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Even Small Changes Made Midlife Can Help Keep Your Heart Healthy

woman jogging

If you’re already wavering on your resolution to shed those fifteen pounds, cut down on your drinking, or eat more kale, here’s another reason to stick with it.  Bonnie Spring, a health psychologist and the director of the Center for Behavior and Health at Northwestern Universityin Chicago, has conducted a study showing that even moderate habit changes in adulthood can significantly protect against heart disease later in life.  

There’s a trend in prevention science to focus on very early childhood or prenatal prevention, but, Spring says, “that's a missed opportunity for preventive health interventions that people really can do. And they make a difference. Why give up on us middle-aged folks?" 

Her study (published last year in the journal Circulation), analyzed data from 3,538 adults over 20 years and showed that even making modest changes in even three or four of five key areas—smoking cessation, drinking in moderation, maintaining a healthy weight, exercising and eating well—protected people from early signs of heart disease.

Spring, who works with patients to help them change unhealthy habits, says small changes can have a life-saving effect over time. Here are her top tips for how to do it.

1. Think small.  “You don't have to make very drastic changes,” Spring says. “The changes we observed were not that large.” For example, if you currently get ten minutes of exercise a day, try to increase it to half an hour.

2. Add good habits first before trying to conquer vices. Spring also suggests picking one health habit that you most want to work on, that you feel most confident about. If you’re a smoker who subsists mostly on meat and starch, you might want to start with adding vegetables and fruits to your diet; and only attempt to quit smoking after you’ve learned to eat better.

3. Make fruits and vegetables grab-and-go.

Eating more fruits and vegetables is an essential heart-healthy habit. Make it easier on yourself by cutting up fruits and veggies in advance so they’re prepped and ready to grab when you’re hungry for a snack. And trying putting fruit out on the table instead of chips or pretzels.

4. Get a virtual trainer

For cardiovascular health, heart health guidelines call for moderate to vigorous exercise (energetic enough so you break a sweat) at least 30 minutes a day, five times a week. To stay motivated without a personal trainer by your side and make sure your workout is having an impact, Spring suggests you wear a heart-rate monitoring gadget like Fitbit. And it can help to use a goal-setting mobile app. Spring recommends StickK. You set a target, and commit a sum of money. If you achieve your goal, you get your money back. If you don't it will be donated to a charity you like - or if you need extra motivation, you can set it up to go to a political organization that you despise.

5. Get hooked on a TV show

If exercise bores you, she suggests pairing with something fun. Try watching an addictive TV show or listening to a podcast while you work out. You’ll get engrossed and not even notice the miles you’re logging on your treadmill or bike.

6. For smokers, start by eliminating the mindless smokes

Track your smoking throughout the day and look at not just how many cigarettes you smoke, but when you smoke. It's tough to cut out the cigarettes smoked when you're stressed or in a bad mood. But it’s a little easier try to give up those cigarettes that you don't feel you really need; the ones you smoke out of habit. For example, cut out the cigarette you smoke when you’re driving, or when you’re talking on the phone. Eventually, you can reduce or eliminate the urge to smoke at those times, Spring says.

7. Find a nicotine coach

Every state in the U.S. has a free hotline to help residents quit smoking.  Calling 1-800-QUIT-NOW will route you to a helpline in your state. You’ll be connected with a trained quit coach who can help you set goals and identify triggers. Depending on the services offered in your state, you may be able to connect with a coach who will call you back to check on your progress.

Listen to Dr. Bonnie Spring’s interview with Sound Medicine’s Barbara Lewis to learn more about the effects of adding - or losing - healthy habits on the cardiac health of the participants in her study.