“We can give a patient any medication in the world, but if a person isn't empowered to change their lifestyle, then we're not doing the best we can for that individual patient to decrease the risk of a cardiovascular event,” says Rachel W. Bloom, MD, cardio-oncologist at Stony Brook Medical Center.
Living a healthy lifestyle has numerous benefits for your heart failure management. It may reduce your heart failure symptoms, like shortness of breath or swelling. It can slow down the progression of your heart failure, which can help you avoid severe symptoms or complications, or prevent you from requiring a heart transplant or other serious treatment options.
Here is what Dr. Bloom suggests for people with heart failure to manage their condition in their everyday life:
1. Know your own risk
“Patients should always know their individual cardiac risk and how many of those can be modifiable,” says Dr. Bloom. “For example, you can stop smoking, you can maintain an ideal body weight, and if you're overweight, to lose weight, but you can't change your genetics.”
2. Limit salt intake
A general healthy diet is recommended (see #5), but one of the biggest dietary recommendations is to reduce your sodium intake. Too much sodium can be troublesome for heart failure patients because it causes the body to retain fluid, which aggravates the fluid retention caused by heart failure.
Your doctor may recommend the DASH diet (or “Dietary Approach to Stop Hypertension”), which limits sodium, red meat, and added sugars. This diet has been proven effective at lowering blood pressure, particularly when combined with exercise.
3. Regulate your water intake
It might come as a surprise to newly diagnosed patients with heart failure that there is such a thing as drinking too much water. Remember, heart failure can cause fluid retention in the body, which causes common symptoms like swelling. (That doesn’t mean skipping water altogether: Talk to your doctor about your recommended fluid intake.)
“We teach patients … to monitor how much fluid they're taking in on a regular basis, so that we don't run into problems with swelling and shortness of breath,” says Dr. Bloom.
4. Stay active
It’s a myth that you can’t exercise if you have heart failure. In fact, physical activity is a major component of heart failure treatment.
“Integrate an exercise program. Go outside. Take a 20-minute walk. Walk on a treadmill for 20 minutes. Take a power walk with your spouse or your children,” says Dr. Bloom. “Do something active every day.”
Not sure where to start? Here are 6 tips for exercising with heart failure.
5. Eat a healthy diet
A healthy diet can help manage weight, lower blood pressure, and improve cholesterol levels—all of which take stress off the heart. The American Heart Association recommends eating a diet rich in fruits, veggies, whole grains, low-fat dairy, lean proteins, nuts, and legumes.
A heart-healthy diet also limits saturated fat, trans fats, sodium, red meat, added sugars, and sugary beverages—all of which have been shown to have negative effects on heart health, either directly or indirectly.
“These things are not instantaneous fixes, but all of that together with medications that we use can really, really potentiate life expectancy for patients and really make patients live the longest, healthiest lifestyle they possibly can,” says Dr. Bloom.