How to improve heart health: Diet, exercise, and more

Heart disease is a major public health concern in the United States. Besides taking medicines a doctor prescribes, a person can take a range of actions to improve their heart health. This includes eating a healthy diet, keeping active, and avoiding behaviors such as smoking.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)there are several ways a person can reduce their risk for heart disease and heart attack.

Keeping blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol levels in healthy ranges can help.

In this article, we will explain how to improve heart health.

Many of the recommendations for improving heart health focus on diet.

The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that people consume:

  • a variety of vegetables and fruits
  • whole grains
  • lean proteins, such as seafood and plant proteins from tofu and other sources
  • liquid, nontropical oils, such as olive or avocado oil
  • minimally processed foods
  • no added sugar
  • limited salt
  • limited alcohol

There are a few specific diets that have these characteristics, including:

Mediterranean diet

The Mediterranean diet focuses on vegetables, grains, lean proteins, and the regular consumption of olive oil. It advocates that people eat dairy and red meat infrequently and foods with added sugar rarely.

A 2019 review in Circulation Research found strong and consistent evidence supporting the benefits of the Mediterranean diet for heart health. The more a person sticks to this dietary pattern, the lower their risk for developing heart disease.

DASH diet

The DASH diet includes more protein from low-fat dairy, meat, and poultry.

A 2019 reviews of previous research found that the DASH diet has links to a lower chance of developing cardiovascular disease and improved blood pressure, as well as other heart health benefits.

Physical activity plays an important supporting role in heart health. It can also help a person maintain a healthy weight, especially in combination with a diet.

A 2019 study in Frontiers in Cardiovascular Medicine found that moderate and vigorous intensity exercise improves cardiovascular function in people who have had heart failure.

Different types and intensities of exercise offer benefits to heart health:


Cardio, or aerobic exercise, is any physical movement intense enough to raise the heart rate and cause sweating.

Moderate-intensity physical activity can lower a person’s risk of heart disease by improving blood pressure and cholesterol levels. A person should aim to get at least 150 minutes of aerobic exercise per week, if possible.

Examples of moderate-intensity cardio activities include:

  • brisk walking
  • water aerobics
  • cycling on mostly flat ground
  • playing doubles tennis
  • mowing a lawn

Examples of vigorous-intensity cardio activities include:

  • jogging or running
  • swimming lengths of a pool
  • cycling fast or on hilly ground
  • playing singles tennis
  • playing basketball

A person can mix moderate-intensity and vigorous-intensity physical activity. Doing this can allow people to spend less time exercising because 1 minute of vigorous-intensity activity is equivalent to 2 minutes of moderate-intensity activity.

Strength training

Aerobic exercise is not the only type of exercise that benefits heart health.

A 2021 systematic review in Frontiers in Cardiovascular Medicine concluded that resistance training combined with aerobic training is more beneficial for people with coronary heart disease than aerobic training alone.

The authors reported that resistance training improves a person’s capacity for exercise and quality of life.

The CDC also recommend doing strength training on top of aerobic exercise. A person should aim to do strengthening activities at least 2 days per week.

They can train using their own body weight, such as by doing pushups, or using resistance machines or free weights in the gym. A person should aim to work all the major muscle groups, including the:

  • legs
  • hips
  • back
  • abdomen
  • chest
  • shoulders
  • arms

Flexibility exercises

A study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Researchsuggests that stretching could be a useful therapy for improving the regulatory effect of the nervous system on the heart. Additionally, without flexibility, the body may struggle to do some aerobic or strength exercises.

The American College of Sports Medicine recommends stretching to the point of feeling slight tightness or discomfort at least two or three times a week, or daily for best results.

Besides nutrition and exercise, a number of lifestyle changes can also help to improve heart health. The AHA recommends:

A person should also make sleep a priority because it supports overall health and wellbeing, including heart health.

Some people take supplements to try to improve their heart health. However, research supporting the use of many popular heart health supplements is mixed. In some cases, there is no strong evidence they work.

Supplements for heart health include:

Co-enzyme Q10

Co-enzyme Q10 (Co-Q10) supplementation may be beneficial to people with cardiovascular disease.

The authors of a 2017 reviews looked at data from a mixture of human and animal studies to assess the benefits of this nutrient and found some evidence that Co-Q10 may reduce disease and death in people with heart and metabolic conditions.

However, the authors pointed out the controversies in the available data and urged future researchers to carry out randomized trials that assess the impact on survival.

Vitamin D

Low vitamin D levels have links with some of the risk factors for cardiovascular disease, such as high blood pressure and inflammation. For people with a vitamin D deficiency, taking this supplement or getting more from sunlight may be beneficial.

A 2018 reviews of 81 studies concluded that vitamin D supplementation may have a protective effect on cardiovascular health. However, other studies have found different results.

For example, in a 2019 reviews, scientists analyzed data from 21 randomized clinical trials involving 83,000 participants. They found no link between vitamin D supplementation and a reduction in major adverse cardiovascular events, heart attack, stroke, or death from any cause.

More research is necessary to confirm that vitamin D supplementation is beneficial for heart health.


A 2017 reviews investigated whether niacin may benefit heart health. Although niacin has links with lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels in the blood, the authors did not find evidence that taking it as a supplement lowered the number of deaths, heart attacks, or strokes.

Additionally, 18% of people experienced side effects and had to stop taking the supplement.

How soon measures such as diet and exercise work to improve heart health depends on a person’s situation and what their goals are.

For example, a person who quits smoking will start to gain benefits from this in as little as 2 weeks. At this point, circulation and lung function begin to improve. After 1 year, their risk of coronary heart disease is 50% lower.

Lowering cholesterol can be more variable. For people using diet and lifestyle changes alone, doctors may allow up to 3 months to see if it works. For people who take statins, cholesterol may reduce significantly after 6–8 weeks.

Other changes can be harder to predict or measure. If a person would like to track markers of heart health as they change their diet or lifestyle, they may be able to ask a doctor to assist with this.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the US, but people can do a lot to reduce their risk. This includes eating a nutritious and balanced diet that is low in added sugar and salt.

Getting regular exercise and making lifestyle changes such as quitting smoking also support heart health.