It’s the season when many people set New Year’s resolutions for the year ahead, and these goals are often related to physical health.
Experts say there’s one big area that many people should focus on when it comes to their well-being: cardiovascular health.
“Cardiovascular disease is the number one cause of death in America,” said Dr. William Cornwell, a cardiologist at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital. “And, sadly, people… lack a clear understanding of the health or unhealth of their hearts until something catastrophic happens, such as a heart attack or a stroke.”
But there are lifestyle habits you can adopt to manage some of the factors ― like high cholesterol, diabetes and high blood pressure ― that put you at risk of heart attack and stroke.
Cardiologists say they encourage these lifestyle habits every year. Below, doctors shared with HuffPost the New Year’s resolutions they set and recommend to patients in the name of heart health.
Committing or recommitting to exercise.
No surprise here: All of the experts we spoke to said exercise is an important resolution to set every single year.
“First and foremost, from a cardiac standpoint regarding cardiovascular health, exercise needs to be at the forefront,” Cornwell said.
“For me, personally, it is a part of my everyday routine and every year,” he said. “There needs to be a renewed commitment to ensure that exercise is at the forefront of everything that you should be thinking about to improve or maintain your cardiac health.”
“Exercise also brings a number of other benefits to other organ systems, in addition to improvements in quality of life and your overall ability to function well without symptoms,” Cornwell noted. “So, for many reasons — the heart really only being one of many — if there was going to be one New Year’s resolution, exercise should be the one.”
Admittedly, it can be hard to jump into fitness in January, a month marked by early sunsets and cold temperatures in much of the country. But it’s still important to prioritize movement during this time of year, said Dr. Johanna Contreas, a member of the National Hispanic Medical Association and a cardiologist at Mount Sinai Health System in New York.
“Winter months, we tend to see an increase in cardiovascular disease and heart attacks and heart failure, hospitalization,” Contreas said, “because those winter months, you’re more indoors, less likely to be active. So, we always try to tell patients: Think about ways that you can remain active.”
In other words, your version of exercise does not have to take the form of an outdoor run or walk. You could focus on walking up and down the stairs throughout the day, making a point to get up from your computer after long meetings, or signing up for a fitness app that allows you to exercise from home. (Peloton, Alo Moves and FitOn are all good options.)
As for how much you need to exercise each week, Cornwell said the American Heart Association’s guidelines recommend 150 to 300 minutes of mild to moderate-intensity exercise (like brisk walking, doubles tennis or gardening), or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous exercise (like running, jumping rope or swimming laps), each week.
Knowing their numbers.
“I tell people, [if] you really want to start a healthy year, know your numbers and know what is healthy for you,” Contreas said.
When talking about “numbers,” experts are referring to things like a person’s blood pressure, cholesterol and fasting glucose, said Dr. Elizabeth Jackson, director of the cardiovascular outcomes and effectiveness research program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham Medicine.
Jackson also recommends “knowing your fasting glucose, because we know that in the U.S. we have a high prevalence of diabetes, but we also have a high prevalence of pre-diabetes — people who are not quite meeting the definition of diabetes, but they’re not in the normal range.”
According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, having diabetes makes you two to four times more likely to develop cardiovascular disease.
You can ask your doctor for your numbers, and they can either share the data they have on file or order tests to determine this information.
“It’s important to know where you’re at in terms of those numbers, but also not to be discouraged if numbers are out of whack,” Jackson noted.
You can get to a healthier place by adhering to lifestyle adjustments like sticking to an exercise regimen, quitting smoking, and more ways that are outlined in the AHA’s Life Essential 8. Additionally, you can talk to your doctor about medication to see if that’s the right choice for you.
Focusing on their nutrition.
Eating a nutritious diet full of things like fruits, veggies, whole grains, lean protein and beans is known to be beneficial for your heart health and your health overall.
According to Jackson, thinking wholeheartedly about your diet is a good goal for the new year.
To focus on your nutrition, Jackson suggests food-prepping for the week so you’ll have something nutritious to grab when you’re hungry. She also suggests trying out new heart-health recipes each week. The American Heart Association has recipes, she noted, that can help maintain or improve your cardiac health.
If this feels too daunting, Contreas said, you can try simple hacks like adding vegetables to your rice to make your meals more nutritious. Additionally, you could try eating vegetarian a few days a week, or even for a few meals a week.
Contreas noted that it’s important to be mindful of your salt intake, too. Consuming too much salt can increase your blood pressure, she said.
And, as mentioned above, high blood pressure can put you at risk for heart attack and stroke.
“Sleep is very important,” Contreas said. “Sleep deprivation, we know now, is very unhealthy, and it can cause increasing cardiovascular disease” and put you at higher risk for depression and high blood pressure.
Contreas said one of her New Year’s resolutions is to help workers at her hospital get better sleep, in particular those who have to work the night shift.
It’s recommended that adults get between seven and nine hours of sleep each night. “It may not be possible every night,” Contreas acknowledged. “But as much as we can stick to [it] would be important.”
Jackson and Cornwell both pointed out that healthy sleep is part of the AHA’s guidelines to better cardiovascular health, and is an important goal to focus on every year.
One tip: Don’t give up on these goals if you get distracted from time to time.
“We don’t have to go and be perfect every day right away,” Jackson said. “It’s not like January 1 starts, and all of a sudden your lifestyle habits are going to change dramatically and never go back.”
You should cut yourself some slack if you miss a day at the gym or fall back into an old habit you’re trying to break. Additionally, it’s OK to let yourself have rest days (your body needs them!) and allow yourself desserts and foods that aren’t particularly heart-healthy, too.
“But, knowing that if you’re putting in more healthy-type behaviors — healthy diet, physical activity, good sleep — most days, or more than you were, then that’s contributing,” Jackson said. “It really adds up.”
Missing a workout, or having a meal that isn’t great for your high cholesterol, isn’t going to put you back at zero.
“Our cardiovascular health is not just turning on a switch. It’s a holistic view of your diet, your physical activity, your sleep patterns, your lifestyle, together with those numbers for those traditional risk factors of blood glucose, blood pressure, cholesterol,” Jackson said. “It’s really something that is a lifestyle, something to follow and think about your whole life.”