Making lifestyle changes

Millions of people diagnosed with heart disease enjoy active, satisfying lives. By using your mind to help your body, obtaining appropriate medical care, and making changes in your lifestyle, you can learn to live life to the fullest despite your condition.

These steps can help you take charge of your heart health and your life:

Get involved

Empower yourself. Start thinking and acting proactively. Learn about your condition, treatment options, and the steps you can take to make your therapy a success. Take responsibility for doing all you can to positively affect your health.

Make the most of your doctor visits. Write down a list of your concerns before your appointment, then ask your most important questions first.

Follow your doctor's instructions. For example, he or she may recommend you quit smoking, lower your blood pressure and cholesterol, control diabetes, eat a low-fat diet, or exercise regularly. Making these lifestyle changes may reverse the progression of heart disease and reduce your chances of a heart attack or stroke.

Set realistic goals

The two most important rules for success in lifestyle modification are to focus on a single goal at a time and to set realistic expectations. Lasting behavioral changes are usually small and incremental, and require positive reinforcement every step of the way. One reason why classical diet and exercise modifications are so hard is that there's a time lag before we see or feel the "results," making it difficult to sustain motivation.

Consider these methods to boost motivation: use a paper chart, computer program, or smart phone app to track your behavior on a daily basis. Refer to your chart to see how you're doing and be sure to reward yourself for even small successes. Every time you reward yourself for a small victory, you are effectively "shaping" your own behavior towards a lasting positive change.

Successful lifestyle modification also requires planning ahead. Make specific plans for when, where, and with whom you will practice the new behavior. Focus on what you will do rather than what you won't do. (For example, focus on eating more greens and lean proteins rather than eliminating starches; reward works much better when paired with concrete action than when paired with the absence of an action.) Finally, troubleshoot potential obstacles to your plan and identify some back-up alternatives.

Get support

Involve your family. Heart disease affects your family, too, and having their support can help you make necessary lifestyle changes more easily. Ask family members to learn about your condition. Take them to one of your doctor appointments and let them ask questions about your treatment.

Join a support group. Ask your doctor, hospital community service liaison, or your local affiliate of the American Heart Association to recommend a heart patient group in your area. These groups vary in their character and objectives, so plan on visiting a few of them before deciding which one is right for you.