Heart health 101: Habits for a stronger heart
Clinically reviewed by Anil K. Gupta, MD, Cardiology
It’s February and time to talk about protecting your heart. While it may be American Heart Month, this should be something we talk about daily. Your heart is one of the most vital organs in your body.1 Its job is to pump oxygen and nutrients to all the major organs and keep blood flowing in the right direction through the blood vessels.1,2
At Optum Medical Care, we want to help you best care for your heart health. Here are six tips to help make your heart stronger and healthier.
Healthy heart habit #1: Manage your blood pressure
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends adults 18 and over get screenings if you don’t have a history of having high blood pressure.3 If you are consistently in the normal blood pressure zone, you may only have to go for blood pressure screenings once every two to five years.4,5 For adults over 40 years old and high-risk individuals, it is recommended to get screening done annually.3,5 For individuals with a history of high blood pressure your doctor may check your pressure even more frequently.6
So, what is blood pressure? Your heart creates pressure so that it can move the blood through the vessels, and eventually to the various organs in your body. Our blood pressure is a result of two types of forces: systolic pressure and diastolic pressure. You may have heard these terms from your doctor checkups. Systolic pressure (upper number) is created when your heart beats pumping blood from the heart to the arteries and other blood vessels.5,6 Diastolic pressure (bottom number) is created when the heart rests between beats.5,6
According to the Guidelines for the Prevention, Detection, Evaluation, and Management of High Blood Pressure in Adults, blood pressure levels are considered:
- Normal: when the systolic pressure is less than 120 mm Hg; diastolic is less than 80 mm Hg.7
- Elevated: when the systolic pressure is between 120–129 mm Hg; diastolic is less than 80 mm Hg.7
- High Blood pressure: when the systolic pressure is 130 mm Hg or higher; diastolic pressure is 80 mm Hg or higher.7
High blood pressure, also known as hypertension results from a buildup of pressure that pushes against the vessel walls, over time making them less elastic.6 High blood pressure doesn’t always have symptoms.7 The increased pressure that is put on the wall of your heart causes it to work harder and less efficiently. You may be at an increased risk for high blood pressure if you are Black, have obesity or have a family history of high blood pressure. 8 Any lifestyle habits such as smoking, excessive drinking, poor diet (high in fat/sodium, or low in potassium), and a lack of exercise can put you at risk as well.10
The American Heart Association recommends home monitoring for all individuals with high blood pressure to help your doctor figure out if your treatment plan is working. Home monitoring is not a substitution for regular office visits with your care provider. If you are currently taking medication, always consult with your doctor before stopping, even if your blood pressure readings are appearing within normal range.
Healthy heart habit #2: Keep an eye on your weight
At most check-ups, your doctor will measure your weight and height to figure out your BMI.3 Individuals with high BMIs who are overweight or have obesity may run an increased risk of serious medical problems such as diabetes, heart disease and stroke.4 On the other hand, being underweight has its own set of risks like anemia, brittle bones, or difficulty recovering from illness or infection.9 You will likely be screened at almost every checkup.3,10
Your doctor can discuss with you on ways to improve your weight, whether the goal is to lose or gain. Learn your current BMI. You can either do this at home or by speaking with your doctor.9 Calculate your BMI now. 11
Healthy heart habit #3: Add healthy foods to your plate
It’s important to create healthy eating patterns. This includes adding more whole foods, lean protein, vegetables, fruit, beans, fish and nuts to your daily eating.12 We understand that sometimes choosing the best foods and how much you should be eating can be confusing. Check out our meal guide for healthy eating, so you can get your plate on the right track.
Healthy heart habit #4: Manage your cholesterol
Get your cholesterol levels checked. For most healthy adults it is recommended to be checked every four to six years. If you are at greater risk of certain illnesses or medical problems such as heart disease, more frequent checks may be recommended.4,13 During the test, your doctor will measure your total cholesterol, LDL (or bad cholesterol), HDL (good cholesterol), and triglycerides (a type of fat in your blood).4,9,14 According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, ideal cholesterol levels are as follows:
- Total cholesterol: about 150 mg/dL13
- LDL (bad cholesterol): about 100 mg/dL13
- HDL (good cholesterol): at least 40 mg/dL for men and 50 mg/dL for women13
- Triglycerides: less than 150 mg/dL13
Your doctor may ask you to not eat or drink anything for at least 8–12 hours before the exam.12 Talk to your doctor on the best way to prepare.
