3 Ways to Reduce Your Heart Failure Risk – Your heart may be relatively small, but it has a big job to do. Each day, the fist-size organ pumps about 2,000 gallons of blood throughout your body, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). That is, of course, when it’s operating as it should be.

The heart is a critical part of your cardiovascular system, and it has two main roles: to send blood to the lungs so it can be oxygenated, and then to pump that fresh, oxygen- and nutrient-rich blood back out to the rest of the body, David N. Smith, MD, a cardiologist at Premier Cardiovascular Care in Charlotte, North Carolina, and a clinical assistant professor at Yale School of Medicine, tells SELF. When the heart isn’t pumping well enough to perform these functions properly, that’s considered heart failure.

With heart failure, “the heart doesn’t circulate the blood adequately enough to allow the person to do normal activities,” Keith C. Ferdinand, MD, Gerald S. Berenson Endowed Chair in preventive cardiology and professor of medicine at Tulane University School of Medicine, tells SELF. You may have trouble walking up the stairs or carrying groceries, for example. (Generally, though, the symptoms of heart failure can be wide-ranging.)

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), roughly 6.2 million adults in the United States are living with heart failure. By 2030, that number is estimated to rise by 46%, affecting more than 8 million people.1

Talking with your doctor to understand your risk and doing your best to adopt lifestyle habits that keep your heart strong will help you mount the best defense. Here’s what you should know to keep heart failure out of your future.

3 Ways to Reduce Your Heart Failure Risk

There are several factors that can increase your risk of heart failure; genetics, a history of cardiovascular disease, certain infections, certain underlying conditions, access to reliable health care, and your overall lifestyle can all play a role in your chances of developing the condition. So how do you minimize your chances? Consider starting with these three changes:

1. Keep tabs on your blood pressure.

There’s a reason this is always part of your annual physical. High blood pressure (a.k.a. hypertension) is a well-established marker for heart disease, including heart failure.2 When you have high blood pressure, the heart becomes thicker and stiffer, and the cells inside the arteries—which transport blood away from the heart—are damaged. So your heart will have a pretty tough time pumping the proper amount of blood, Dr. Ferdinand explains. Eventually, the heart can become strained and weakened, leading to heart failure.

To keep your blood pressure in the optimal range—which is less than 120/80mm Hg—you’ll want to prioritize exercise; eat nutritious meals you enjoy; get quality sleep; drink less alcohol; avoid smoking (or make a plan to quit if you do); and keep your stress levels in check (we know, easier said than done, but these tips may help).

2. Make small changes to your meals.

Eating a heart-healthy diet doesn’t mean eating a restrictive diet. Making small changes to your daily meals over time can make a big impact. The biggest tweak to consider: Reduce your sodium intake. Of course, some sodium in the diet is essential—and salt makes your meals taste good too.

But many of us consistently overdo it with the salty stuff, per the US Food and Drug Administration. The AHA recommends having no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day—yet the average person tends to consume more than 3,400 mg daily. “Salt makes you retain a lot of fluid and that fluid leads to a lot of pressure in the blood vessels,” Dr. Smith explains. This can then affect the kidneys’ ability to function properly, which can lead to high blood pressure. “If the kidneys are not working well, then you [retain] all of that fluid; you don’t pee it out. The heart becomes unable to pump against the kidney, and it can’t pump all that extra fluid,” Dr. Smith says, which can set the stage for heart failure.

There’s no need to totally avoid the salt shaker when cooking at home: The highest levels of sodium tend to hide in canned and preserved foods, as well as restaurant meals, so consider starting there. Upping your potassium intake is also a good idea, since the mineral counteracts the effects of sodium and helps regulate the balance of fluid in your body, Dr. Ferdinand says. You can find an abundance of potassium in cooked lentils, squash, prunes, baked potatoes, bananas, and many other fruits, veggies, legumes, nuts, and fish.

Dr. Smith also recommends loading up foods that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon, sardines, tuna, and mackerel, since your body doesn’t make these fats on its own. This type of unsaturated fatty acid may help reduce your blood pressure and triglycerides (a type of fat in the blood), slow the buildup of plaque in your arteries, and help fight inflammation in the body, all of which are known markers of heart disease, per the US National Library of Medicine. Aim for two servings of omega-3-rich fish per week, if you can. (Figuring out how to eat well can be overwhelming, but it doesn’t need to be complicated. Read SELF’s full guide on what it means to eat a heart-healthy diet here.)

3. Find a form of movement you genuinely enjoy.

The benefits of heart-pumping exercise are clear—and it doesn’t have to be super vigorous to be effective, Dr. Ferdinand says. He recommends doing meaningful movement for 30 to 40 minutes most days of the week (think: walking, cycling, swimming, dancing, or even gardening—anything that gets your heart beating faster. May we suggest one of our many cardio workouts?).

You should try to work up to a minimum of 150 minutes of moderately intense activity per week—even better if you can add in two days of dedicated strength training. Adding regular exercise to your routine works your heart and lungs for a dedicated period of time, which improves blood circulation and helps your heart pump more efficiently. Plus, exercise helps lower your blood pressure, keep your cholesterol in check, and reduce stress, according to the US National Library of Medicine—all things your ticker with thank you for. (If you already have heart-related issues, just be sure to check in with your doctor before you start a new workout routine to make sure you’re not overdoing it in the beginning.)

The bottom line: While some heart failure risk factors are out of your control, focusing on the small but impactful changes you can make will help keep your heart healthy for the long haul—and it’s never too late to start.

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