If you have heart failure, there are easy steps you can take every day that make a big difference in how you feel.
“You can do things that will help you live longer and better,” says Clyde Yancy, MD, chief of cardiology at Northwestern University School of Medicine. “[Lifestyle] is fundamentally important, just as much as the medicines are.”
Your doctor will probably suggest a treatment plan that has medication as well as tweaks in how you eat, drink, and exercise.
Cut Back on Salt
It’s important to eat less sodium. Too much makes your body hold on to water, so your heart needs to work harder.
Less salt in your diet could help with high blood pressure, breathing problems, and swelling.
Read food labels and stay under 2,000 milligrams a day, although your doctor may have stricter recommendations.
Some tips to cut salt:
- Use fresh or frozen veggies without added salt.
- Stay away from convenience foods like canned soups, frozen entrees, and pasta and rice mixes.
And don’t forget to get rid of the obvious culprit, too. “Remove the salt shaker,” Yancy says. Use other spices instead of salt when you cook.
Fill Up on Fiber and Healthy Fats
Taking care of your heart isn’t just about what you shouldn’t eat — getting enough of the right foods is key. Stock up on high-fiber foods like fresh fruit, vegetables, cooked dried beans, and bran. Fiber can control blood sugar and lower cholesterol levels.
Foods that contain omega-3 fatty acids probably have benefits for patients with heart failure, Yancy says. Add more of those healthy fats to your diet in fish, flaxseed, and walnuts.
Watch Out for Alcohol
Drinking alcohol may make the heart weaker, Yancy says. Everyone’s situation is different. Talk to your doctor about whether or not it’s OK for you to have anything to drink.
“People worry that if they have a weak heart, they shouldn’t exercise because their heart may get worse, but in fact the opposite is true,” says David Taylor, MD, a cardiologist at Cleveland Clinic.
Talk to your doctor about how to join a cardiac rehabilitation program. These are usually held a few times a week for a few months and include education and exercise. You’ll get a chance to ask questions of experts and exchange tips with other people who have heart failure.
When you finish the program, keep up your exercise. Walking, swimming, and stationary biking are all good options. Whatever you choose, do it for 30 to 45 minutes, five times a week, Taylor says.
Get Your Rest
If you have heart failure, think about your energy levels as a reservoir, Yancy says. If you empty it, it’s going to take time to refill. So even though you need to stay active, you also need to find time to rest.
Make sure you get a good night’s sleep. If shortness of breath is bothering you, see if keeping your head raised with an extra pillow helps.
If You Smoke, Quit
Smoking speeds up your heart rate, raises your blood pressure, lowers the amount of oxygen in your blood, and hurts your blood vessels.
Ask your doctor about the best way to quit, and stay away from secondhand smoke.
Take Control of Your Care
Find support to help you, but don’t rely only on relatives or doctors to remind you of every dose of drugs or checkup appointment. You’ll need to take ownership of some of these issues, too. Stick to your treatment plan, and you’ll be healthier and feel better, too.
Little tweaks can have a big impact. Changing your lifestyle could improve shortness of breath and leave you with less fatigue, more energy, and less depression, Yancy says.
Think about your healthy habits as part of a long-term contract with your doctor. “Our hope for you is that if you do everything we talk about, you will over time feel better,” he says.