Eight essentials for heart health


In this article:

  • "Life’s Essential 8" is a set of guidelines recommended by the American Heart Association to help you maintain a healthy heart. 

  • The list includes diet, exercise, tobacco use, weight, cholesterol, blood sugar, sleep and blood pressure.

  • With some simple tests, your physician can help you calculate your own heart health based on your lifestyle factors.

  • Take the short quiz at the end of this blog to learn more about your own risk. 

Sometimes, the best care comes down to focusing on the basics. And according to the American Heart Association (AHA), that's true for taking care of our heart. The AHA recommends “Life’s Essential 8,” a list of fundamental habits and primary health factors vital to keeping your heart as health as possible. 

"Heart disease is more likely to occur under a certain set of risk factors," says Swedish Cardiologist John Chen, M.D. "These include sedentary lifestyle, tobacco use, obesity, high cholesterol, diabetes, and hypertension. Modifying risk factors is an essential strategy to preserving cardiovascular health."

Why is heart health important?

Cardiovascular disease is the No. 1 cause of death in the United States, but in many cases it's preventable. These guidelines from the AHA can help you and those you love in the best position to help your heart stay healthy.

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

What are the Essential 8?

Health behaviors

  • Eat healthfully. Include 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.

"The Mediterranean diet is well-studied and emphasizes fruits, vegetables, beans, and nuts. These principles can be adapted according to your diverse customs and culture," says Dr. Chen. "For individuals trying to lose weight, start by cutting out sugary drinks such as sodas and juices."

Health factors

  • Manage weight. Use body mass index (BMI) to gauge healthy weight. According to the CDC, a BMI of between 18.5 and 24.9 is a healthy weight for an adult. 
  • 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.

Sleep is critical to heart health 

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.

"Genetics is also an important risk factor, particularly if there are family members who developed cardiovascular disease at a young age," adds Dr. Chen. "Beyond checking cholesterol numbers, I also recommend obtaining a coronary calcium score, which is a screening test for early detection of heart disease."

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.

"It's a good idea to see a cardiologist if you have troubling symptoms such as chest pressure, uncontrolled risk factors such as high cholesterol, or a family history of heart problems such as heart attack," Dr. Chen says. "Consult with your primary care physician if you are unsure."

Learn more and find a practitioner

Whether you require an in-person visit or want to consult a doctor virtually, you have options. Contact Swedish Heart & Vascular Institute to schedule an appointment with a cardiovascular provider. You can also connect virtually with your provider 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

Related resources

Are you at risk for heart disease? Take this short quiz to learn more.

Patient goes the distance for TAVR

For heart health, small changes make a big difference

Swedish is a destination for innovative, world-class care

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

Providence Swedish experts in the media

Follow us on FacebookInstagram and X

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.

More Content by Swedish Heart & Vascular Team
Previous Article
Perimenopause and menopause: myths, reality and how to cope
Perimenopause and menopause: myths, reality and how to cope

Menopause is often misunderstood, leading to unnecessary anxiety. Learn the truth about some common myths s...

Next Article
4 strategies for learning how to argue mindfully
4 strategies for learning how to argue mindfully

Arguing mindfully can turn the discomfort of conflict into something positive — an opportunity to grow. Her...