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Making the Choice to Live Better

For many people, reducing the risk of heart disease involves making major changes in the way they live. It may mean changing the habits of a lifetime. Even people who are not overweight may need to change their diets to reduce their cholesterol levels. And they may need to make room in their schedules for exercise and other physical activity.

When patients have been diagnosed with heart disease or are at increased risk of developing heart disease, the primary goal of management is usually to reduce LDL cholesterol levels.

Even though artery-clogging LDL often takes decades to reach dangerous levels, reducing LDL, whether by diet and exercise alone or with the addition of cholesterol-lowering medicine, quickly reduces the risk of disease progression. Although drugs alone can often bring cholesterol down to normal levels, diet and exercise provide benefits that drugs don't: They'll lower blood pressure, reduce weight, and lower the risk of developing diabetes.

A Healthier Diet and a Healthier Weight

Often, the greatest challenge to achieving a heart-healthy lifestyle is learning to eat the right foods. People have become accustomed to a diet rich in fat, cholesterol, and empty calories and low in the vegetables, fruits, fiber, and nutrients we really need. By making smarter food choices and setting healthy dietary goals, it is possible to take off excess weight. And it isn't necessary to get down to an "ideal weight" to improve one's health. A weight reduction of just 10 percent will significantly reduce risk of heart disease and other obesity-related illnesses.

Get Physical

Getting enough exercise is an essential part of a healthy lifestyle. Physical inactivity itself is a risk factor for heart disease and diabetes. And increasing exercise helps improve other risk factors by lowering blood pressure and triglyceride levels, raising HDL, and improving glucose tolerance even if no weight is lost. Exercise helps in both achieving and maintaining weight loss, and improves cardiorespiratory fitness. By improving mood, self-esteem, and physical functioning, exercise helps to improve overall quality of life.

Make It a Family Affair

Whether or not they are at risk for heart disease, everyone benefits from a healthy lifestyle. And working together may make developing healthier habits easier by providing positive reinforcement and motivation and by not placing temptation in the way. Overweight children may have an easier time losing weight if overweight parents do so too.

It's Never Too Early to Start

Although diet and lifestyle change originally focused on treating patients who already had heart disease or multiple risk factors, it has become increasingly apparent that the best time to initiate healthy habits is before bad habits have taken their toll. Bad habits often start early. Obesity, poor diet, and inadequate physical activity are increasingly common among children and adolescents, and they are highly likely to continue through adulthood. The key to making one's golden years truly golden may be to establish healthy habits early and stick with them for life.