Healthy heart habit #5: Track your blood sugar
If you have diabetes, you are at greater risk for heart disease, stroke and other medical problems.4, 15 To screen for diabetes, your doctor may order a test to check your blood sugar using an A1c blood test.4 Your A1c, or hemoglobin A1c, is a blood test that measures your average blood sugar levels over the past three months.16 A normal A1c level is below 5.7%. and between 5.7% to 6.4% for prediabetes.16 Anything over 6.4% is diabetes.15
The USPSTF recommends that patients ages 35-70 who are overweight or suffer from obesity get screened for diabetes and prediabetes. 17 People who are at higher risk for diabetes may need to begin screenings at an earlier age. Some risk factors for developing diabetes include overweight and obesity, older age, family history and history of gestational diabetes (diabetes that develops while pregnant).18 If you do not have a history of elevated blood sugar levels, you should aim to get your blood sugar checked at least every three years. People who have elevated blood sugar levels may need more frequent screenings. Speak with your doctor about how often you need to have your blood sugar checked.
Healthy heart habit #6: Improve your sleep
Good sleep is crucial to your overall well-being. Not only does it boost your energy, but it helps your body heal and repair itself. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends that most healthy adults get at least seven hours of sleep each night.19 There are ways to help improve your sleep, such as setting a consistent sleep schedule (even on weekends), avoiding heavy meals and caffeine before bedtime and keeping your room cool and dark at bedtime.16,20,21 Take time out of your day to step outside and enjoy the sun and fresh air. For more activities, read Daytime activities to help you sleep better at night.
A healthy heart is one of the keys to a longer, enjoyable life. Studies have shown that people with better heart health tend to have a longer life expectancy and live longer without chronic health issues. 22 Speak to one of our primary care providers about more ways you can keep your heart in tip-top shape. If you are over 50, consider speaking to a cardiologist.
Did you know?
Have you heard about red wine being good for your heart? This is due to the belief that red wine contains antioxidants and the assumption that these antioxidants protect your body against “free radical cells” and can lower blood pressure.23
Unfortunately, there is no consistent evidence that suggests red wine is healthy for your heart. And even, if it does contain this antioxidant, it would take several drinks to build the level needed for potential protective properties. And drinking more than in moderation has many health risks including high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke and arrhythmias (irregular rhythm of your heart, which beats too fast or too slow).19,24,25, 26
According to the American Heart Association, red wine having a direct benefit on the heart hasn’t been proven. 32 There’s nothing to confirm that other factors weren’t at play.
The information featured in this site is general in nature. The site provides health information designed to complement your personal health management. It does not provide medical advice or health services and is not meant to replace professional advice or imply coverage of specific clinical services or products. The inclusion of links to other web sites does not imply any endorsement of the material on such websites.
If you do not drink, it is not recommended that you start drinking alcohol. If you choose to drink, do so only in moderation. Drinking too much can harm your health.
Up to one standard drink per day for women
Up to two standard drinks per day for men
- Some people should drink less, and some people should not drink alcohol at all, including those who are pregnant or might be pregnant, younger than the legal age for drinking, take certain medications or have certain medical conditions, have difficulty drinking in moderation or recovering from alcohol use disorder.
- Do not drink if you are participating in activities that require skill, coordination, or alertness.
- Never drink and drive.
If you have questions about alcohol use or drinking, talk to your doctor.
Source: Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025, 9th Edition, Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020–2025, Dec 2020.
 American Heart Association. Life’s Essential 8™ – How to Eat Better Fact Sheet. December 21, 2023.
 American Heart Association. Heart-healthy lifestyle linked to a longer life, free of chronic health conditions. March 2, 2023.
 American Heart Association. Drink red wine for your heart health? Read this before you do. May 24, 2019.
 American Heart Association. Heavy drinking may cause heart damage before symptoms appear. December 18, 2019.
A new year brings new resolutions that can lead to improvements in daily habits as well as health benefits for many older Americans.
In fact, according to a 2020 study, older adults who engaged in healthy lifestyle choices such as physical activity, not smoking, not heavily drinking, following a healthy diet, and taking part in mentally stimulating activities, had a 60% lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.Read article