How to Improve Your Heart Health

Covenant Swirl Logo
  • By Covenant Health
  • Medically Reviewed by Justin McGoldrick, MD, Enterprise Vice President of Medical Affairs, Covenant Health
  • 12 minute read.

Your heart’s health matters. These facts speak for themselves: The American Heart Association says cardiovascular disease (CVD) is the underlying cause of more than 900,000 deaths in the U.S. each year. Heart disease and stroke claim more lives annually than all forms of cancer and chronic lower respiratory disease combined.

Knowledge is power, so take a moment to educate yourself and get ready to take your heart health to the next level. Here are some key recommendations:

heart health

Eat a Heart-Healthy Diet

Enjoying a good meal is one of life’s great pleasures but when it’s consumed with reckless abandon, food can do more harm than good. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that people who eat a heart-healthy diet live longer, healthier lives, and that poor nutrition is linked to an increased risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity and certain cancers. If you already have a chronic disease, healthy eating can help manage your condition and prevent complications.

Heart-Healthy Foods

Adding heart-healthy foods to your diet might be easier than you think. To get on the right track, start here:

  • Eat more natural foods and whole grains
  • Read labels and look for options with fewer added ingredients
  • Try fruits and vegetables that are as close to their fresh-picked state as possible
  • Choose lean meats and seafood
  • When it comes to dairy, go for low-fat or fat-free options
  • Increase your fiber intake

As you focus on a heart-healthy diet, cut back on the following:

  • Saturated fat
  • Trans fat
  • Sodium (salt)
  • Added sugars

Need a few healthy eating hacks?

  • Reduce salt and sugar from your diet gradually for an easier taste transition
  • Try removing added salt and sugar from your diet for two weeks. You may find you no longer need them once you get accustomed to the way your favorite foods were meant to taste
  • Experiment with healthier seasonings like cumin, garlic, and paprika


The heart is a muscle, and like any other muscle in the body, it gets stronger with movement. Exercise strengthens your heart so it can effectively pump blood throughout your body.

The American Heart Association recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate-to-intense activity weekly. That doesn’t have to mean long runs on the treadmill. It can mean simply getting more exercise than you do now. Even these small changes can make a difference in your heart health:

  • Choose parking spaces that are farther from your destination.
  • Use the stairs instead of the elevator.
  • Take breaks from your routine for a brisk walk.
  • Give technology a break and go visit coworkers or neighbors in person.

Scheduled exercise classes can keep you accountable so you’re more likely to reach your goals. Joining a gym or community center can ensure you’ll have a place to exercise regardless of the weather. Fort Sanders Health and Fitness Center offers a wide range of group fitness classes, exercise equipment, aquatics, along with community exercise classes.

Exercise can also help with weight loss. Talk with your doctor about a food and fitness plan that’s right for you and your health goals.

Monitor Blood Pressure and Cholesterol

When your blood pressure is high for too long, your blood vessels can suffer damage. Unhealthy cholesterol begins to accumulate along the walls of your arteries, and your circulatory system has to work harder to pump blood efficiently.

If you have high blood pressure and high cholesterol you have a greater risk of developing life-threatening heart conditions. These conditions generally show no symptoms, so It’s important to monitor your cholesterol levels and blood pressure regularly.

How to Check Your Blood Pressure

Blood pressure is the amount of pressure on artery walls as the heart pumps blood. Blood pressure is measured using two numbers:

Systolic blood pressure measures the pressure when your heart beats. Diastolic blood pressure measures the pressure when your heart rests between beats. Systolic blood pressure is listed first when your blood pressure is measured. Normal blood pressure is less than 120 (systolic) over 80 (diastolic).

Your healthcare provider can check your blood pressure, but you can also check it yourself by using a home blood-pressure monitor. Follow the device instructions to get the most accurate reading. Take your blood pressure at the same time each day and take at least two readings 1-2 minutes apart. Keep a blood pressure log to help track your readings over time.

How to Check Your Cholesterol

Blood cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance made by your liver. It is essential for good health. Dietary cholesterol is what we add to our bodies with certain foods. Cholesterol is usually measured by considering three factors:

  • Low-density lipoprotein (LDL), known as “bad” cholesterol that can lead to build-up along artery walls
  • High-density lipoprotein (HDL), known as “good” cholesterol because high levels of it can lower your risk of heart disease and stroke
  • Triglycerides, a type of fat in your blood that your body uses for energy

Your total cholesterol combines LDL, HDL and triglyceride numbers. A healthy total cholesterol level will be lower than 200 milligrams per deciliter in adults and less than 170 in children.

