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Which behaviors reduce your risk for heart disease?

Medically reviewed by Leigh Ann Anderson, PharmD. Last updated on Dec 16, 2021.

Official answer


Your diet and lifestyle can increase your risk for heart disease, but you can modify this risk by changing your behaviors.

There are many behavior changes that will help lower your risk for heart disease:

  • quit smoking and tobacco use
  • avoid secondhand smoke
  • eat a healthy, lower-fat diet
  • get regular exercise most days of the week
  • maintain a healthy weight
  • limit your salt and sugar intake
  • lower stress in your life
  • control your intake of alcohol or caffeine
  • manage any other medical conditions (like high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes)

Heart disease includes a wide range of conditions, including coronary artery disease (blood vessel disease), changes in heart rhythms (arrhythmia), heart valve problems, and heart failure. Stroke is considered a cardiovascular (heart and blood vessel) disease. Congenital heart defects are heart defects you are born with.

A family history of heart disease or stroke may strongly increase your risk factors. Be sure to tell your doctor about your family history of heart and blood vessel disease.

How can I lower my risk for heart disease?

Stop smoking and tobacco use: Smoking and tobacco use is a major factor that leads to an increased risk for heart disease and having a heart attack. It also is a contributor to lung diseases like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and lung cancer.

  • Smoking damages the heart and blood vessels and can elevate your risk for a heart attack. One of the best things you can do to help prevent heart disease is to either stop smoking and the use of smokeless tobacco, or never start.
  • Nicotine, found in tobacco, can also raise your blood pressure. Toxins found in cigarette smoke, such as carbon monoxide, reduce oxygen levels in your blood.
  • Secondhand smoke can also increase the risk of heart disease, even in people who do not smoke. Avoid secondhand smoke and keep children away from it.
  • Talk to your healthcare provider about ways to engage in a smoking cessation program, which include medications and group support for the best success. Your hard work will pay off. As little as 12 months after quitting, your risk of heart disease drops to about 50% of a smoker. It’s never too late to quit.

Follow a healthy diet and limit salt, sugar: An unhealthy diet high in saturated fat, trans fats, cholesterol or sugar can cause weight gain, obesity, and clogged arteries. Being overweight or obese are risk factors for heart disease.

  • A diet high in unhealthy fats can lead to heart disease and atherosclerosis (“hardening of the arteries”). Too much sugar can increase weight gain.
  • Excessive salt (sodium) in your diet can raise blood pressure, lead to fluid retention (edema) and worsen conditions like heart failure.
  • Focus on eating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, healthy proteins, unprocessed foods, with little added sugar or salt, and limited or no alcohol use. The Mediterranean Diet is one diet recommended by the American Heart Association to maintain a healthy heart.
  • Avoid fad diets that may have a yo-yo effect, where weight may go up and down. Consider speaking to a dietician, a medical professional who can help you make wise calorie and meal selections. Many insurance companies will pay for this service.

Learn More: Obesity and Weight Loss Resource Center

Exercise and physical activity: Regular physical activity and maintaining a healthy weight is one of the main keys to moderating your risk for heart disease.

  • Not getting enough exercise can promote heart disease and increase your risk for other medical conditions like obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes, all further risks for heart disease.
  • Guidelines from the American Heart Association (AHA) recommend at least 150 minutes of moderate physical exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity (or some combination of both) each week. Speak to your doctor how you can best start an exercise program and meet your goals safely.

Medications: If you have been prescribed any medicine, including heart, diabetes or cholesterol medications, follow your doctor’s instructions and take your medicine as prescribed. Do not stop treatment without speaking to your doctor first

  • High blood pressure itself is not usually accompanied by any noticeable side effects. This may make you believe you do not need treatment. However, control of high blood pressure usually requires long-term treatment and will greatly lower your risk of heart disease. You might want to ask your doctor if you should be checking your blood pressure at home on a regular basis.
  • Diabetes and high cholesterol are usually treated with a wide array of medicines, too. If these conditions are left uncontrolled, it can further increase your heart risk.
  • If you cannot afford your medicine or have other roadblocks, talk to your doctor, pharmacist and other healthcare provider to determine your best options to gain access to the treatments you need.

Limit your alcohol and caffeine intake: Maybe you enjoy a glass of wine, a beer, wine or cocktail during the weekend? The key to drinking alcohol is moderation. But what does this mean?

  • Moderate alcohol use is defined as 1 to 2 drinks per day for men and 1 drink per day for women. In general, this means 5 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of regular beer, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof liquor.
  • Alcoholic beverages can be laden with calories and contribute to weight gain or obesity.
  • Excessive use of alcohol or caffeine may increase your risk of an abnormal heart rhythm or rate (arrhythmia), high blood pressure, or stroke.
  • Other serious medical problems can occur with excessive alcohol use, such as stroke, breast cancer, liver disease, depression and suicide. Accidents, alcohol abuse and alcoholism are unfortunate by-products of uncontrolled alcohol consumption.

Lower your stress: Although research is ongoing to better understand the link, managing your stress and mental health are an important part of keeping your heart healthy.

  • Stress may contribute to poor habits that fuel the risk for heart disease, like overeating, smoking, and lack of physical activity. Chronic, ongoing stress may lead to high blood pressure, which can increase your risk for a heart attack or stroke.
  • Luckily, some of the things you do to keep a healthy heart, like exercising regularly, can also lower your stress levels. Also consider these tips: maintain a positive attitude, learn and practice relaxation techniques, get adequate and uninterrupted sleep (7 to 9 hours a night for adults), and maintain your social network of family and friends.
  • Find the triggers of stress in your life and try to reduce and manage it. Your healthcare provider can be a great resource to help you manage stress in your life, too.

Bottom Line

  • Diet, smoking and other lifestyle behaviors can increase your risk for heart disease, but you can modify this risk by changing your behaviors.
  • Focus on the major risk factors, like stopping smoking and tobacco use, weight management, and a more healthy diet. Talk to your doctor about smoking cessation programs, focus on guideline-driven weight loss management and not fad diets, consider consulting with a dietician and incorporate regular exercise activity into your weekly routine.
  • Change can be hard, so rely on the advice of your healthcare provider to guide you to local resources and best practices to keep your heart in top shape.

This is not all the information you need to know about this medical question and does not take the place of your doctor’s directions. Always discuss this information and any questions you have with your doctor or other health care provider.


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