Most of us know that to stay heart-healthy we need to eat right, exercise and maintain a healthy weight. It all sounds so simple. But for whatever reason, lifestyle choices are super hard to change. I can't count the number of times I've started diets and workout routines, only to abandon them a few weeks later. Dr. Stephen Kopecky, a Mayo Clinic cardiologist, says change is difficult because, as the saying goes, we are creatures of habit.

"There's a lot of science coming out about change, and most of us feel like we have to do it right now, today, all or none," says Kopecky. "That's exactly wrong. We do not need to change quickly, and, in fact, we cannot change quickly because we're humans. We have habits."

Kopecky says that the way to make lifestyle changes last is to integrate them into your daily life slowly. Instead of revamping your entire eating plan all at once, replace some of those fries on your plate with a vegetable. Or reach for a piece of fruit instead of a cookie. When it comes to exercise, you can ease into it by taking an evening walk. Start slow and build from there.

For some people, even starting slow sounds like too much of a hassle. But Kopecky has some incentive that might help you embrace that positive change.

"If you make the right lifestyle changes, you can reduce your risk of heart attack and stroke by about 85 to 90% over time," Kopecky says.

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OK! That's enough to get me to get off the couch and start moving. Here are the changes he says will help make you healthier and improve your quality of life. And remember, start with baby steps.

Six steps to better health:

  • No. 1: Food: Kopecky recommends an eating plan that includes lots of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts and legumes, lean meats (fish, such as salmon) and healthy fats, such as olive oil. He suggests limiting alcohol, sugary foods, sugary beverages, salt and processed foods.

"What we eat is important, but there are other things to consider when it comes to food," Kopecky says. "It's when you eat, how you cook what you eat, who you eat with, what you're doing while you eat. It really is a whole series of things. But if we take it one small step at a time, we can certainly change."

  • No. 2: Physical activity: Just move more. Dr. Kopecky says any movement is better than none, but the more you do, the better. Be sure to talk to your health care provider before you start.
  • No. 3: Sufficient sleep. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's website states that adults should get seven hours of sleep per night.
  • No 4: Stress. Take steps to reduce it. Deep breathing, yoga and mindfulness-based stress reduction are examples of practices that can help reduce stress.

"The two things that people forget about, because they're so ubiquitous and everybody has them, is poor sleep and stress," says Kopecky. "People might brag that they can put up with three of four hours of sleep a night. Or they might think that they'll just put up with stress. But that's not good."

He adds that both poor sleep and uncontrolled stress are associated with an increased risk of diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and depression.

  • No 5: Body weight. Maintain a weight that's right for you.
  • No 6: Don't smoke. If you do smoke, quit.

You might wonder about where your genes come into play in all of this.


"Most genes will increase your risk 30 or 40%," Kopecky says. "But if you have a bad lifestyle, it will increase your risk 300 to 400%. So if you change your lifestyle, you can actually change the way your body reacts to your genes."

You can't change your genes or family history. And sometimes, no matter what you do, heart attacks and strokes happen. But positive lifestyle habits are worth it, as they not only help to improve cardiovascular health, but also they improve your overall health and well-being.

Vivien Williams is a video content producer for NewsMD and the host of "Health Fusion." She can be reached at