap with Glucose Buddy ( glucosebuddy.com), which lets you track your blood glucose readings and medicines you're taking. Apps like Blood Pressure Watch and Blood Pressure Companion can help you record and track your blood pressure readings, which you can share with your doctor.

These apps can make monitoring health information easy, but they're no substitute for your doctor's advice. Browse your app store, read the user reviews and let your doctor know which ones you're using.

The American Heart Association's mobile-friendly website Heart360 ( heart360.org) is a one-stop-shop that allows you to track your blood pressure, weight, physical activity, blood glucose, cholesterol and medications. It allows you to share with your doctor as well as others you designate, such as an adult child or spouse who may need access to your health info.

Information on apps not developed by the American Heart Association is provided as a resource for our readers. They have not been reviewed or endorsed by the AHA.

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Why blood pressure matters

You hear so much about blood pressure and how important it is to keep yours within a healthy range. But why is blood pressure so important to our bodies?

Blood pressure readings measure two things: the force that pushes on the walls of your blood vessels as they carry blood and oxygen to your organs (systolic pressure) and the force that's created when your heart rests between beats (diastolic pressure). If you're looking at a blood pressure reading of 120/80, the systolic pressure is the first number and the diastolic pressure is the second one. If either of these pressures is too high, it means that too much pressure is being put on the walls of your blood vessels. This can lead to stressed arteries that could develop weak spots or scars over time, which can cause increased plaque buildup and raise your risk of blood clots.

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Think of your blood pressure like the air pressure in tires. If the air pressure goes too high, the tire could pop. That's why it's so important to keep an eye on your blood pressure and make sure it's not getting too high.

High blood pressure (HBP) can be deadly. It's sometimes called “the silent killer” because it has no symptoms. The only way to know you have it is to have it checked regularly.

HBP is the single biggest risk factor for heart disease, stroke and other cardiovascular problems. If it's left untreated it could lead to heart attack, heart disease, congestive heart failure, atherosclerosis (fatty buildup in the arteries that causes them to harden), stroke, kidney damage, vision loss, erectile dysfunction, memory loss, fluid in the lungs, chest pain or discomfort and peripheral artery disease.

Fortunately, there are steps you can take to keep your blood pressure within a healthy range. Be sure you get your blood pressure checked regularly by your healthcare provider. Adopt a healthy lifestyle by eating a better diet, enjoying regular physical activity, reaching and maintaining a healthy weight, taking any prescription medicines as instructed by your doctor, not smoking and limiting alcohol intake. A healthy lifestyle can reduce, prevent or delay the development of HBP, enhance the effectiveness of blood pressure medicines and lower your risk of heart disease, heart attack, stroke and kidney disease.

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Dealing with the urge to smoke

Quitting smoking isn't easy, but it's certainly one of the best things you can do for your health! What happens, though, when you've finally quit and you continue to have the urge to smoke? There are some steps you can take to deal with these urges and not give in to them.

When you were a smoker, your body became addicted to the nicotine in cigarettes. Urges to smoke are one way that your body is telling you it wants nicotine. These urges are often triggered by certain people, places, things or situations. Step 1 in taking control of your urge to smoke is to recognize these triggers. Some common smoking triggers include feeling stressed, finishing a meal, taking a work break, seeing someone else smoke and feeling lonely. Think about the triggers that make you want to smoke.

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Step 2 is to come up with ways to cope with these triggers. For example, if you feel stressed and think you need a cigarette, take a walk to calm down instead. If you used to have a cigarette after dinner, brush your teeth or take your dog for a walk instead. If you used to smoke when drinking, cut down on alcohol so it doesn't trigger an urge to smoke. Go where smoking isn't allowed, such as restaurants or bars that have nonsmoking sections. Stay around people who don't smoke and find support with a friend you can talk to when you feel the urge to smoke.

Step 3 is to put this plan into action. Have a plan for each trigger and review them often so you'll be ready when an urge comes on. It's important to realize, too, that urges usually last only five to ten minutes. So if you can distract yourself from the urge to smoke, it will pass. Call or text a friend, take a walk, keep your mouth busy (with sugar-free gum or mints) and take deep breaths. Before you know it, your urge to smoke will be gone and you'll be ready the next time an urge arises.

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Resources

Life's Simple 7® Assessments

To understand the steps you may need to take to improve heart health and quality of life, visit heart.org/mylifecheck

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Track your heart health

To track your blood pressure, blood glucose, weight, cholesterol and more online, visit heart360.org

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Quit smoking

To find support and resources for quitting smoking, visit smokefree.gov

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Get physically active

For ideas on how to incorporate physical activity into your life, visit startwalkingnow.org

© 2014 by the American Heart Association

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