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The first step is to see your doctor for a thorough checkup. Tell your doctor you want help in achieving your goal of heart health. And don’t hesitate because research shows that women can lower their heart disease risk enormously—by 82 percent— simply by leading a healthy lifestyle. In most cases, that means following a heart healthy eating plan, getting regular physical activity, maintaining a healthy weight, and not smoking. Some women also may need to take medication to control heart disease risk factors. To get started, read on.

Eat for Health
You can greatly improve the condition of your heart by eating healthfully. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which has a Food Guide Pyramid, helps you make healthy food choices. The Dietary Guidelines tell you to: choose a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, and moderate in total fat; choose a variety of grains daily, especially whole grains; choose a variety of fruits and vegetables daily; choose beverages and foods to moderate your intake of sugars; choose and prepare foods with less salt; and if you drink alcoholic beverages, do so in moderation. The Dietary Guidelines also emphasize that you should aim for a healthy weight, be physically active each day, and keep food safe to eat.

If you have high blood pressure or high blood cholesterol, you may need to make some additional lifestyle changes.

Blood Pressure and the DASH Eating Plan
If you have high blood pressure or high normal blood pressure, you can help to lower it by adopting the DASH eating plan. DASH, stands for “Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension,” emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole-grain foods, and low fat dairy products. It is rich in magnesium, potassium, and calcium, as well as protein and fiber. It is low in saturated and total fat and cholesterol, and limits red meat, sweets, and sugar-containing beverages. Salt (sodium chloride) and other forms of sodium affect blood pressure. You should consume no more than 2,400 mg of sodium a day—1,500 mg per day is even better. If you follow the DASH diet and cut down on sodium, you will get even greater blood pressure benefits.

High Blood Cholesterol and the TLC Program
If you need to lower your LDL cholesterol, you may want to consider a program called TLC, which stands for “Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes.” The TLC program calls for increased physical activity, weight control, and a special eating plan. On the TLC eating plan, you should have less than 7 percent of your day’s calories from saturated fat, less than 200 milligrams of dietary cholesterol per day, and just enough calories to achieve or maintain a healthy weight.

Learn New Moves
Regular physical activity is a powerful way to keep your heart healthy. To get benefits, you need only do about 30 minutes of moderate-level activity on most, and preferably all, days of the week. Examples are brisk walking, gardening, or bike riding. If necessary, you can choose shorter periods of at least 10 minutes each, as long as you total about 30 minutes of activity that day. Further, from midlife on, women can particularly benefit from weight-bearing activities, which keep bones healthier. Good weight-bearing activities include walking, lifting hand weights, and carrying groceries. Also helpful are activities that promote flexibility and balance, such as T’ai Chi and yoga.

Aim for a Healthy Weight
If you are overweight, taking off pounds can directly reduce your chances of developing heart disease. If you’re overweight, even a small weight loss will help to lower your risk of heart disease and other medical conditions. At the very least, try to avoid gaining added weight. When it comes to weight loss, there are no quick fixes. Lasting weight loss requires a change of lifestyle, which includes adopting a healthy, lower-calorie eating plan and getting regular physical activity. Aim to lose no more than 1/2 to 2 pounds per week. If you have a lot of weight to lose, ask your doctor, a registered dietitian, or a qualified nutritionist to help you develop a sensible plan for gradual weight loss.

Kick the Smoking Habit
There is nothing easy about giving up cigarettes, but with a plan of action, you can do it. Become aware of your personal smoking “triggers”—the situations that typically bring on the urge to light up—and replace them with new activities. Eat healthfully, get regular physical activity, and ask friends and family for support. You also may want to participate in an organized program to help people quit smoking, offered by many hospitals, health organizations, and workplaces. Also, several medications are now available to help people stop smoking. Ask your doctor whether you should try any of these medicines.