While the number on the scale is an important indicator of overall health, it's not the whole story -- that's where a BMI calculator comes in. The calculation is based on weight and height, and the answer can reveal a lot about your risk for cardiovascular disease. The normal range is 18 to 24.9, while 25 to 29.9 is considered overweight, and 30 and over is considered obese. Excess weight can increase blood pressure and cause your heart to work harder. Knowing your BMI can help you set weight loss and activity goals.
Physical exercise can help strengthen the heart by decreasing cholesterol levels, lowering blood pressure, and eliminating excess pounds. Walking is a popular choice, because it's easy for most people and requires no special equipment (aside from comfortable clothes and shoes). The American Heart Association suggests getting into a walking habit by beginning with short distances, increasing gradually over time, and incorporating different terrain to get a better workout.
Smoking causes one of every three deaths from cardiovascular disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While kicking the habit can be difficult, it's one of the best ways to improve heart health. What's more, it costs nothing to quit, and the savings from not buying costly cigarettes are immediate.
The food pyramid of old has been replaced with the more modern MyPlate and revised dietary guidelines, but the idea is the same. Eating a diet rich in vegetables, fruits, low-fat dairy, lean meats, and grains is also among the American Heart Association's diet and lifestyle recommendations. Eating a healthier diet isn't a matter of money. Choosing minimally processed foods can improve nutritional value with little effect on the food budget.
Along with eating more of the right foods, it also pays to avoid certain foods -- perhaps not quite so easy. One shining example is saturated fats. The American Heart Association warns that saturated fats can increase LDL cholesterol levels, increasing the risk of heart disease. They are found in many animal-based foods, such as red meat and dairy products made from whole or 2 percent milk. Saturated fats are also found in many processed and fried foods, which, while tasty and popular, should be minimized or avoided.
Going totally meatless may be an option to chew over. An American Heart Association scientific statement published in October 2016 suggested that many of the markers for heart health (such as better blood pressure and cholesterol numbers) can be improved by adopting a vegetarian diet. The association does warn vegetarians to ensure they don't end up eating a lot of food high in saturated fat and sugar.
You don't have to give up alcohol completely, but experts recommend limiting consumption. The jury is still out on whether red wine has a positive effect on heart health (in other words, there isn't enough evidence to recommend that people take up a red wine habit if they do not currently drink). Overall, the American Heart Association recommends no more than one alcoholic drink a day for women and no more than two for men.
Salt may make meals extra delicious, but the extra sodium is bad news for your ticker. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 1,500 milligrams a day. That may sound like a lot, but the average American consumes about 3,400 milligrams a day -- much of it from processed foods. Even paring back to 2,400 milligrams can have a significant and positive effect on your chances of developing high blood pressure, which can lead to heart disease.
Sugary drinks can spell bad news for the heart. Studies have shown that regular consumption of soda or other sugar-sweetened beverages may increase the chances of coronary heart disease. And diet sodas might be just as risky. A recent study by the American College of Cardiology found that older women who drink two or more diet drinks a day may be more likely to have a heart attack, stroke, or other cardiovascular problems. Play it safe: Minimize or eliminate a soda habit for better heart health.
While a diet low in saturated fat helps keep the heart healthy, it's important to not shun fats altogether. According to the American Heart Association, certain fats (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated) are a part of a heart-healthy diet, and replacing bad fats doesn't hit the wallet any harder. Good fats can help lower bad-cholesterol levels, as well as the risk of heart disease and stroke. Sources include avocados; fatty fish such as tuna, salmon, and herring; and nuts and seeds such as flaxseed, sunflower seeds, and walnuts.
Stress is another significant risk factor for heart disease. While high stress levels haven't been shown to directly affect blood pressure, they can lead to unhealthy habits that do affect blood pressure, such as smoking more and eating foods that are bad for the heart. Getting more exercise is one free way to reduce stress. Also try talking regularly with friends and family, pacing yourself throughout the day, getting organized, and focusing on things that can be changed instead of worrying about things that can't be changed.
Studies have shown that poor sleeping habits can have a detrimental effect on heart health. Not getting enough sleep, experiencing sleep apnea, and insomnia can all raise the risk of high blood pressure, obesity, Type 2 diabetes, stroke, coronary heart disease, and cardiovascular disease overall. Combining a good diet and exercise with better sleep habits can keep your heart on the right track.
Making positive changes can be a challenge, but teaming up with another person with the same goals can provide the support needed to succeed. Make time to walk with friends and family or even start a regular walking club. This free approach can make a huge difference in motivation.
Even if you have only a few minutes each day, taking that time to meditate can reduce stress and induce relaxation. Studies have shown that meditation can also lower blood pressure, which in turn lowers the risk of cardiovascular disease. When paired with stretching exercises and the deep breathing of yoga, it can have an even greater impact.
Making time for yourself doesn't cost a thing, but you will reap the rewards -- and so will your heart. Whether you carve out some time in the day for exercise, a nap, or meditation, that "me" time can help you focus on yourself and your health and reduce the risk of heart disease.