Preventing Heart Failure With Lifestyle Changes

By Nancy Larson 

 Medically reviewed by Richard N. Fogoros, MD

How you live your daily life—what you eat, how physically active you are, the amount of stress you live under—can have a significant influence on your risk of congestive heart failure and other cardiovascular diseases.

Similarly, certain habits, such as smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol in excess, can substantially increase the risk of heart disease. When you're aware of both what you can be doing and what you should stop doing to preserve the health of your heart, you are taking control over the quality—and the length—of your life.


In addition, if you have already been diagnosed with heart failure, this knowledge—and adjusting your life accordingly—may help prevent your condition from worsening and improve your overall health and wellness, lessening your changes of developing a host of chronic conditions, such as type 2 diabetes, cancer, stroke, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD).1

Impact of Lifestyle on Heart Health

A healthy lifestyle—getting regular physical activity, following a heart-healthy food plan (such as the Mediterranean diet), maintaining a healthy weight, and not smoking—can have a tremendous positive impact on heart health and preventing heart failure.

Furthermore, research has shown a gradual reduction in heart failure risk in parallel to the number of healthy lifestyle practices a person adopts. In one Swedish study those assigned male at birth who adhered to four healthy lifestyle practices had a 62% lower risk of heart failure than those who did not. For people assigned female at birth, the risk was 72% lower.2

Get Regular Exercise

Regular physical activity supports overall cardiovascular health as well as helps to prevent heart failure and numerous other chronic diseases.3 Aerobic activity in particular, such as high-intensity interval training (HIIT), which alternates short stints of intense exercise with less vigorous ones, have been shown to help strengthen and condition the heart so that it can function better.

How much exercise is ideal for heart health? And what type? The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends:4

At least 30 minutes per day (150 minutes per week) of moderate-intensity exercise, such as gardening, brisk walking, dancing, or doubles tennis. This can be broken down into three 10-minute sessions or two 15-minute sessions if that is easier to fit into a busy schedule.


15 minutes per day (75 minutes per week) of vigorous-intensity exercise, such as running, swimming laps, hiking uphill, or singles tennis

Work with a primary care practitioner and/or a certified personal trainer to develop an exercise regimen that's right for you.

Maintain a Healthy Weight

Extra pounds can interfere with blood circulation and put excess pressure and stress on the heart. Losing a few of those pounds can make a big difference in preventing heart failure and promoting general heart health.5

Studies have shown that even a modest weight loss of 5% to 10% can lead to significant improvements in blood pressure, cholesterol, and co-morbidities associated with increased weight.6

Quit Smoking

The chemicals in tobacco can directly damage arteries and contribute to congestive heart failure.7 Secondhand smoke can also be quite harmful, as carbon monoxide can take the place of oxygen in the blood, forcing the heart to pump harder.

If you don't smoke you're ahead of the game. If you do smoke, quit. There are many ways to this from, going cold turkey to chewing nicotine gum or using other medications.8

Once you stop smoking, the positive impact on your health will kick in almost immediately:

  • Within 20 minutes, heart rate decreases

  • Within 12 hours, carbon monoxide levels in the blood decrease to normal

  • Within 3 months, the risk of a heart attack decreases and lung function improves

  • After 1 year, the added risk of coronary artery disease is half that of someone who smokes9

Eat a Heart Healthy Diet

This means focusing on:

  • An abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables at every meal

  • The leanest cuts of meat

  • Poultry from which the skin has been removed

  • Moderate consumption of fish rich in healthy omega-3 fats, such as salmon and anchovies

  • Foods high in monounsaturated fats, including nuts, seeds, and olive oil

  • Legumes, lentils, and beans

  • High-fiber whole grains, such as oatmeal and barley

  • Low to moderate consumption of red wine

Limit saturated fat, trans fats, sodium, fatty cuts of red meat and other proteins, and soda, baked goods, and other foods and beverages with large amounts of added refined sugar.10 The Mediterranean diet is based on these principles and has been associated with cardiovascular health.11


Cut Back on Salt

High levels of sodium in the diet can cause accumulation of fluid in the body that consequently puts excess stress on the cardiovascular system.12 If you have hypertension (high blood pressure), a primary risk factor for heart failure, it may be advisable to reduce your intake of table salt, processed foods, and high-sodium foods, such as bacon, ham, and snack foods such as chips.

One way to do this: Follow the National Institutes of Health DASH diet, short for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension. This calorie-controlled eating plan is based on fresh produce, daily servings of whole grains, low-fat dairy, and lean meat, and limited sweets and fats. The goal is to reduce sodium consumption to 2,300 milligrams (mg) per day or 1,500 mg for people at a high risk of hypertension.

 Heart-Healthy Foods

Drink in Moderation

A 2014 study showed that excess alcohol can lead to increased cardiovascular risk and is one of the most frequent causes of reversible hypertension and atrial fibrillation.13 However, light to moderate drinking, defined as two drinks per day for people assigned male at birth and one drink per day for those assigned female at birth, is associated with reduced mortality risk.

What Is One Drink?

  • 5 ounces of 12% wine

  • 12 ounces of 5% beer

  • 8 ounces of 7% malt liquor

  • 1.5 ounces of 40% distilled spirits or liquor14

Be aware that alcohol is a known carcinogen, so even one drink daily may increase your risk of cancer. Talk to a healthcare provider to determine if moderate drinking is safe for you.

Manage Chronic Conditions

If you have high blood pressure or coronary artery disease—the two most common causes of heart failure—it's important to work with a healthcare provider to get them under control. They will do blood tests to establish your baseline levels of lipids and other health biomarkers that can be used to devise a treatment regimen for you.

Other chronic diseases that may contribute to congestive heart failure include obstructive sleep apnea, iron deficiency, diabetes, high cholesterol, and thyroid disorders.15

Know the Symptoms of Heart Failure

If you notice heart failure symptoms, see a healthcare provider promptly.16

Symptoms include:

  • Weight gain,

  • Swollen feet, ankles, or abdomen caused by fluid buildup

  • Enlarged neck veins

  • Poor appetite, indigestion, nausea, or vomiting

  • Shortness of breath or wheezing during activities or while lying down

  • Trouble sleeping or difficulty concentrating

  • Fatigue and feeling faint

  • Heart palpitations

  • Dry, hacking cough

  • Frequent nighttime urination