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Nutrition and Exercise: Healthy Balance for a Healthy Heart

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How does what I eat affect my heart?

The food you eat can affect the way blood flows through your heart and arteries. A diet high in fat and cholesterol can gradually cause a buildup (called "plaque") in your arteries. That buildup slows down the blood flow and blocks small arteries. If the blockage happens in an artery that carries blood to the heart muscle, a heart attack can occur. If the blockage happens in an artery that carries blood to the brain, a stroke can occur. The right diet helps keep your arteries clear and reduces the risk of heart problems and stroke.

Tips for a heart-healthy diet:

  • Eat less fat (especially butter, coconut and palm oil, saturated or hydrogenated vegetable fats such as Crisco, animal fats in meats and fats in dairy products).
  • Use nonstick vegetable oil cooking sprays instead of oils.
  • Buy lean cuts of meat, and eat fish, skinless chicken and turkey instead of beef.
  • Try low-fat snacks that have been baked instead of fried, such as pretzels.
  • Choose low-fat dairy products, such as skim milk, and low-fat cheese, yogurt and margarine.
  • Try to limit how many sweets you eat.
  • Eat no more than 4 egg yolks a week (use egg whites or egg substitutes).
  • Bake, broil, steam or grill foods instead of frying them.
  • Eat fewer "fast foods" (burgers, fried foods), which are high in fat. Instead, eat more fruits, vegetables and carbohydrates (rice, pasta, breads, grains).
  • Drink low-calorie beverages, such as unsweetened tea or diet soda pop.

Why is exercise good for my heart?

Exercise makes your heart stronger, helping it pump more blood with each heartbeat. The blood then delivers more oxygen to your body, which helps it function more efficiently. Exercise can also lower blood pressure, reduce your risk of heart disease and reduce levels of LDL ("bad" cholesterol), which clogs the arteries and can cause a heart attack. At the same time, exercise can raise levels of HDL ("good" cholesterol), which helps protect against heart disease.

Combined with a healthy diet, exercise can speed up weight loss. Exercise is also the best way to maintain weight loss. Regular exercise also helps you burn calories faster, even when you're sitting still.

What's the best type of exercise for my heart?

Aerobic exercise causes you to breathe more deeply and makes your heart work harder to pump blood. Aerobic exercise also raises your heart rate (which also burns calories). Examples of aerobic exercise include walking, jogging, running, swimming and bicycling.

How much exercise do I need?

In general, if you haven't been exercising, try to work up to 30 minutes, 4 to 6 times a week. Your doctor may make a different recommendation based on your health. If you can't carry on a conversation while you exercise, you may be overdoing it. It is best to alternate exercise days with rest days to prevent injuries.

How will I fit exercise into my busy schedule?

There are lots of ways to raise your heart rate during your regular day. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Walk during a coffee break or lunch. Walk to work, or park at the end of the parking lot so you have to walk farther. Walk more briskly. Do housework at a quicker pace and more often (for example, vacuuming every day). Rake leaves, push the lawn mower or do other yard work.

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