10 Free Ways to Protect Your Heart

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DON'T MISS A BEAT

Having a strong heart is vital to your health, and it doesn't cost a thing to help keep it in good shape. In fact, these free tips can actually save money, by eliminating wasteful habits and reducing the probability of higher medical expenses as you grow older.

CHECK YOUR BODY MASS INDEX

CHECK YOUR BODY MASS INDEX While the number on the scale is an important indicator of overall health, it's not the whole story -- that's where a BMI calculator comes in. The calculation is based on weight and height, and the answer can tell you a lot about your risk for cardiovascular disease. The normal range is 18 to 24.9, while 25 to 29.9 is considered overweight, and 30 and over is considered obese. Excess weight can increase your blood pressure and cause your heart to work harder, so knowing your BMI can help you set weight loss and activity goals.

GO FOR A WALK

Physical exercise can help strengthen the heart by decreasing cholesterol levels, lowering blood pressure, and eliminating excess pounds. Walking is a popular choice, because it's easy for most to do and requires no special equipment (aside from comfortable clothes and shoes). The American Heart Association suggests getting into a walking habit by beginning with short distances, increasing gradually over time, and incorporating different terrain to get a better workout.

STOP SMOKING

Smoking causes one of every three deaths from cardiovascular disease, according to the CDC. While ending the habit can be difficult, it's one of the best ways to improve heart health. What's more, it costs nothing to quit and the savings from not buying costly cigarettes are immediate.

EAT THE RIGHT FOODS

The food pyramid of old has been replaced with the more modern MyPlate and revised dietary guidelines, but the idea is the same. Eating a diet rich in vegetables, fruits, low-fat dairy, lean meats, and grains is also among the American Heart Association's diet and lifestyle recommendations. Eating a healthier diet isn't a matter of money. Choosing minimally processed foods can improve nutritional value with little effect on the food budget.

AVOID SATURATED FATS

Along with eating more of the right foods, it also pays to avoid eating certain foods -- also free to do, but perhaps not quite so easy. One shining example is saturated fats. The American Heart Association warns that saturated fats can increase LDL cholesterol levels, increasing the risk of heart disease. They are found in many animal-based foods, such as red meat and dairy products made from whole or 2 percent milk. Saturated fats are also found in many processed and fried foods, which, while tasty and popular, should be minimized or avoided.

DRINK IN MODERATION

You don't have to give up alcohol completely, but experts recommend limiting consumption. The jury is still out on whether red wine has a positive effect on heart health (in other words, there isn't enough evidence to recommend that people take up a red wine habit if they do not currently drink). Overall, the American Heart Association recommends no more than one alcoholic drink a day for women and no more than two for men.

SKIMP ON THE SALT

Salt may make meals extra delicious, but the extra sodium is bad news for your ticker. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 1,500 milligrams a day. That may sound like a lot, but the average American consumes about 3,400 milligrams a day -- much of it from processed foods. Cutting down on salt, even paring back to 2,400 milligrams, can have a significant and positive effect on your chances of developing high blood pressure, which can lead to heart disease.

DITCH THE SODA

Sugary drinks can spell bad news for the heart. Studies have shown that regular consumption of soda or other sugar-sweetened beverages may increase the chances of coronary heart disease. And diet sodas might be just as risky. A recent study by the American College of Cardiology found that older women who drink two or more diet drinks a day may be more likely to have a heart attack, stroke, or other cardiovascular problems. Play it safe: Minimize or eliminate a soda habit for better heart health.

STRESS LESS

Stress is another significant risk factor when it comes to heart disease. While high stress levels haven't been shown to directly affect blood pressure, they can lead to unhealthy habits that do affect blood pressure, such as smoking more and eating foods that are bad for the heart. Getting more exercise is one free way to reduce stress.

MAKE TIME FOR YOURSELF

Making time for yourself doesn't cost a thing, but you will reap the rewards -- and so will your heart. Whether you carve out some time in the day for exercise, a nap, or some meditation, that "me" time can help you focus on yourself and your health and help reduce the risks for heart disease.