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HEART Insight:
doi: 10.1097/01.HEARTI.0000446611.43511.90
Departments: Life's Simple 7

Modest Lifestyle and Behavioral Changes That Can Improve Your Health

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Growing your own fruits and vegetables

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Whether you live in the suburbs or the city, in a high-rise or a house, you can grow a garden. Growing your own is not only a great way to have healthy, fresh veggies and fruits right at your fingertips, but it's also budget-friendly and fun. Having your own garden—whether it's in pots on a balcony, a sprawling garden in your backyard or shared in a community garden—helps you eat more fresh fruits and vegetables and lets you decide what fertilizers and pesticides come in contact with your food. It's also a good way to get physical activity; if you have kids, it teaches them where their food comes from and the importance of eating healthy foods.

Growing your own fruits and veggies is surprisingly easy, so don't be intimidated. Tomatoes, lettuce and peppers are almost foolproof, as long as they get adequate water and sunlight. Follow the directions on the seed packet that tell you how much water and light each plant needs, and you'll have a bounty of fresh fruits and vegetables in no time.

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City dwellers with access to sunlight for six hours a day, such as by a large window or on a balcony, can try container gardening. Buy a bag of weed-free potting soil and a couple of pots from a plant store, along with seed packets of fruits and vegetables you want to eat. Potatoes, chard, lettuce, cherry and bush tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and summer squash grow well in containers. And herbs are super easy to grow in containers on a windowsill.

If you have a backyard, start small and plant things you'd really like to eat. Choose a spot that gets at least six hours of daytime light and has easy access to water. A great way to get started is to check out the American Heart Association's Teaching Gardens program, where you can purchase a Teaching Gardens Starter kit. It includes 12 packets of different vegetable seeds and eight healthy recipes to enjoy your harvest. Visit for more information.

If you're not ready to go it alone, why not try a community garden, where neighbors get together to grow food and share in the harvest? You can find one in your area by visiting the American Community Gardening Association at

Getting children involved in gardening is a fun activity that families can do together. It's also a great opportunity to teach them how to plant seeds, nurture growing plants, harvest produce, understand the value of good eating habits and take pride in the work they did to grow the food. No matter where you live, grab a packet of seeds and start digging!

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Exercising safely in hot weather

As the weather warms up, it's a great time to get back to those outdoor activities that are not only fun but also good for us, like riding a bike, jogging or walking. But when the temperature starts to soar, it's important to take precautions to stay safe.

If you're a heart patient, over age 50 or overweight, check with your healthcare provider before starting any outdoor physical activity routine. Certain heart medicines like beta blockers, calcium channel blockers and diuretics remove sodium from the body, which can exaggerate the body's response to heat. Your doctor can advise you on the best outdoor exercise for your condition.

When you're heading outside, it's best to avoid the early afternoon (noon to 3 p.m.) because the sun is at its strongest, which can put you at risk for heat-related illnesses that occur when your body can't properly cool itself. If you can, buddy up with a friend—it's not only more fun but safer to have someone with you in case you start feeling sick.

Make sure you're dressed properly for the heat. Wear lightweight, light-colored clothes in breathable fabrics like cotton, or a fabric that repels sweat. Wear a hat and sunglasses if you can. Choose well-ventilated shoes and look for socks that repel sweat. Foot powders and antiperspirants can also help. Don't forget the sunscreen—even if it's an overcast day, your skin can still be damaged by the sun. Choose one with an SPF of 15 or higher and reapply it every two hours.

Staying hydrated is especially important when the heat rises. Your heart doesn't have to work as hard when you're hydrated, and staying hydrated helps your muscles remove waste so they can work more efficiently. If you don't drink enough water your body becomes dehydrated, which can lead to problems from swollen feet and a headache to life-threatening illnesses such as heat stroke. The amount of water you need depends on the climate, what you're wearing and the physical activity you're doing. Being thirsty isn't a good indicator—if you get thirsty, you're already dehydrated. Stay hydrated by drinking a few cups of water before, during and after you exercise. Avoid caffeinated or alcoholic drinks, as well as fruit juices or sugary drinks, which can be hard on your stomach when you're dehydrated. Sports drinks can be useful if you're doing high intensity, vigorous exercise in very hot weather, but they are high in calories.

Take regular breaks while you're exercising so you don't get overheated. If you experience any of the following symptoms of heat exhaustion, immediately move to a cooler area, stop exercising and drink water:

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* headaches

* heavy sweating

* cold, moist skin and chills

* dizziness or fainting

* weak and fast pulse

* muscle cramps

* fast, shallow breathing

* nausea, vomiting or both.

If you don't begin to feel better, seek medical attention.

Spending time exercising in the great outdoors can be fun and good for your heart—as long as you take the proper precautions to stay safe!

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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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Dealing with picky eaters

Kids can be notoriously picky eaters. So how do you feed them healthy foods when all they want to eat is mac and cheese at every meal?