Monitoring your cholesterol requires a blood test. The CDC offers these guidelines:

  • Most healthy adults should have their cholesterol checked every 4 to 6 years.
  • People who have heart disease, diabetes or a family history of high cholesterol need to get their levels checked more often.
  • Children and adolescents should have their cholesterol checked at least once between ages 9 and 11 and again between ages 17 and 21.
  • Children who have obesity or diabetes may need to be screened for high cholesterol more often.

Ask your healthcare provider if it’s time for a cholesterol check and how you can keep your cholesterol and blood pressure in healthy ranges.

Avoid Tobacco Use

Smoking is a factor in many cases of cardiovascular disease. Research indicates that even those who smoke fewer than five cigarettes a day can show signs of early CVD, and the risk increases with the number of cigarettes smoked daily.

When blood vessels become swollen and inflamed, as they do from the chemicals in cigarette smoke, the vessels are narrowed, causing problems in blood flow. Chemicals in cigarette smoke also thicken the blood, leading to clots inside veins and arteries. This can lead to a heart attack and sudden death. Smoking also increases the risk of stroke and peripheral artery disease.

Nonsmokers can have an increased risk of heart disease when they’re exposed to secondhand smoke. Exposure to secondhand smoke can even cause heart attacks and strokes in nonsmokers.

When a smoker quits smoking, heart health can improve almost immediately. In a year the risk of heart attack drops dramatically. Even a former smoker who has already had a heart attack can cut the risk of having another heart attack by quitting smoking.

Avoid Use of Alcohol

Drinking too much alcohol can cause higher blood pressure, increasing your risk of heart disease. It also increases levels of triglycerides, which are fatty substances in the blood. The CDC recommends that men limit alcohol consumption to a couple of drinks a day or less and that women consume no more than one drink a day.

Get Adequate Sleep

Those who regularly sleep less than seven hours a night are more likely to say they’ve struggled with heart disease, asthma, and depression. A lack of sleep can also be linked to an increased risk of stroke. Here’s why:

While you’re asleep, your blood pressure goes down. If you don’t sleep, your blood pressure stays up for a longer period, and increased blood pressure is a leading risk factor for heart disease and stroke. Lack of sleep has also been connected to obesity because it can affect the part of the brain that controls hunger. Obesity is also a factor in heart disease risk.

Quality of sleep matters. Sleep apnea can have an impact on how much oxygen your body takes in during sleep. Obesity and heart failure are among causes of sleep apnea, and lack of sleep can contribute to obesity and heart failure – so it’s a vicious cycle.

About a third of Americans surveyed say they don’t get enough sleep. Get a better night’s rest with these helpful tips and consider scheduling an appointment at a Covenant Health Sleep Center if problems persist.

Schedule Annual Well-Exam Appointments

As the saying goes, “Prevention is the best medicine.” Knowing about potential heart problems can help you make the changes needed for better health. Regular checkups can help pinpoint small problems before they become dangerous or even deadly. High blood pressure, for example, rarely has symptoms, so having your blood pressure checked regularly is essential.

If you are at low risk for heart disease and have never had a heart attack, your blood pressure should still be measured at least once every two years. If you’ve been diagnosed with high blood pressure or have a history of heart problems, your healthcare provider will probably recommend more frequent monitoring. Your provider can also offer information about monitoring your cholesterol.

If you’ve had a heart attack, your healthcare provider can help you avoid having another one in the future. Treatment may include medication or lifestyle changes like a healthier diet and exercise. In some cases, surgery may be recommended.

How to Know If You’re at Risk for Heart Disease

Your risk of heart disease depends on some factors you can control and some that you can’t. Be especially vigilant about heart health if you are over the age of 65 or there’s a history of heart disease in your family. Here are some risk factors you can address on your own or with the help of a healthcare provider:

High blood pressure: When the pressure of blood flowing through arteries and other blood vessels is too high, it can affect the heart and other major organs.

Unhealthy blood cholesterol: Cholesterol is made naturally by the liver and can also be found in some foods. When the body gets more cholesterol than it can use, it can build up in the walls of the arteries, decreasing blood flow to the heart.

