Heart Health Tips From a Top Cardiologist (cont.)

If you need to lose weight, it's going to take a little more effort. "For weight management, we want low to moderate intensity activities for 60 minutes per day," says Mosca. "The only way to really lose weight is to decrease calories in and increase calories out, and what works best is a modest approach to both. If you just reduce your caloric intake, for example, your body slows its metabolism to compensate."

Exactly what kind of exercise you do is less important than simply doing it in the first place. One way to make sure you don't skip it: Structure family time around physical activity.

For example, Mosca, her husband, and son have found a track team they can all participate in, and they often hang out at their local swim club. Your local YMCA is often a great place to start in finding opportunities for your family to get heart-healthy exercise together.

Do You Know Your Other Heart Health Risk Factors?

A heart-healthy lifestyle is about more than just diet and exercise. The single most dangerous thing you can do to your heart is to smoke. Just by itself, cigarette smoking increases your risk of heart disease, but it also worsens other factors that contribute to heart disease:

  • It increases blood pressure
  • It increases the tendency of blood to clot
  • It decreases levels of HDL -- the good cholesterol

If you smoke a pack a day, you have more than twice the risk of a heart attack than someone who doesn't smoke.

"Every cigarette you cut back matters," says Mosca. "The goal is always complete cessation, but even eliminating one cigarette a day can make a difference. Start there, and then try to keep going until you've quit altogether."

A big plus: It doesn't take long for your body -- and your heart in particular -- to reap the health benefits of quitting. Twenty minutes after your last cigarette, your heart rate and blood pressure drop. Two weeks to three months later, your circulation and lung function improve. Just one year after quitting, your excess risk of coronary heart disease is just half that of a smoker's.

You may have other risk factors for heart disease that are not on your radar. Mosca calls anxiety, anger, depression, and social isolation "silent epidemics" that are very prevalent, commonly missed, and potentially dangerous for your heart.

"Depression, for example, is very common, and it's very strongly linked to heart disease," she says. "If you or someone you love is depressed or harboring a lot of anger, or seems isolated, encourage them to seek help. There are many methods to help you deal with these risk factors."

A Healthy Heart: What's Up Your Family Tree?

There are some risk factors for heart disease that you can't control, and family history is one of them. If a close relative, like a mother, father, sister, or brother had a heart attack or died of heart disease -- especially at a young age -- then the health of your heart may be at greater risk as well.

"Families can share a predisposition to heart disease both because they have shared genes and a shared lifestyle," says Mosca. You get half your genes from mom and half your genes from dad -- but you probably also get your eating and exercise habits from them, too.

"If you have a family history of heart disease, it's important that you have yourself checked out," says Mosca.

You may find, for example, that you have high cholesterol and it needs to be managed with medication. On the flip side, you may be greatly reassured to find out that Dad's heart attack probably had to do with smoking and being overweight, and you don't share those risk factors. Either way, you can do something about your risk: genetics is not destiny.

The most important thing to understand about a healthy heart is that many of the factors that put you at risk for disease lie within your power to control.

"Even if you're not at high risk now, your most important goal should be to prevent yourself from developing increased risk," says Mosca. "You can do that through a heart-healthy lifestyle."

SOURCES: Lori Mosca, MD, PhD, director, preventive cardiology program, Columbia University Medical Center, New York City. Walter Willett, MD, professor of epidemiology and nutrition, Harvard School of Public Health, Cambridge, Mass. American Heart Association, Dallas. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, Bethesda, Md. American Cancer Society, Atlanta. WebMD Medical Reference: "Heart Disease: Smoking and Heart Disease."

© 2008 WebMD Inc. All rights reserved.

Last Editorial Review: 1/31/2008