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Twelve Weeks to a Heart-Healthy Lifestyle

Heart disease is a killer, but you can do plenty to reduce your risk and prolong your life. Research shows that making lifestyle changes can decrease your risk of cardiovascular heart disease.

Adopting heart-healthy habits over the next 12 weeks will start you on the road to better health and a longer life.

Twelve-week plan

  • Week 1: Commit to get fit. The American Heart Association reports that up to 250,000 deaths each year result from a lack of regular physical activity. Try to start exercising three times a week. Be sure to check with your doctor first if you haven't been exercising regularly.

  • Week 2: Stop smoking. You can have the most positive impact on your heart health by quitting smoking. It's also one of the hardest changes to make, so sign up for a reputable smoking-cessation program. If you don't smoke, make an effort to avoid secondhand smoke; chronic exposure can increase your risk for heart disease.

  • Week 3: Reduce your fat intake. Fat is the most concentrated form of energy and calories, so reducing your intake of it helps you lose weight and reduces your risk for heart disease and some forms of cancer.

  • Week 4: Limit saturated fat. Decreasing the amount of saturated fat in your diet is one of the best ways to lower your cholesterol. Saturated fats are a main contributor to heart disease. These fats usually become solid at room temperature and are found mostly in butter, lard and animal fats.

  • Week 5: Reduce your cholesterol. This week, try to reduce your daily cholesterol intake to 200 mg. All animal products contain cholesterol, but opt for fish and skinless chicken instead of fatty cuts of red meat. They contain much less cholesterol.

  • Week 6: Reduce your salt intake. The average American age 2 or older consumes 3,400 mg of sodium per day. Most sodium comes from salt added during food processing. Salt added at the table and in cooking is only a small proportion of the total sodium that Americans consume. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends no more than 2300 mg of sodium a day for people younger than 51 who don't have risk factors for high blood pressure. People who do have risk factors for high blood pressure include people older than 51, African-Americans, and people with hypertension, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease. These people should have no more than 1,500 mg of sodium a day. Removing the saltshaker from your table and eating fewer processed foods can help.

  • Week 7: Increase your dietary fiber. Fruits, vegetables and whole grains contain dietary fiber. Depending on your recommended daily calories, work up to 3 to 5 ounces per day of whole grains, 2 cups of fruits, and 3 cups of vegetables a day. Increase your fluid intake to avoid constipation. High-fiber foods help keep cholesterol in check.

  • Week 8: De-stress. Stress increases your risk for heart disease and accelerates its progression. People who are chronically angry or stressed have higher rises in blood pressure than people who aren't. This constant flux can damage the heart. Be aware of stress and find ways to control it.

  • Week 9: Become a savvy grocery shopper. Most foods include important nutrition information on their labels. Paying attention to these figures will help ensure you eat healthfully.

  • Week 10: Find a new activity. This week, try a new sport or activity you enjoy. You might enjoy water-walking, circuit training, in-line skating, or slide aerobics.

  • Week 11: Know what's on the menu. When you eat out, try to eat as well as you do at home. Ask your server how food is prepared. Avoid cream sauces, cheese sauces and fried foods. Opt for broiled, steamed, or stir-fried dishes.

  • Week 12: Eat breakfast every day. Everyone needs energy first thing in the morning, yet many people skip breakfast. Plan ahead and have nutritious foods ready to go.