Give your heart a healthy start

Your heart is the main pump in an intricate system that delivers oxygen and nutrients to all parts of your body.

Keeping that pump in great shape will help you feel good and prevent heart disease. Even if you haven’t always taken great care of your heart, it’s never too late to start. From the food you eat to the steps you take, slow steady changes to your lifestyle are the best way to assure you can stick to them for the long-term. Here are some areas to focus on:

Food as fuel: The best foods for your heart are low in saturated fats, cholesterol and sodium.

Carefully read labels on prepared foods to see what’s included and avoid products that are made with trans fats and hydrogenated vegetable oils. Also check the sodium content and aim for 2 grams or less per day (that’s about one-third teaspoon of salt).

For protein, choose lean cuts of chicken and turkey and eat more soy protein and fish, including salmon, tuna and sardines which have cholesterol lowering omega-3 fatty acids. Enjoy a little red meat every now and then but in small portions.

Consider drinking low fat or skim milk rather than whole and try reducing or eliminating butter on bread. When cooking and baking, look for lower fat substitutes for butter like olive oil and applesauce.

You can cut your cholesterol intake by eating more fruits, vegetables, beans and whole-grain foods.

Get moving: Exercise helps keep your heart strong, reduces stress, and can improve your mental health, too. The most important thing is to find something you enjoy that gets your heart rate up for about 30 minutes each day. Get outdoors and take a walk with a friend, learn to tap dance, or join a gym.

You can even break that into three ten minute intervals if that’s easier for you to fit into your schedule. If you’re motivated by numbers, consider wearing a Fitbit or pedometer to track your movement for the day.

No smoking: The list of risk factors for just about every disease, including heart disease, includes one word-smoking.

Don’t do it, and don’t ingest secondhand smoke either. If you or a loved one need help quitting, talk to your primary care provider for helpful resources.

The good news is that your heart will begin to rejuvenate after you quit and so will your bank account.

Know your numbers: When is the last time you had readings of your blood pressure or cholesterol levels?

You should have these monitored regularly.

A good blood pressure is around 120/80 mm Hg.

A good total cholesterol level is 200 mg/DL or lower. If your doctor has prescribed medications to control your blood pressure or cholesterol, use them as directed. Over time, in consultation with your doctor and with exercise and dietary changes, you may be able to eliminate the need for medication.

Manage your stress: Avoiding stress is ideal, but it’s part of life. Your best defense is to learn how to manage it.

Getting regular exercise will help and so will listening to music and taking time to meditate. Looking for reasons to laugh-funny videos, sitcoms, comics and finding humor in everyday situations-can also reduce stress. Long-term, seek out friendships through clubs, shared hobbies, church, or other community networks. Planning ahead and drawing a bold line between family time and work can also help you reduce stress.

Remember, don’t try to change everything all at once.

Making one small change to help your heart is better than doing nothing at all.

Choose an area where you believe you can have success and start there. Chances are the benefits will spill into other areas. And if you have questions or need help making a change to improve your health, talk to your primary care provider for help locating additional resources.

For more information on how to stay heart smart, visit


(Specializing in the diagnosis and treatment of heart disease, Dr. Donald T. Nardone is board certified in cardiovascular disease and interventional cardiology, providing cardiology services with UPMC Susquehanna’s Heart & Vascular Institute. Serving patients of the region for nearly 25 years, he is a Fellow in the American College of Cardiology and the Society for Cardiac Angiography and Interventions.)