There’s good news and bad news when it comes to your risk of developing heart disease, the leading killer in the U.S.
Let’s start with the bad. Several factors raise a person’s risk for getting heart disease — a term used to describe a range of conditions that affect the heart — including some that can’t be controlled, such as family history, and others that are more complex, such as having access to good-for-you foods and safe, affordable housing.
That said, there’s a lot you can do to help prevent heart disease and, in certain cases, reverse it. Some of these actions, however difficult to achieve, are obvious: Get active, eat better, lose weight, and stop smoking. “Lifestyle changes are difficult for everyone,” says Sabra Lewsey, M.D., a cardiologist and assistant professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins Medicine. “But they are profoundly important and can make lifesaving gains in your health.”
Others are more surprising.
Here are 10 habits to avoid if you hope to improve your heart health.
1. Being a couch potato
Not moving enough, especially on a regular basis, is risky for your health. Inactivity has been linked to cognitive decline, more frailty and even an increased risk of death. Fortunately, almost any sort of activity that raises your heart rate is a good place to start.
It’s important to move your body and elevate your heart rate for at least 150 minutes every week. You should throw in twice-weekly strength training sessions, according to the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, established by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
That may seem like a lot of exercise, but it doesn’t need to be done all at once. As long as you get your heart rate up for 15 minutes or more at a time, it counts. Also, “activity” doesn’t just mean a walk or a gym class or a bike ride. It could be gardening, shopping, walking the dog or cleaning.
“You don’t have to go from doing nothing to running marathons,” says Quentin Youmans, M.D., assistant professor of medicine at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “In fact, the biggest leap in benefit comes from doing nothing to doing something. Just start by dedicating yourself to doing some activity every day to get your body moving.”
Take, for example, starting off with a 10-minute walk. A new study published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology found that increasing your activity by 1,000 steps a day — or about 10 minutes of walking — was associated with a 15 percent reduction in dying from any cause; an increase in 500 steps was linked to a 7 percent reduction in dying from cardiovascular disease.
A 2014 survey found that more than a quarter (27.5 percent) of people older than 50 said they did no physical activity (other than their job) in the past month. Among the older age group — 75 and up — more than one-third (35.3 percent) of people said the same thing.
2. Drinking too much alcohol
“Not everyone recognizes the connection between heart health and alcohol,” Youmans says. Drinking too much alcohol can raise blood pressure, cause irregular heartbeats “and even have a direct toxic effect on the heart.”
Imbibing too much “can lead to heart failure or a weakening of the heart,” says Amber Johnson, M.D., a cardiologist and assistant professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.
How much is too much? When it comes to health risks, the World Health Organization said in 2023 that no alcohol is the safest amount.
For those who do drink alcohol, the recommended limits in the U.S. are up to one drink a day for women and up to two for men.