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12 Weeks to a Heart-Healthy Lifestyle

Heart disease is a killer, but you can do plenty to reduce your risk and prolong your life. Research shows that making lifestyle changes can lower your risk for heart disease.

Adopting heart-healthy habits over the next 12 weeks will start you on the road to better health and a longer life.

Woman writing in journal.

12-week plan

  • Week 1.Commit to getting fit. The American Heart Association reports that a large number of deaths each year result from not getting regular physical activity. Try to start exercising 3 times a week. Check with your healthcare provider first if you haven't been exercising regularly. Build to 150 minutes weekly of moderate aerobic activity. This is 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week. The more you can exercise, the greater the benefit to your health.

  • Week 2. Stop smoking. You can have the most positive impact on your heart health by quitting smoking. It's also one of the hardest changes to make, so sign up for a smoking cessation program. If you don't smoke, make an effort to stay away from secondhand smoke. Being around smoke can increase your risk for heart disease.

  • Week 3. Eat less fat. Fat is the most concentrated form of energy and calories. Cutting back on fat helps you lose weight and reduces your risk for heart disease and some forms of cancer.

  • Week 4.Limit how much saturated fats and trans fats you eat. Replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats is linked to lower levels of total cholesterol and LDL ("bad") cholesterol. It also lowers your risk for cardiovascular disease. Aim for getting less than 10% of your total daily calories from saturated fats. If your daily calorie goal is about 2,000 calories, saturated fats should make up no more than 200 calories of that total. Also remove trans fats from your diet. Trans fats are found in processed foods, such as margarines, snack foods, and prepared desserts. Choose lean cuts of meat and low-fat dairy, and use oils instead of solid fats. Limit baked goods, processed meats, and fried foods.

  • Week 5.Improve your cholesterol levels. Try to reduce your dietary cholesterol. Diets with lower levels of cholesterol are linked to a lower risk for cardiovascular disease. Check that your daily menu includes plenty of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and low-fat dairy. Choose fish and skinless chicken instead of fatty cuts of red meat. Add beans (legumes) to your diet, and use soft (tub) margarine, canola oil, and olive oil in moderate amounts. Limit sweets, sugar-sweetened drinks, and alcohol.

  • Week 6. Eat less salt (sodium). Ninety percent of Americans eat more sodium than they need. Most sodium comes from salt added during food processing. Salt added at the table and in cooking is only a small part of the total sodium that Americans consume. Experts advise that healthy adults limit their daily sodium to 2,300 mg. Leave the saltshaker off the table and eat fewer processed foods.

  • Week 7.Eat more fiber. Fruits, vegetables, and whole grains contain dietary fiber. Depending on your recommended daily calories, work up to 14 grams of dietary fiber for every 1,000 calories you consume. Drink more fluids to prevent constipation. High-fiber foods help keep cholesterol in check.

  • Week 8. De-stress. Stress increases your risk for heart disease and speeds its progression. People who are constantly angry or stressed have higher rises in blood pressure than people who aren't. This constant unrest can damage the heart. Be aware of stress and find ways to control it. Exercise, yoga, and meditation are great ways to help control stress and keep your heart, lungs, and body healthy.

  • Week 9.Become a savvy grocery shopper. Most foods include important nutrition information on their labels. Paying attention to these numbers will help make sure you eat healthy. Buy fresh ingredients and make meals from scratch. This helps you control how much fat, sugar, and salt goes into the foods you are eating. This also limits preservatives.

  • Week 10.Find a new activity. This week, try a new sport or activity you enjoy. You might enjoy water-walking, circuit training, inline skating, or slide aerobics. Group fitness activities may be helpful. You can get and give support to others who may be working toward the same goals you have.

  • Week 11. Know what's on the menu. When you eat out, try to eat as well as you do at home. Ask your server how food is prepared. Don't order cream sauces, cheese sauces, or fried foods. Choose broiled, steamed, or stir-fried dishes. Be mindful of the calories, fats, and sugars in foods in restaurants. Many restaurants have nutrition information available or you can research this before going out to eat on the restaurant's website. Know what is going into your body. 

  • Week 12. Eat breakfast every day. Everyone needs energy first thing in the morning, yet many people skip breakfast. Plan ahead and have healthy foods ready to go.

Online Medical Reviewer: Callie Tayrien RN MSN
Online Medical Reviewer: Stacey Wojcik MBA BSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Steven Kang MD
Date Last Reviewed: 9/1/2023
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