It can be just as hard to create new habits, like exercising regularly and eating a healthy diet, as it is to break bad ones, such as smoking. Stopping a behavior you’re used to or starting one you’re not used to is a huge challenge. Building and maintaining healthy habits takes dedication, strategy, and willpower — aided by the perspective that positive progress takes time, says Dr. Merle Myerson, Director of the Cardiovascular Disease Prevention and Pre-Exercise Heart Screening Program at Mount Sinai St. Luke’s and Mount Sinai Roosevelt.
“Atherosclerosis, or the build-up of plaque that can harden and narrow the arteries, doesn’t happen overnight. It starts building up as a child and is ongoing, so you have to prevent it in an ongoing way,” she says. “You can’t just change your habits and immediately reverse the damage. That’s why it’s so important to incorporate heart-healthy habits into your daily lifestyle.”
A majority of the things you do, from moving your body to eating, should be heart-healthy. That doesn’t mean you can’t occasionally have pizza or spend a night on the couch watching TV, Dr. Myerson says — just be sure those don’t become your habits.
Dr. Myerson’s top 5 tips for creating heart-healthy daily habits are:
- Increase your activity level. Adding extra activity into your day is a relatively easy way to start building good habits. Even at just 10 minutes a day, a little bit of exercise can go a long way, Dr. Myerson says. “Even short bursts of activity such as five or 10 minutes can add up and result in a greater expenditure of calories over time,” she says. Other tips include taking the stairs instead of the elevator, getting off the subway a few stops early and walking to your destination, and going on a walk during your lunch break.
- Start a structured exercise program. Whether you go for a walk after dinner, hit the gym before work, or go to a Zumba class during your lunch break, Dr. Myerson suggests working regular activity into your schedule so it becomes as normal as brushing your teeth. “I tell patients to aim for 30 minutes of exercise using their large muscle groups, three to five times a week. Make sure you break out in a sweat, or use the talk test — if your talking is fluid and uninterrupted by your breathing, you’re not exercising hard enough,” she says.
- Have a healthy diet strategy. Planning ahead can help you avoid processed, fatty and greasy junk food — which can be easier to grab when hungry than a healthy alternative. “You can save money and time by purchasing and preparing your food ahead of time,” Dr. Myerson says. For snacks, have a supply of fruit and unsalted nuts like walnuts and almonds on hand. When preparing meals, make extra and put single servings in containers to eat for lunch during the week. Keep whole-wheat bread, vegetables and low-fat protein sources like tuna and chicken at home to make quick and satisfying sandwiches. Freezer meals are another great idea for busy families.
- Deal with stress. Though everyone has stressors in their lives, it’s good make a habit out of recognizing and understanding what stresses you out and how you can best manage your stress. “Examine how you can avoid it, and if you can’t, how you can minimize the impact. If it’s too overbearing, talk therapy, medication or a combination of both may help,” Dr. Myerson says.
- Prioritize down time. Finally, it’s important to carve out time for yourself. Whether your mental vacation of choice is yoga, meditation, running, reading a book, listening to music, or visiting a museum, do something that refreshes and recharges your batteries, so you have the strength and focus to keep up with your heart-healthy habits. “Find ‘your thing,’ and make time for it on a daily basis,” Dr. Myerson says.
To make an appointment with a doctor for a heart health screening, call 1-855-411-LWNY (5969) or visit the Mount Sinai St. Luke’s Center for Cardiovascular Disease Prevention website.