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Keeping your heart healthy can help you avoid serious problems such as high blood pressure (BP) or a heart attack. Follow these guidelines.


Where should I begin?

If you smoke, stop. When it comes to keeping your heart healthy, no amount of smoking is safe. Tobacco smoke contains more than 4,800 chemicals that can damage your heart and blood vessels. Stop smoking now, and your risk of heart attack will be much lower in just 1 year, no matter how long or how much you smoked in the past. Talk with your health care provider about how you can stop smoking. You should also avoid being around other people's smoke when possible.


Regular physical activity is important because it helps your heart work better with less effort. Exercise also helps reduce stress, which can increase your risk of heart disease. Keep your heart healthy by swimming, cycling, jogging, skiing, and dancing. Try to get at least 30 to 60 minutes of moderate exercise most days of the week. Even if you can't reach that goal, any physical activity can help. If you can't do at least 30 minutes of exercise at one time, add up 10-minute sessions throughout the day. Start slow and work your way up.


What should I eat to keep my heart healthy?

A heart-healthy diet is rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy products. These foods can help lower cholesterol that can build up in blood vessels, so less blood gets to your heart. If your heart doesn't get enough blood, you could have a heart attack. Try these tips for lowering cholesterol:


* Eat 5 to 10 servings of fruits and vegetables per day. Eat foods made with unrefined whole grains such as whole wheat, oats and oatmeal, rye, barley, corn, and brown rice. Fiber from fruits, vegetables, and whole grains can reduce cholesterol and make you feel full, so it can help you manage your weight. Women should aim to get 25 grams of fiber in their diet each day; men should get 38 grams each day. Increase your intake of fiber slowly because adding too much to your diet too quickly can cause gas, bloating, and diarrhea.


* Limit your intake of saturated fat and trans fat. These fats raise cholesterol levels and increase your risk of heart disease. Saturated fat is found in beef, butter, cheese, milk, and coconut and palm oils. Sources of trans fat include deep-fried fast foods, bakery products, packaged snack foods, margarines, and crackers. Olive and vegetable oils are okay in small amounts. Opt for lean meats and poultry without skin and prepare them without added saturated and trans fat.


* Eat more omega-3 fatty acids. This type of polyunsaturated fat may decrease your risk of heart attack and lower BP. Fish such as salmon, trout, and herring are good sources of natural omega-3s, so eat fish at least twice a week.


* Choose fat-free and low-fat dairy products. Limit your intake of dairy products to three servings per day unless your health care provider tells you otherwise.


* Eat less salt and salty foods. Salt raises BP, so aim for 2,300 mg or less of salt in your daily diet.


* Limit alcohol consumption. Don't drink more than two alcoholic drinks a day if you're a man or more than one if you're a woman.



Do I need to lose weight?

Being too heavy causes high BP and makes your heart work harder. Even a small weight loss can help your heart. Find out how many calories you should be eating and drinking (see http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/calorie-calculator/NU00598) to maintain your weight.


How often should I visit my health care provider?

Visit your health care provider regularly for screening tests, so you'll know if your BP or cholesterol level is too high. Have your BP checked at least once every 2 years, and your cholesterol every 5 years. Both tests should be done more often if your results have been high in the past or if you have other risk factors for heart disease. For more tips, visit the American Heart Association's Web site at http://www.americanheart.org.