Eight essentials for heart health


In this article:

  • February is American Heart Month. The American Heart Association recently revised its “Life’s Simple 7” to “Life’s Essential 8,” adding sleep as an important factor for your heart health.

  • The “Essential 8” includes diet, exercise, tobacco use, weight, cholesterol, blood sugar and blood pressure.

  • You can calculate your own heart health based on your lifestyle factors and some simple tests from your physician.

It's American Heart Month. Have you given thought to how you care for your heart? The American Heart Association (AHA) recently revised its “Life’s Simple 7” guidelines to add one more tip for keeping your heart beating at its best. The new guidelines, “Life’s Essential 8,” include several health behaviors and health factors that contribute to your heart health.

These health behaviors and factors are actionable ways to build healthy habits to support your and your family’s heart health. Implementing these guidelines into your daily habits means a better chance of preventing disease before it becomes a problem.

Why is heart health important?

Cardiovascular disease is the No. 1 cause of death in the U.S., but heart disease is, in many cases, preventable. By following these guidelines from the AHA, you put yourself in the best position to help your heart stay healthy.

Practicing healthy behaviors and preventive care can help prevent heart disease and stroke – two extreme conditions – and help to lower the chance of developing other diseases and risk factors like obesity, type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure.

It’s much better for your health to prevent these issues in the first place than receive treatment after a major cardiovascular event such as a heart attack or stroke.

What are the Essential 8?

The AHA included four health behaviors and four health factors in the Essential 8. The behaviors are things you can modify, while the factors are biometric measures:

Health behaviors

  • Eat better: Include a mix of whole foods, fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, nuts and seeds.
  • Be more active: For adults, that means 150 minutes of moderate or 75 minutes of vigorous activity per week.
  • Quit tobacco: This includes eliminating cigarettes, e-cigarettes and vaping, as well as exposure to secondhand smoke.
  • Get healthy sleep: That means seven to nine hours per night for adults.

Health factors

  • Manage weight: Use body mass index (BMI) to gauge healthy weight. Ideal BMI is around 25.
  • Control cholesterol: Your doctor may track your non-HDL cholesterol (or “bad” cholesterol).
  • Manage blood sugar: Your physician will likely track your A1C to check your blood sugar levels.
  • Manage blood pressure: Ideally, blood pressure levels should be less than 120/80 mm Hg.

Why did sleep get added to the Essential 8?

People who have healthy, regular sleep can better manage risk factors like weight and blood pressure which contribute to cardiovascular disease. Practicing good sleep hygiene boosts your chances of a good night’s sleep.

Good sleep hygiene includes:

  • Avoiding caffeine, sugar and alcohol before bed when they can impact sleep.
  • Going to sleep and waking up around the same time every day.
  • Keeping your bedroom dark and quiet.
  • Removing screens that can distract you or expose you to blue light before bed.

What steps can I take to improve and measure my heart health?

In addition to getting good sleep, there are several steps you and your family can take to build healthy habits and lower your risk of cardiovascular disease:

  • Limit alcohol, sodium, added sugars, red meat, processed food and full-fat dairy. Avoid trans fats.
  • Cook at home, where you can better control portions and practice healthier preparations and recipes.
  • Incorporate strength or resistance training a couple of times a week.
  • Move throughout the day, including finding ways to walk more.
  • Make a quit plan to avoid tobacco, including finding ways to deal with stress and identifying support groups.
  • See your physician for regular preventive care to check blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar.

These factors and behaviors can reinforce one another. For example, regular exercise can help improve sleep at night. You can calculate your heart health score at My Life Check, a tool that can help you identify the areas you can work on to build healthful habits for you and your family.

Find a doctor

The Swedish Heart and Vascular Institute is the region's leading cardiovascular care center, offering the broadest range of expertise and sub-specialties for complex conditions. To request an appointment, call 201-320-4100.  
If you have concerns about your health or it’s time for a check-up, it’s important to see a primary care provider. Whether you require an in-person visit or want to consult a doctor virtually, you have options.
Swedish Virtual Care connects you face-to-face with a nurse practitioner who can review your symptoms, provide instruction and follow up as needed. If you need to find a doctor, you can use our provider directory.
Additional resources

Reduce your weight to increase your health

Don't have another. Alcohol consumption can raise atrial fibrillation risk

Heart Month raises awareness, promotes prevention to save lives


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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