Diabetes mellitus (“diabetes”): This happens when your body has problems with making or processing insulin . Insulin helps glucose from food move to cells for energy. The risk of death from heart disease for adults with diabetes.

Obesity: Excess body fat can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes. People who are obese are also at a greater risk for higher levels of unhealthy cholesterol.

Lifestyle choices like smoking, eating unhealthy foods and not getting enough exercise can also increase your risk of heart disease. Stress and lack of sleep can be factors, too.

If you are making a conscious effort to live a healthier lifestyle but risk factors are not improving, talk to your doctor about other options that may help.

Types of Heart Disease

If a healthcare professional says you have heart disease, it can mean you have one or a combination of several heart-related conditions. Heart attack, heart failure and stroke are the ones we tend to think of first, but they’re not the only culprits.

Coronary Artery and Vascular Disease

Coronary artery disease (CAD), which is sometimes referred to as coronary heart disease, is the term for plaque (fat, cholesterol, calcium, inflammatory cells) built up in the heart’s arteries. It can slow blood flow, which can lead to a heart attack or ischemic stroke.

Vascular disease (vasculopathy) happens in blood vessels that are responsible for moving oxygen and nutrients through your body and ridding tissue of waste. Plaque can slow down or even block blood flow in arteries and veins.

Heart Arrhythmias

An arrhythmia is a problem with heart rate or heart rhythm. Electrical impulses that are too fast, too slow, or erratic can cause an irregular heartbeat, keeping the heart from pumping blood the way it’s supposed to. The lungs, the brain and the rest of the body’s organs may stop working or suffer damage as a result.

Structural Heart Disease

Four valves open and close to control blood flow through the heart. When a valve isn’t working the way it should, it’s referred to as heart valve disease. In cardiomyopathy, a problem in the heart muscle has an impact on the heart’s ability to pump blood to other parts of the body. If you were born with a structural heart problem, it’s referred to as congenital heart disease.

Heart Failure

When the heart can’t deliver enough blood and oxygen to the body’s organs, the condition is called heart failure. It can happen at any age, and it’s estimated that more than 6 million people in the United States are living with heart failure today. If left untreated, heart failure it can be aggressive and fatal.

Heart failure is more common in people who are age 65 or older. While it’s common in both men and women, men tend to develop heart failure at an earlier age.

When heart failure is “congestive,” it means heart muscle isn’t working and fluid has built up in the lungs, the abdomen, feet and arms. Congestive heart failure can happen quickly or develop slowly over time.

Heart failure is usually brought on by other conditions like coronary artery disease, heart attack, high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, valvular heart disease, hyperthyroidism, anemia and arrythmias.

Symptoms of heart failure or congestive heart failure may include:

  • Chest pain, especially when your heart is under strain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sudden unexplained fatigue or weakness
  • Dizziness/ light-headedness/feeling faint
  • Sudden weight gain
  • Swelling of the legs, ankles or feet

Heart Attack

Heart attack (myocardial infarction) happens when a blockage in the coronary arteries restricts blood flow to the heart. The “ST” in the heart attack types below refers to a section of an electrocardiogram that is elevated when these events happen.

  • ST segment elevation myocardial infarction (STEMI) is the most dangerous kind of heart attack. Symptoms commonly include severe chest pain or pressure on the chest area when blockage stops or early stops the flow of blood to a main artery of the heart, causing death of heart muscle tissue.
  • Non-ST segment elevation myocardial infarction (NSTEMI) means blood is still flowing. Some cells may die, but others survive.

When to See a Doctor

If you have chest pain, shortness of breath, sudden swelling of the arms or legs, or unusual fatigue when you’re exerting yourself, visit a healthcare professional as soon as possible. You may be referred to a heart specialist known as a cardiologist, who may recommend medication or simply help you make healthier lifestyle choices.

Your health matters – and you matter to others! Being proactive about your heart health gives you the power to be your own hero by potentially saving your own life and, in turn, guarding the hearts of those you love.

For help finding a heart specialist or primary care physician who can help you improve your heart health, visit our Find a Doctor page or call 865-541-4500.

Covenant Swirl Logo
About the Author

Covenant Health

Headquartered in Knoxville, Tennessee, Covenant Health is a community-owned, healthcare enterprise committed to providing the right care at the right time and place. Covenant Health is the area’s largest employer and has more than 11,000 compassionate caregivers, expert clinicians, and dedicated employees and volunteers.

Covenant Health