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HEART Insight:
doi: 10.1097/01.HEARTI.0000452797.14423.2e
Departments: Life's Simple 7

Modest Lifestyle and Behavioral Changes That Can Improve Your Health

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Navigating your local farmers market

We all know that eating fresh fruits and vegetables is important for good health, and one of the best places to find them is at your local farmers market. You can't get produce that's much fresher—it's coming direct from the farm to you, rather than being picked before ripening and then shipped long distance to your local grocery store. Prices can be cheaper than grocery stores, too. But don't think that just because you live in the city or the suburbs you can't find a farmers market near you. Farmers markets can be found almost everywhere and are becoming more and more popular. To find one in your area, visit

When planning a trip to the farmers market, go early in the morning for the best selection, or later in the day if you're looking for a bargain. Some vendors may lower their prices if there are only a few of an item left so they don't have to pack it up when the market closes. Another way to get a good deal is to buy in bulk, as many vendors offer bulk discounts.

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While browsing, be sure to talk to the farmers—they're a wealth of information! Don't be intimidated; they're usually more than happy to talk about their harvest. Ask them about their produce, such as what to look for in a particular type of fruit, which fruits and vegetables are in season and ways of preparing certain vegetables. You might think you have no idea what to do with cauliflower except boiling it, for example, but the farmer may have some ideas on how to cook it that you've never thought of before. If eating organic produce is important to you, ask if a certain type of produce is organic if there isn't a sign stating so.

When you're shopping for heart-healthy fruits and vegetables, remember to look for color. The best way to get all of the various nutrients that can help prevent heart disease is to eat a balanced diet with a wide variety of fruits, vegetables and whole-grain products. To encourage variety, think colorfully. Look for red (tomatoes, watermelons, strawberries, cherries, pomegranates, apples, raspberries, grapes), orange/yellow (carrots, pumpkin, mangoes, apricots, cantaloupes, tangerines, grapefruits, peaches, papaya, pineapple, nectarines, apples), green (broccoli, cabbage, bok choy, Brussels sprouts, collard greens, avocado, spinach, kale, green beans, peppers, kiwi, mustard greens, grapes) and blue/purple (blueberries, blackberries, grapes, plums, prunes, figs, eggplant).

Look for produce that you've never tried before. Many farmers markets have demonstrations, tastings and recipes available so you can try before you buy. You just might find a new fruit or veggie to love!

Think about shopping at a local farmers market before you make the trip to the grocery store. You can't go wrong with super fresh fruits and vegetables at reasonable prices.

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What's the best time of day to exercise?

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Morning, afternoon, evening—when do you think is the best time of day to work out? Some people wouldn't think of giving up their 6 a.m. jog because it gets their day going. Others swear by a long walk after dinner to relieve the stress of the day. Which is best?

The answer to that question is a simple one—whatever works best for you. The best time of day to exercise is when you'll do it most consistently, because the key to getting all the benefits of physical activity is to do it on a regular basis. Everybody has different preferences. If you're not a morning person, you may not be able to keep forcing yourself to get up at 5 a.m. to work out. But if you enjoy working out at the gym after work because it helps you wind down, that would be the best time for you.

The American Heart Association recommends at least 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) a week of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes (1 hour and 15 minutes) a week of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity. And you don't have to get it all at once! So if you've been putting off exercise because you can't devote a chunk of time to it each day, break it up. You could walk for 10 minutes in the morning (park at the back of the parking lot where you work), another 10 minutes at lunch, and then another 10 minutes back to your car after work. You've just completed 30 minutes of physical activity!

As you can see, whether you exercise in the morning, afternoon or evening—or all three—it's all good, as long as you can stay consistent. When you find a physical activity schedule that works for you, that's the best time to exercise.

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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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Are you at risk for high cholesterol?

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It may surprise you to know that cholesterol itself isn't bad. It is a soft, fat-like substance that your body produces naturally. It helps make new cells, some hormones and substances that help digest foods.

Cholesterol is part of a healthy body. But having too much of it in your blood can be a problem. Too much cholesterol contributes to a higher risk for cardiovascular diseases, such as heart disease and stroke.

