As health experts have discovered, keeping lists of steps to follow can help people improve process outcomes — and this also applies to some ways that research has shown can help decrease your risk of cardiovascular disease. Here are five steps that could help you, especially if you track your efforts on some of these:
- Know your risk. Where are you now? New risk-estimation tools such as the one on the Sister to Sister's Smart for the Heart tool can help you calculate your 10-year cardiovascular risk.
- Increase your physical activity. It is as simple as walking, jogging, or taking the stairs. An activity tracker can make it easy to see how much you are actually doing and motivate you to make increased physical activity part of your daily routine.
- Reduce sedentary time. A growing body of research shows that extended blocks of sitting are bad for your health even if you are otherwise active. Sedentary time is associated with increased risk of becoming overweight or obese and of developing cardiovascular disease or diabetes. Break up extended periods of inactivity, like sitting at a desk or watching television, with exercise breaks, walks, or doing other tasks.
- Improve your nutrition. You probably already know a few ways in which your diet could be better. Whether you need to eat more vegetables, reduce your sugar intake, or eat less processed food, small changes can make a difference, research shows. One of the simplest approaches is to write down everything you eat. What you find may surprise you and help you find easy changes that can make a big difference.
- Get enough sleep. You probably already know from reading about a growing body of research on the importance of sleep that going to bed and getting up the same time every day can help. New technology has also introduced new sleep disruptions. The biggest lesson is not to sleep with or check your phone or other digital device if you do wake up at night. The light and interaction will keep you awake and reinforce a pattern of waking in the night that can rob you of much needed rest and recovery. Get enough sleep and everything else is easier.
Perhaps the best news is that you can start with any of the steps and the rest will get easier. Exercise and less sedentary time will help you sleep and getting enough sleep reduces impulsive food choices. Better nutrition will reduce blood sugar drops that can leave you tired and seeking junk food. So it doesn't matter where you start, just that you start. Pick any one of the steps and get started.
You can be more effective at reducing your risk if you figure out where you are starting. Then as you make changes that reduce your weight, blood pressure, cholesterol or other indicators of your heart health, you can recalculate your cardiovascular risk estimate to see the reduction. Knowing that the changes you've made are yielding benefits can help you sustain them.
Chloe E. Bird is a senior sociologist at the RAND Corporation.
This commentary originally appeared on Sister to Sister on June 5, 2014. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.