The start of the year can feel like a time of endless possibilities — when you decide you’ll finally clean out your closet, find love, or shed those stubborn 10 pounds. The reality, of course, is that realistic New Year’s resolutions are about setting priorities, not trying to fix everything at once.
This year, consider prioritizing your heart health. It might not be as trendy or flashy as other New Year’s resolutions, but there are plenty of reasons to do so. Heart disease is the leading cause of death for women, men, and nearly every racial and ethnic group in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And the factors that often contribute to heart disease — like high blood pressure, increased blood lipid (cholesterol and triglyceride) levels, and prediabetes or type 2 diabetes — can begin long before you’re diagnosed with any heart condition or experience a cardiovascular event like a heart attack or stroke.
When it comes to prioritizing heart health, “Some people are really shocked into action,” says Helga Van Herle, MD, a cardiologist and associate professor of clinical medicine at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. That could happen, she says, following a diagnosis of heart disease or being prescribed a cholesterol-lowering medication.
But you may be able to avoid getting to that point by taking action now — and nudging your lifestyle in a heart-healthy direction. “Some of the basic stuff that rings true is actually the most important” when it comes to heart health, says Evan Shalen, MD, a cardiologist and assistant professor of medicine at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland.
Here are six simple goals you can set right now to prioritize your heart health.
1. Schedule an Annual Checkup
If you already have a diagnosis of heart disease, you may be seeing your doctor on a regular basis. But for most people without heart disease, it’s important to get a sense of your heart risk by seeing a doctor for an annual checkup.
“Knowing your numbers is very important,” says Eugene Yang, MD, a cardiologist and clinical professor of medicine at the University of Washington in Bellevue. These numbers include measurements such as your body weight, blood pressure, blood cholesterol and triglycerides, and tests (such as hemoglobin A1C) that can show prediabetes or type 2 diabetes.
Your doctor can use these numbers to calculate your 10-year and lifetime risk of having a cardiovascular event, Dr. Van Herle notes — meaning how likely you are to have a heart attack or stroke, or require certain procedures like a stent placement, in the next 10 years and for the rest of your life. Knowing your risk level, she says, is a good starting point for a discussion about what you can or should be doing to reduce that risk. That’s especially important, she says, “if you have medical conditions that portend a higher risk of heart disease, like hypertension, high cholesterol, or diabetes.”
2. Stay Physically Active
When it comes to lifestyle habits, “The No. 1 recommendation that I give people is to make sure they’re staying active,” says Dr. Shalen. And that’s not just for older people, or those with a high cardiovascular risk based on their numbers. “As I see people aging, the ones that are able to stay active and feel well later in life are generally folks who have also been active throughout their life,” he notes.
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that most adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity each week — something that can be integrated into your daily activities, like walking your dog, biking to work, gardening, or dancing. You can gain even more health benefits by getting at least 300 minutes (five hours) of weekly moderate-intensity activity, and by doing resistance or weight training at least twice a week.
If you’re already getting the minimum amount of activity and are in decent shape, Shalen recommends pushing yourself a bit. “When you’re walking, walk faster or maybe do a little bit of jogging mixed in,” he suggests. “Or seek out a hill that you can walk up, so that there’s some sort of progressive element.”
As you engage in more challenging or strenuous physical activity, your heart and the structures it interacts with (such as blood vessels) become more efficient, and your muscles get better at using oxygen — all of which improves your cardiovascular health over time.
3. Make Realistic Lifestyle Changes
Physical activity is, of course, just one area where someone could make heart-healthy lifestyle changes. But when it comes to setting goals, try not to set yourself up for failure or disappointment.
“I think part of the way to be more successful is to create modest goals,” suggests Dr. Yang. “Think about one thing that you really think you can be committed to. If you have too many things, then some things you do well, and other things you don’t do well.”
And even in the lifestyle area that you choose to prioritize, be realistic. For example, Yang says, “Some patients will come in and say, ‘I will lose 20 pounds in three months.’ And I will say, ‘If you can do that, fantastic. But what is a goal that is more achievable?’ It might be 5 pounds or 10 pounds.” It’s more important, he says, to “move the needle” consistently in an area of health or lifestyle than to achieve any single goal.
Here are some examples of modest goals you could set to improve your health:
- Walking to work three days a week
- Cutting back on your daily alcohol intake
- Preparing meals at home five days a week
- Cutting back on animal fats and replacing them with olive oil, avocados, or nuts and seeds
- Making a smoking cessation plan with your doctor
When setting and evaluating your goals, focus on mindfulness and accountability, Van Herle says. “Recognize what your limits are, and reflect on what you’ve been doing,” she urges. That might mean changing a goal when you’ve been struggling with it, such as going from a daily to weekly workout target to give yourself more flexibility.
There’s more than one way to hold yourself accountable in sticking to your goals. “Sometimes it’s having a buddy there, sometimes it’s coming back to the doctor and saying, ‘I’ve got my fitness tracker, and I’ve been walking this number of steps a day,’” Van Herle suggests.
4. Prioritize Sleep
Healthy sleep is among the AHA’s list of important health behaviors and factors (along with eating better, being more active, quitting tobacco, managing your weight, controlling cholesterol, managing blood sugar, and managing blood pressure). “Adequate sleep promotes healing, improves brain function and reduces the risk for chronic diseases,” the AHA states.
In a study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, irregular sleep patterns was linked to cardiovascular disease.
In addition to making sure you’re following basic health sleep habits described by the AHA, like getting seven to nine hours daily and making sure your bedroom is dark and free of distractions from electronic devices, consider talking to your doctor about getting screened for sleep apnea, a sleep disorder that causes your breathing to become shallow or stop completely during sleep. “Sleep apnea is clearly associated with an increased risk of a number of cardiovascular diseases over time,” says Shalen, and treating it may be the single most important thing someone with the condition can do for their heart health.
5. Stay on Top of Medications
If you’re already taking medications to reduce your risk for heart disease — such as drugs to lower your blood pressure, reduce your cholesterol, or help prevent blood clots — then sticking with your prescribed treatments is one way to improve your heart health.
Unfortunately, many people don’t take their medications as prescribed. Even for people who have already had a heart attack, “We know that the rate of adherence to medications at one year is close to only 50 percent,” says Yang. “That’s a major problem because if people are nonadherent to medications, that dramatically increases the risk of having another event.”
Even if you feel fine, taking medications as directed can help you stay that way. To make sure you remember to take your medications, try using a pill organizer, setting daily reminders on your phone, or going old school by writing out a chart listing all your medications, as described by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.
6. Aim for Relaxation and Stress Reduction
Trying to relax might seem like it’s the complete opposite of pursuing heart-healthy goals, but it’s an essential end by itself. In fact, Van Herle notes, cardiac rehab programs — which typically focus on structured exercise for people who have had a cardiovascular event like a heart attack, or undergone a procedure like stent placement — also often include a stress management component like meditation or gentle yoga.
And even as you pursue your heart-healthy goals, remember to be kind to yourself if you don’t follow through as well as you’d like to. “It’s easy in the moment around the New Year” to stick with new goals or habits, Van Herle says. “But it’s harder in the long term.”