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What's More Important for Heart Health – Diet or Exercise?

February 09, 2021

Both diet and exercise are important to controlling your risk for heart disease. People have the best results when they find ways to make positive changes that work for them, including both diet and exercise.

There is no better time than now to begin your heart healthy journey.

What heart disease risk factors can you control?

Some things are out of your control when it comes to heart disease, including your age, sex, race or ethnicity, and family history.

But there are many things you can do right now to lower your risk  – and two of those are eating healthy and getting regular exercise.

What’s the best heart healthy food to prevent heart disease?

According to Hannah Kernzian, who works with patients in Baystate’s Cardiovascular Rehabilitation and Wellness Program, the first step in making heart healthy food choices is to not think of it as a “diet.”

“Eating heart healthy foods should be seen as one way you are committing to a healthy lifestyle. Start by identifying one or two small changes that you can make, and slowly build on them,” she said.

Follow a Mediterranean diet

Kernzian recommends following a Mediterranean style of eating, focusing on choosing more whole grains, vegetables, fruits, legumes, and fatty fish.

Limit salt and trans fats

Limit foods high in saturated and trans fats, added sugar, and sodium. Don’t salt your food. Many Americans consume greater than the 2,300 mg (1 teaspoon) of sodium (salt) a day limit set by the American Dietary Guidelines. A high sodium diet can raise blood pressure and contribute to heart disease.

Eat more vegetables and fruits

Try to make half of your plate vegetables and fruits. If you eat meat, limit red meat (beef and pork) to only once a week and choose the leanest cuts. Better heart healthy meat options would include naturally low-fat skinless chicken and turkey. For one or two meals a week, use legumes like black beans or chickpeas as your protein. Choose olive oil when cooking, and limit use of butter or coconut oil.

How can exercise heal your heart?

“Exercise is a wonderful therapy with dozens of proven benefits. It’s not just heart health. A whole range of benefits come to those who exercise, including improved sleep, less anxiety, less stress, stronger bones, and better balance, in addition to the impact on weight, blood pressure, cholesterol, and diabetes,” said Dr. Quinn Pack, director of Cardiac Rehabilitation and Wellness  at Baystate Medical Center.

Exercise can strengthen your heart and improve your circulation. It can also help you maintain a healthy weight and lower your cholesterol and blood pressure which are other risks for heart disease.

Fitting in Fitness

“Finding time to exercise in your daily routine does not have to be difficult. Try to incorporate small bouts of exercise at the very least. You can take a 15-minute walk in the morning before work and another 15-minute walk at lunch,” said Diana Lane, an exercise physiologist in Baystate’s Cardiac Rehabilitation and Wellness program.

“I would also suggest laying out your workout clothes and sneakers the night before you plan to exercise. This way everything is ready for you and it is the first thing you see when you wake up in the morning. Try to set aside certain blocks of time during the week for exercise and hold yourself accountable. Exercising with a buddy is a great way to do this too,” she added.

Lane noted there are many different ways to get your daily dose of cardiovascular exercise.

3 Kinds of Exercise that Boost Heart Health


“Walking is the easiest and cheapest form of cardiovascular exercise you can do. I am not talking about walking around the grocery store though. For cardiovascular exercise, it should be a planned, at least 10-minute walk at a time, ideally three times a day. Alternatively, you can walk for 30 minutes total if you are able to tolerate it.

Cardiovascular exercise should be done five days a week for a total of 150 minutes a week. More is always better as long as you are not feeling any shortness of breath or chest discomfort. Talk with your doctor if you have any symptoms with exercise,” Lane said.

Aerobic Exercise

“If you have access to cardiovascular equipment whether at home or at a local gym, you can exercise on a stationary bike, elliptical, treadmill, or other equipment. Ask for help if you do not know how to use the equipment. If you enjoy the outdoors, you may opt to ride a bike for exercise, go on a hike, or play a recreational sport.

Aerobic exercise should increase your heart rate by at least 20-30 bpm for a sustained period of time. Over time, this helps your heart to become healthier and also helps to reduce risk factors for heart disease such as obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes,” she added.

Resistance Training

Lane noted resistance training also plays a role in managing cardiovascular risk factors such as obesity and diabetes.

“Resistance training should be done 2-3 times a week. We usually recommend targeting major muscle groups such as legs, arms, shoulders, and back. We recommend completing 10-15 repetitions of an exercise for 1-2 sets for muscular endurance.

Resistance training can most commonly be done using only your own body weight, dumbbells, or resistance bands. Some examples of resistance training exercises are squats or chair sit to stands, bicep curls, shoulder press, calf raises, and more.

You should talk with a professional before starting resistance training to make sure that you have proper form for all of the exercises. All of your exercises should be done with slow and controlled movements. Always remember to breathe and exhale on the difficult part of the movement,” she said.

Get Started

When beginning an exercise program, Lane recommends starting small.

“Try to make small changes at a time. Maybe you need to start by taking 30- minute walks on your lunch breaks three times a week, or maybe you can start walking 30 minutes every morning before work. Everyone starts out at different levels with exercise, so start small and work your way up and enjoy the process,” she said.

If you can’t exercise for 150 minutes per week or suddenly start eating perfectly healthy, even some changes make a difference, noted Dr. Pack.

“You don’t have to run a marathon to get the health benefits of exercise. In fact, scientific studies clearly show that even exercising once per week provides significant health benefits. Similarly, small changes in diet, such as eating more fruits, vegetables, fish, or nuts, can help you feel better and be healthier. The main point is to start where you’re at, and then just get going,” he said.

Learn more about Baystate Medical Center’s life-saving cardiac capabilities.

February is American Heart Month

Caring for your heart is an essential part of self-care. And finding out your risk is an important step towards preventing heart disease.

Do you know your risk?

47% of Americans have at least 1 risk factor for heart disease.

Learn More
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