How To Improve Heart Health

Physical activity decreases the potential for being overweight and lowers stress, cholesterol levels. 

by Leann Reynolds • Member { View Profile }
Photograph: iStock

There is good news and not-so-good news for women with heart disease. The good news is that women under age 65 are less likely than men to have a heart attack. Unfortunately, heart attacks are more likely to be fatal in women under age 65.

“First and most important thing is each woman needs to understand her own risk for heart disease,” said Dr. Malissa Wood, clinical cardiologist and staff physician in the Cardiac Ultrasound Laboratory at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. “There is no doubt that the healthier you are, the more you exercise, the lower your risk of dying from stroke or other blood vessel disease.”

When people become or stay physically active on a regular basis they lower their risk for heart disease because they are decreasing their chances of becoming over weight, lowering their stress levels, and lowering cholesterol levels — all things that can lead to heart disease when increased.

Whatever the risk, be it genetic or behavioral, the fact is that heart disease is most likely preventable. Avoiding risk factors such as smoking, a sedentary lifestyle, and a bad diet can help, but there also has to be action in choosing a heart healthy diet and a good fitness program.

Each person should see a doctor to discuss her individual risk for heart disease before starting a new exercise program. “It’s not safe to go out and run for every 45-year old woman,” said Dr. Wood.

It’s not just family history or smoking that are red flags for heart disease. Dr. Wood said that excessive fatigue and heart palpitations are signs of heart disease and people should seek medical attention. “Understand what kind of shape you are in,” she said. “Look at overall health and ask, ‘What is the best thing I can do to start getting fit?’.”

In fact, take a walk to think it over. It turns out getting fit can be as simple as putting one foot in front of the other. The American Heart Association recommends walking and has created a website,, with online tools to motivate people. There are Walking Paths apps, ways to connect with local walkers, create walking plan and many other helpful resources to keep people moving and preventing heart disease.

“Walking is best to start,” said Dr. Wood. “It’s very low impact and there are plenty of places to walk indoors when the weather is bad. It’s a good aerobic workout and for beginners it’s great.” Plus, it’s free.

Whether you choose walking or joining a gym to use the elliptical machine, Dr. Wood suggests finding a buddy to keep you accountable. “One thing we know is if there is no accountability factor, people are less likely to stick with it,” she said. “There are a million and one excuses for why you don’t show up to exercise, and they will know that you passed on doing it.”

And another bonus to partnering up is to make your physical activity fun, rather than a chore. Making a plan to walk every day with a friend or family member can create a social engagement rather than an accountability workout to check off the list.

Dr. Wood said that the recommended amount of physical activity for a healthy heart is 150 minutes per week, but that as little as 70 minutes per week can be good for you. “Break it into little increments,” she said. “Even small amounts of exercise are beneficial.” Thirty minutes of walking per day can quickly add up, and can be done as part of a commute with public transportation or as a workout.

WomenHeart, The National Coalition for Heart Disease, has a list of “8 Easy Steps to Get More Physically Active” on their website. This short list offers simple ideas to get moving and increase your heart health. WomenHeart was founded by three women who survived heart attacks in their 40s.

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