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Reducing Heart Disease Risk
What Do We Know Now?

by Bonnie Bruce, DrPH, MPH, RD

Keep in mind, too, that some folks may have to make dozens of attempts at quitting before they find a strategy that works or before things fall into place that open the doors to stopping smoking. This is not unusual, so don’t feel badly if it happens. Most important, don’t give up and don’t think any less of yourself if it takes many tries. Think of quitting smoking as a process and a positive, long-term challenge, while you continue to search for that particular approach that will work for you.

Next, there is exercise. If you are inactive now, by exercising regularly, you can reduce your risk of a heart attack up to half. Regular physical activity helps your body all over. Not only does it help reduce blood pressure and make your heart work more efficiently and effectively, but it also helps with blood glucose control. Exercise also burns calories, so it helps with weight management, and when you exercise regularly, you can eat more calories without gaining weight. Best of all is that being physically active can make you feel better and have more energy.

Yet the very thought of getting out there and moving on a regular basis is unpleasant or insufficiently motivating to many people. This is evidenced by the fact that only a fraction of the US population is physically active.

Current guidelines recommend that most American adults get a total of at least 30 minutes of exercise most days of the week. You don’t need to do intense or heavy activity, which for many people may not be feasible. Activities like moderate walking and gardening, done regularly and over the long term, are just fine. You also don’t need to do all of the 30 minutes in one shot. Breaking up your 30 minutes of exercise over the day into, for example, three 10-minute bouts of activity, still gives you benefits. Simple ways to increase your activity level are to walk instead of drive when you can, park your car at the far end of the lot, take stairs instead of the elevator when you have only one or two floors to go up or down, use a printer in another room, or just walk around when you are talking on the phone.

Heart-healthy eating has long been promoted as one of the ways to help reduce risk of heart disease, and for good reason: It works.

The key to eating well and eating healthfully is not as restrictive as many people imagine. There is no such thing as a “bad” food or a “good” food, just good and bad ways of eating. There are a few major principles to heart-healthy eating, which can be summarized in one sentence: “Eat a moderate amount of a wide variety of colorful, minimally processed foods.”

In other words, make most of your diet come from foods that are as close to nature as possible. Fill half of your plate with varied and colorful fresh, frozen, or canned fruits and vegetables, and a fourth with grains (making at least half of them whole grains, such as brown rice or quinoa instead of refined white rice or regular pasta). Then finish off the rest of your plate with protein, such as lean, unprocessed meat, fish, or poultry. Don’t forget about tofu, cooked dried beans, lentils, and peas as alternatives to animal protein sources. Also consider including some nuts and seeds in your meals, which are great for heart health. For dressings and condiments, substitute olive or canola oil for butter, stick margarine, or shortening, and use soft margarines. By eating a moderate amount and a wide variety of these kinds of foods, you will get an abundance of essential vitamins, minerals, fiber, and especially plant chemicals (called phytochemicals) that will help promote health and reduce heart disease risk.

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