If you're between ages 20 and 79, you should have your cholesterol measured every four to six years. If other factors put you at higher risk for heart disease or stroke, your healthcare provider may want to check it more often. Your healthcare provider will do a blood test called a “fasting lipoprotein profile” to measure your cholesterol levels. It assesses several types of fat in the blood. It is measured in milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL). The test gives you four results: total cholesterol, LDL (bad) cholesterol, HDL (good) cholesterol and triglycerides (blood fats). The ideal total cholesterol is less than 180 mg/dL.

In addition to what your body makes, you also get cholesterol from some foods you eat. To improve your cholesterol, choose foods low in saturated and trans fats.

Saturated fats are the main dietary cause of high blood cholesterol. They are found naturally in many foods. They mostly come from animal and dairy sources, such as meat, poultry with skin, cream, butter, cheese and other dairy products made from whole or reduced-fat (2%) milk. The American Heart Association recommends that adults who would benefit from lowering LDL cholesterol limit their saturated fat intake to 5 to 6 percent of total calories each day. For a person who needs 2,000 calories a day, this is about 11 to 13 grams of saturated fat.

Trans fats can raise total and LDL (bad) cholesterol and lower HDL (good) cholesterol. Sources of trans fats include commercially baked goods, fried foods and snack foods. They're also found in foods made with partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, vegetable shortening or stick margarine. Everyone can benefit by limiting trans fats. Reducing your trans fat intake is especially important if your doctor has said you should lower your LDL cholesterol.

In addition to reducing your intake of saturated and trans fats, physical activity is important. If you need to lower your cholesterol, aim for 40 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity 3 to 4 times per week. If you don't have longer blocks of time, you can exercise in 10-minute segments.

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What to eat (and what to avoid) if you have diabetes

If you have diabetes, you know the importance of a healthy diet in managing the disease. Making healthy choices in what you eat is essential, but sometimes it's hard to be sure if you're eating the right foods. Choose foods that are low in saturated and trans fats, sodium and added sugars. This list can help you decide what you should eat and what you should limit.

Foods you SHOULD eat include:

  • Fruits and vegetables (citrus fruit, berries, dark green leafy vegetables, sweet potatoes, tomatoes)
  • Fiber-rich whole grains (oatmeal, barley, brown rice, whole-grain pasta, whole-grain corn)
  • Fish, especially those high in omega-3 fatty acids (salmon, lake trout, mackerel, herring)
  • Chicken or turkey (without the skin)
  • Non-tropical vegetable oils
  • Low-fat dairy products
  • Legumes

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  • Foods you should LIMIT include:
  • Sweets and added sugars (sucrose, glucose, fructose, maltose, dextrose, corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, concentrated fruit juice, honey, soda, fruit drinks, candy, cake, jellies)
  • Red meats (beef and pork)
  • Sodium (have less than 1,500 mg per day)
  • Foods high in saturated and trans-fats (butter, whole milk, cheese, coconut and palm oil, hydrogenated oils)
  • Partially hydrogenated oils or trans fats (hard margarine, foods made with shortening such as some cakes, pastries and pies, cookies, muffins, donuts, French fries)
  • Alcohol (no more than one drink per day for women, two for men)
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Can e-cigarettes help you quit smoking?

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You've probably heard a lot about electronic cigarettes (also called e-cigarettes, e-hookas, shisha pens and vape pens) as an alternative to regular cigarettes. These devices deliver nicotine by heating it and converting it to a water vapor that contains lower levels of toxins than regular cigarettes—but they could contain chemicals and carcinogens that are harmful to your health.

As for their role in helping someone quit smoking, there is no proof that e-cigarettes can help you kick the habit—as a matter of fact, recent studies have shown that they may even make it harder for you to quit. Researchers have found that smokers who used e-cigarettes were less likely to quit smoking than smokers who didn't use e-cigarettes.

Because e-cigarettes have not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration, good information about the components and their potentially harmful contents is hard to come by. The American Heart Association is among 16 leading national health organizations that have signed a joint letter to President Obama asking for adoption of new regulations for e-cigarettes. They are concerned that they could pose a serious health risk to children and adults.

So if you're thinking that e-cigarettes might be a good way to wean yourself off of regular cigarettes, think again. Talk to your healthcare provider about other ways to quit smoking, and give e-cigarettes a pass.

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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