Do you ever feel intimidated by the idea of making a major overhaul to your life in the name of improving your heart health? You’re not alone. But you don’t have to do a total 180 to get your heart in shape. Cardiologist Dr. Keith Churchwell, executive director and chief medical officer of the Vanderbilt Heart & Vascular Institute in Nashville, Tenn., recommends starting with one or two strategies and building up. “That way, you don’t overwhelm yourself,” he says.
Here are a few small changes to increase your activity level and improve your diet for your heart’s sake:
Buy a pedometer—and use it. A pedometer is a small electronic device that clips onto your clothing and measures the number of steps you take. Ideally you should aim for 10,000 steps per day, says Churchwell. “Start counting your steps and see how many you get in one day,” he suggests. Pedometers run about $10-20 and can be found at sporting-goods stores or even the fitness section of your local discount retailer.
Squeeze in extra steps. Does 10,000 steps sound daunting? Then just add a few extra steps to your daily routine, a little at a time. Park your car at the far end of the parking lot when you arrive at work in the morning. Reserve part of your lunch hour for a walk around the building. Take the stairs instead of using the elevator. Take your dog for an after-dinner walk.
Eat less. We all know we should eat less for the sake of heart health, but we sometimes eat even more than we realize. No matter how hungry you are, don’t start out with an oversized plate of food. “Think about your portions,” Churchwell says. Take about half as much as you think you’ll eat and set the rest aside for later. And use smaller plates to trick your brain into thinking you’re eating more.
Buy prepackaged fruits and veggies. If you’re busy—and who isn’t?—consider paying a little extra for pre-washed, pre-wrapped healthy foods like carrots, broccoli or snow peas. “They are more expensive, but you are better off choosing something like that than a totally empty-calorie food,” says registered dietitian Rachel Johnson, a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. You’ll save in the long run by cutting your heart attack risk.
Make rainy-day plans. Sometimes it rains. Don’t let that discourage you from getting some exercise. “Have an alternate plan for inclement weather—walking at the mall indoors, or on a treadmill,” says Dr. Evans Kemp, a cardiologist with Saint Thomas Heart in Nashville.
Remove temptations. Take the salt shaker off the table if you’re always inclined to liberally season your food. Your arteries will thank you. Churchwell also suggests cleaning out your pantry and getting rid of any unhealthy foods that seriously stress your willpower—and your blood pressure.
Stop smoking. OK, this is actually a major change, not a small one. But try to approach it one cigarette at a time. “I always point out that in addition to the significant health benefits, think of the financial savings in no longer having to buy cigarettes,” says Kemp.