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If your kids are little, start them early on healthy “adult” foods as soon as they start eating solid foods. Grind or mash up peas, carrots, sweet potatoes, etc., so they get used to them instead of “kid” foods like hot dogs and grilled cheese.

Plan meals to include at least one thing that everyone likes and serve one meal for everyone in the family with no exceptions. Preparing different foods for everyone is time consuming, and it takes much longer for children to learn to like new foods.

If your kids refuse to eat what's on their plate, don't punish them. But don't give them a less-healthy alternative, either. If they won't eat what's on their plate, don't make a big deal out of it. Kids will eat what's available if they're hungry, and they'll realize they can't manipulate you into getting what they want.

Kids are more likely to taste a dish if they helped plan or prepare it. Let kids choose veggies in the supermarket produce section or frozen food aisle and let them help you stir, chop or measure ingredients. If they contribute to a project that they are proud to share, they'll be more likely to try the food and enjoy it.

Make eating fruits and vegetables fun by offering them brightly colored food from the rainbow every day. Kids love colors and they love challenges, so make it fun by encouraging them to keep track of every color they eat.

Limit the amount of snacks your kids eat—they can have a healthy snack when they get home from school, then they have to wait until dinnertime. If they're hungry before the meal, give them slices of the vegetables you're preparing for dinner.

The most important thing you can do to help kids become healthy eaters is to be a role model yourself. Don't chow down on a bag of chips before dinner as you're telling them to eat an apple. Kids learn by watching adults, so you should eat healthy, too.

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The glycemic index and diabetes

The glycemic index measures how a carbohydrate-containing food raises the sugar in your blood. A food with a high glycemic index raises your blood sugar more than a food with a medium or low glycemic index. Low glycemic index foods include legumes (dried beans and peas), fruit and whole-grain breads and cereals. High glycemic index foods include white bread, corn flakes, instant oatmeal, shortgrain white rice, Russet potatoes, pretzels, rice cakes, popcorn, saltine crackers, melons and pineapple. Avoiding spikes in blood sugar by watching the carbohydrates you eat is important to help you manage your diabetes, but relying solely on the glycemic index to keep your blood sugar in check isn't a good idea.

While you can look up the glycemic index of a certain food, most people don't eat just one food at a time. For example, a potato may have a high glycemic index when it's baked, but if it's eaten in a casserole with green beans, meat or other food its glycemic index is much lower. How a food is cooked or processed can also change its glycemic index. Rolled or steel-cut oatmeal has a low glycemic index, but instant oatmeal has a high glycemic index. The glycemic index is probably best used for snacks, since these foods are often eaten by themselves.

The best way to keep your blood sugar in check is to use the glycemic index as a guide in choosing healthy carbohydrates but not to rely on it for choosing all the foods you eat. Complex carbohydrates like whole grains, for example, are healthy because of the nutrients they contain, not their glycemic index. Just because a food has a high glycemic index doesn't mean it's not good for you. For instance, fruits tend to have a higher glycemic index, but they're still good for you and make great snacks. And don't forget to watch your portions—just because a food has a low glycemic index doesn't mean you can eat as much of it as you like.

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The best way to manage your diabetes is with a meal plan that's tailored to your personal preferences and lifestyle and helps achieve goals for blood sugar, cholesterol levels, blood pressure and weight management.

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Sex and high blood pressure

We all know that high blood pressure can increase your risk for heart attack and stroke and lead to cardiovascular problems. But did you know it could also impact your sex life?

Because blood pressure affects the blood flow throughout your body, it can prevent adequate blood flow to the pelvis and affect the sex lives of both men and women. In men, high blood pressure can lead to erectile dysfunction because of limited blood flow through the veins and arteries. And age doesn't matter—even men in their mid-30s can have high blood pressure that affects their sex lives. But it's not only men who are affected—women with high blood pressure can have a lower libido and reduced interest in sex.

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Stress and anxiety may also play a role, because they're often linked to high blood pressure and sexual dysfunction. Men who are under stress may be less likely to perform sexually, and women are often less likely to desire sex during stressful times. Blood pressure medicines may also affect sexual performance in men, because erectile dysfunction is sometimes a side effect of beta blockers and ACE inhibitors.

Generally, it's safe to have sex if you have high blood pressure, but if you're concerned talk with your doctor. Don't stop taking your blood pressure medication if the side effects negatively affect your sex life—your doctor may be able to prescribe a medicine that may not have the same side effects.

If you haven't been diagnosed with high blood pressure, sexual dysfunction could indicate you have high blood pressure and other heart problems. If you're experiencing problems in the bedroom, visit your healthcare provider to see if cardiovascular problems may be the cause.

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Life's Simple 7® Assessments

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

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Track your heart health

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

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Manage your diabetes

To find information on understanding and managing diabetes, visit

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Get physically active

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

© 2014 by the American Heart Association