For heart health, small changes make a big difference

February 13, 2024 Swedish Heart & Vascular Team


In this article:

  • Learn about the major lifestyle changes you can make to avoid heart disease.
  • If you check your blood pressure at home, be sure you are doing it correctly.
  • Adopt a diet low in processed foods and high in fruits and vegetables, such as the Mediterranean diet.
  • Listen to the Providence Heart Institute's Heart Matters podcast featuring a Swedish expert to learn about cardiac health. 

Your heartbeat is one of the primary measurements of good health.  And when you have a fully functioning heart, you are better able to live an active life and engage in the activities you love.

Alexander Pan, M.D., a cardiologist at Swedish Heart & Vascular – Issaquah in Issaquah, Washington, recently participated in the Providence Heart Institute’s Heart Matters podcast about how you can take care of your heart. “You spend 100% of your time in your body, so you need to make sure it’s a comfortable place to be,” he says.

While there are certainly some aspects of heart disease that are unavoidable, such as genetics, 90% of it is preventable. Here, Dr. Pan discusses some of the biggest lifestyle changes you can make to avoid heart disease.

Stop smoking

Smoking is the cause of one in every four deaths from cardiovascular disease. Tobacco products can:

  • Make blood more likely to clot, which deprives the heart and brain of oxygen.
  • Increase the buildup of plaque (fatty substances) in the blood vessels.
  • Narrow blood vessels, restricting blood flow.
  • Increase triglycerides, which are a type of fat in your blood.

“It’s important to stop smoking before you have major heart problems,” says Dr. Pan. “You don’t want to find out that stopping smoking is important after you have already damaged your health.”

Recent studies have also shown that vaping, too, can increase your risk for heart disease.

Lower your blood pressure

According to the American Heart Association (AHA), your blood pressure should be below 120/80. If your blood pressure is above 140/90, you are considered to be in Stage 2 hypertension, or high blood pressure, which puts you at great risk for a heart attack, stroke or other heart event.

If you can check your blood pressure at home, Dr. Pan says it’s very important that you know how to do so. You should:

  • Relax. Make sure your feet are on the ground, your back is supported, and you’re completely calm for five minutes.
  • Not consume caffeine, exercise or smoke for 30 minutes before your check your blood pressure.
  • Remove the clothing on your arm before checking your blood pressure.
  • Support your arm. It should not be dangling, and the blood pressure cuff should be at the level of your heart.
  • Use an appropriately sized blood pressure cuff.
  • Wait at least two minutes before checking your blood pressure again.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has information on how and when to check your blood pressure here

Watch your diet

Contrary to what some people might believe, a diet that’s low in fat isn’t necessarily healthy for your heart. Rather than focusing on limiting your fat, eat fewer processed meats and foods with a limited amount of sodium.

Dr. Pan suggests the Mediterranean diet, which is high in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, nuts and seeds, and olive oil. The foundation of the diet is plant-based foods, plus moderate amounts of poultry, seafood and diary. The big difference between the Mediterranean diet and other popular diets is that it limits red meat to just a small amount.

“Studies have shown that people who follow a Mediterranean diet have lower incidences of stroke, heart disease, Parkinson’s disease and other conditions,” says Dr. Pan.

While high-fat, low-carbohydrate diets like the ketogenic diet are a popular way to lose weight, Dr. Pan cautions those who follow them to be careful. “It’s fine to limit the number of carbohydrates in your diet, but you shouldn’t be replacing them with animal fats and proteins,” he says. “Those can lead to a higher risk of heart disease.”

Exercise regularly

While aerobic exercise is certainly very important for a healthy heart, Dr. Pan cautions you not to forget about resistance training, too. “Working out with weights and other forms of resistance can improve your physical function, sugar control and possibly your blood pressure, too,” he says. “You should engage in a combination of both aerobic and resistance exercises. The more you do, the lower your risk of a heart event.”

According to the AHA, adults should participate in at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week, or at least 75 minutes of vigorous exercise; add resistance training at least two days per week; and avoid prolonged sitting. Learn more about the AHA's physical activity recommendations for kids and adults here

Limit alcohol

While diets such as the Mediterranean diet allow for a moderate amount of alcohol, excess alcohol can compromise cardiac health. Alcohol can increase the triglycerides in your blood, which leads to fatty buildup in your arteries. It also can lead to high blood pressure and cause cardiac arrhythmias.

What’s more, binge drinking (five or more drinks in two hours for men, and four or more drinks for women) can lead to atrial fibrillation, a dangerous irregular heart rhythm.

Experts recommend no more than two drinks per day for men, and no more than one drink a day for women.

Prioritize self-care

Dr. Pan points out that when you’re on an airplane, you are instructed to put on your own oxygen mask in an emergency before tending to anyone else. Similarly, he says, it’s important to take care of your own heart health so you can take care of your family.

“If you’re not well, you can’t help others,” he says.

Learn more and find a provider

The team of specialists at the Swedish Heart & Vascular Institute has access to the latest treatments and technology and the expertise to know how to use it safely and effectively. Call 206-320-4100 to learn more about the cardiac care we offer.

Whether you require an in-person visit or want to consult a doctor virtually, you have options. Contact Swedish Primary Care to schedule an appointment with a primary care provider. You can also connect virtually with your clinician to review your symptoms, provide instruction and follow up as needed. And with Swedish ExpressCare Virtual you can receive treatment in minutes for common conditions such as colds, flu, urinary tract infections, and more. You can use our provider directory to find a specialist or primary care physician near you. 

Information for patients and visitors 

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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional’s instructions.

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About the Author

The Swedish Heart & Vascular Team is committed to bringing you many years of expertise and experience to help you understand how to prevent, treat and recover from cardiovascular diseases and conditions. From tips to eating better to exercise and everything in between, our clinical experts know how to help you help your heart.

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