3 simple steps to jump-start your heart health this year

In 2020, the terrible toll of the COVID-19 pandemic largely overshadowed the affliction that remains the leading cause of death in this country: heart disease. In the United States last year, at least twice as many people died from cardiovascular causes as those who died from complications from SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus.

While the challenges from the virus are new, experts have been studying heart disease for decades — and everyone can benefit from that knowledge. “The lifestyle habits that keep your heart healthy may also leave you less vulnerable to serious complications from infections such as COVID-19 and influenza,” says cardiologist Dr. Deepak L. Bhatt, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and editor in chief of the Harvard Heart Letter.

So what exactly are those heart-healthy habits? The American Heart Association refers to them as “Life’s Simple 7.” Put simply, they are:

1) Stop smoking

2) Eat better

3) Be active

4) Lose weight

5) Manage your blood pressure

6) Control your cholesterol

7) Reduce your blood sugar

Choosing three steps to jump-start heart health this year

But seven steps may seem like too much to manage, or may even seem overwhelming. So, let’s make it even simpler by focusing on just a few. Of course, not everyone needs to lose weight or lower their blood sugar. And in reality, most Americans don’t smoke, so step one doesn’t apply to very many people.

Unfortunately, that’s not the case for steps two and three. Most people don’t eat enough plant-based foods like vegetables, whole grains, beans, and fruit. And few Americans get the recommended amounts of exercise. That’s at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity (like brisk walking) each week, plus muscle-strengthening activity (like lifting weights) at least two days each week.

Of course, improving both your diet and your exercise game will help you lose weight (step four). But did you know that eating better and moving more can also help with steps five, six, and seven?

Start with one small change, then add on

In 2021, do your heart a favor by doing these three things.

Make one small change to your diet. Some suggestions: Swap meat with beans in one of your favorite dinner recipes. Eat a slice of whole-grain bread instead of white bread. Try a vegetable you’ve never had before.

Do a heart rate-elevating exercise for 10 minutes. Some suggestions: Take a brisk walk around your neighborhood. Hop on a treadmill or other exercise machine. No machines handy? Do some simple calisthenics, like a combination of jumping jacks, squats, leg raises, and arm circles.

Know your numbers. It’s easy to track these four key values. Step on a scale, then use your weight and height to calculate your body mass index. Measure your blood pressure (many pharmacies have machines). Check your medical records for your latest blood test results, which should include cholesterol and fasting blood sugar values.

Here are the standard targets:

  • body mass index between 18.5 and 25 (see this BMI calculator)
  • blood pressure below 120/80 mm/Hg
  • total cholesterol of less than 200 mg/dL
  • fasting blood sugar (glucose) below 100 mg/dL.

It’s important to note that your individual targets may differ, depending on your age and medical and family history. Talk with your doctor about this, then work together to achieve or maintain these four values in the optimal range for you. This might include taking medications. And in the meantime, start making small tweaks to your diet and exercise routine. Gradually adding more healthful foods and spending more time exercising can really make a difference to your heart and overall health.

Related Information: Harvard Heart Letter


  1. Ekua Manful

    Eating healthy meals and keeping fit are two sure ways to boost our immune system. Eat a rainbow diet and move your body often. Thanks

  2. Martin Matko

    Supplying Oxygen and Nutrients to every Cell in a Body. Blood Circulation through and including activity/exercise. Building Blocks of life, having made yourself what you are functioning today! #CCSVI

    Keep in mind! Arteries are nothing without a Heart, and a Heart is nothing without Veins! Treatment improving Arterial Circulation is permitted and common, all treatments that improves Circulation in Veins are not widely available. #CCSVI

    So happens CCSVI is a treatable congenital SCIENCE CONFIRMED recognized Medical condition established causative factor SO called MS & plays part/role 43 other SO called Neurological afflictions Including Autism according to studies!

    Should the treatment of CCSVI be widely available even if it can alleviate symptoMS!

  3. Doug Jackson

    They really are simple steps. Once I turned 70 I realized the quality of the rest of the run is largely up to me. So, I am walking at least 30 minutes a day, cutting back on sugars and carbs and learning to love veggies in new ways. I can feel a positive difference in my step and my general health. Thanks Harvard health for helping me get to where I should have been all along.


    I was pleased to see that you provided substantive facts regarding Heart Health and procedures. I have purchased many of your Medical Health Reports which are excellent and a part of my library.
    Keep up your good and important work.

  5. Clifford Thornton

    I would like to see a Federal Mandate enacted that all public High Schools keep their tracks open to the public and also keep it lit during the evening. It is such a waste of a great resource when these public schools keep their tracks locked up. I understand, they are concerned with damage, but the benefits outweigh the risks and perhaps with today’s technology, and with federal subsidies they can install surveillance cameras and/or hire monitors for after school into the early evening. In order to fight CV we must give the public options and resources to carry out exercise. In many neighborhoods, such as in Philadelphia, it is not safe to freely exercise on the streets due to both limited physical space on the streets and the possibility of crime / physical assault. These threats are real and really do dissuade people. But, the biggest challenge I hear from people is simply finding the time to exercise with their busy schedules.

  6. Michelle Hastie Thompson

    Small changes do give you big results! Make sure you are also accounting for the need for people to get outside, since most of us have been cooped up in our houses for months. Not only for vitamin d and fresh air, it is a great way to get in those steps by taking a walk that is down the block, up the street or even around your backyard.

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