Your heart is the foundation of your health. If your heart isn't functioning properly then the rest of your body doesn't either. Unfortunately, too many people in the United States don't have a healthy heart. Heart disease is the leading cause of death, approximately 1 out of every 5 deaths. It's estimated that one person dies every 33 seconds from cardiovascular disease.

To keep your heart functioning properly, it's essential to take proactive steps to maintain a healthy heart. Dr. Zachary Leshen, a cardiologist at Saint Joseph Health System, shares how you can improve your heart health.

"There have been many advancements when it comes to treating heart disease. However, preventing heart disease still comes down to the individual person," says Dr. Leshen. "Simple lifestyle changes can make a big impact on your heart health."

Why is a healthy heart important?

Throughout your life, your heart will pump millions of gallons of blood throughout your body. Within this flow, oxygen, hormones, and essential cells are carried to every organ and limb. Every day, your heart beats around 100,000 times.

This workload requires a heart that is healthy and strong. Although many people develop some form of cardiovascular disease as they age, it's not inevitable. Reducing risk factors and developing a healthy lifestyle, alongside medications if necessary, can go a long way to making sure you live a vibrant life for years to come.

The most common factors that increase your risk the highest include:

  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Smoking

"If you're currently smoking, stop. It may be difficult, but not smoking for just three months can improve circulation," says Dr. Leshen. "Also, if you have diabetes, keep it under control, and don't forget to visit your primary care provider on a regular basis.

Lifestyle changes to improve heart health

Thankfully, certain lifestyle changes can dramatically improve your heart health. Even small changes over a long enough period of time is better than not making any changes at all.

"If you want to prevent cardiovascular disease, start by preventing diabetes. All of the same lifestyle changes you make to prevent diabetes will also keep your heart healthy," says Dr. Leshen. "This means maintaining an ideal body weight, exercising, stop smoking and eat well."


Focus on a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats. These foods provide essential nutrients that support heart health. Also, avoid excessive sodium which can contribute to high blood pressure.

Fiber is also important. Not only does it help achieve a healthy weight, it may help to lower total blood cholesterol levels. Whole grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables are excellent sources of dietary fiber.


Regular exercise improves cardiovascular function and weight management. It's recommended that the average person exercises at least 150 minutes per week at moderate-intensity. There is a variety of exercise options, such as brisk walking, cycling and strength training. Anything that increases your heart rate for a prolonged period of time contributes to overall cardiovascular fitness and muscle health.

Incorporating physical activity into daily routines doesn't always require a structured gym session. Some ways to integrate movement into your daily life include:

  • Take the stairs
  • Walk or bike to work
  • Take lunchtime walks
  • Incorporate simple exercises at your desk
  • Park farther away
  • Household chores as exercise, such as mopping and gardening
  • Plan physical activities with family or friends
  • Use a standing desk

Stress management

While everyone reacts to stress differently, how you react can impact the chance of cardiovascular disease. Research has shown that excessive and frequent stress levels can increase high blood pressure and cholesterol levels, both of which are risk factors for heart disease.

Not only is managing stress a good idea for your heart, but also your overall well-being. Reducing stress starts by understanding your triggers and what is causing stress in your life. Ask yourself, "What can I stop doing, let go of, or change to help reduce stress in my life?"

Sometimes, it can be difficult figuring this out on your own. This is where a therapist or even primary care doctor can help. They can provide management techniques or simply be a neutral third-party to help you understand the stresses in your life.

Some general stress relieving activities include:

  • Exercising regularly
  • Challenging negative and catastrophic thoughts
  • Meditation and/or yoga
  • Avoiding caffeine


Quality sleep plays a crucial role in maintaining overall health, including heart health. Several mechanisms connect sleep and cardiovascular health, and adequate, restful sleep can contribute to a lower risk of heart-related issues. The number of ways in which sleep can improve heart health is too many to count, but some of the biggest include:

  • Blood pressure regulation: During sleep, the body works to regulate blood pressure and maintain a healthy balance. Chronic sleep deprivation or poor-quality sleep can lead to sustained high blood pressure, increasing the risk of cardiovascular diseases, such as heart attacks and strokes.
  • Inflammation reduction: Chronic inflammation is associated with an increased risk of heart disease. Adequate sleep allows the body to repair and regenerate, contributing to a lower inflammatory response.
  • Stress hormone management: Lack of sleep can lead to an increase in stress hormones like cortisol. Elevated cortisol levels can contribute to inflammation and high blood pressure, negatively impacting heart health.
  • Blood sugar regulation: Sleep plays a role in maintaining proper insulin sensitivity. Insufficient or poor-quality sleep can lead to insulin resistance, which may contribute to diabetes and an increased risk of heart disease.

The importance of regular health check-ups

Monitoring various health metrics allows you to stay informed about your cardiovascular well-being, detect potential issues early, and make informed decisions to prevent or manage heart-related conditions.

Regular health check-ups include blood pressure measurements, cholesterol tests, and blood glucose monitoring. These can help identify common risk factors for heart disease. For example, if elevated cholesterol levels are detected, dietary changes and increased physical activity can be implemented to lower cholesterol and reduce the risk of cardiovascular events.

Annual primary care visits also provide an opportunity for health care professionals to educate patients about heart health, risk factors, and the importance of maintaining a healthy lifestyle. This knowledge can empower you to take an active role in your cardiovascular well-being.

"It doesn't matter how old you are, whether you're 20 or 60. It's never too late to improve your heart health and feel great the rest of your life," says Dr. Leshen.

Zachary Leshen, MD

Dr. Zachary Leshen is a cardiologist on staff at Saint Joseph Health System. Dr. Leshen specializes in interventional cardiology and treating patients with heart disease. To make an appointment with Dr. Leshen or another physician, you can schedule online or call 888-638-4427.