Don’t Wait ‘Till Something Happens to Your Heart

Experts say patients should be proactive: Start taking care of your heart now

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Of course, if you have had a heart attack or not-so-good news about your heart you should follow your provider’s protocol for taking care of your ticker.

But if you’re overall healthy, adopting healthful lifestyle habits can prevent heart issues when you’re older. And even if you’re already at or past middle age and have not been living healthfully, it’s not too late to start.

“Take control of your health by knowing your numbers: blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar and waistline,” said physician Nelly Kazzaz, American Heart Association board member and cardiologist at SJH Cardiology Associates in Liverpool. “Act on this information to lower your risk of heart disease in the future.”

Working your heart helps keep it healthy, but it doesn’t mean hours of pounding the pavement or sweating in the gym.

Engaging in 150 minutes of aerobic exercise plus strength training per week should help you maintain good health.

Fred Wilson, 82, operates Fitness After 50 in the Syracuse area and is a senior fitness-certified trainer.

“There are all kinds of programs available at the YMCA,” he said. “They have group fitness programs. If a person is serious about exercise, hire a personal trainer. One who has experience in training people the same age as you. Personal trainers can help people with specific medical issues. I recommend getting a doctor’s clearance, particularly if you have a medical problem.”

Instead of joining an intense, intimidating class or regimen, Wilson promotes finding something you enjoy so it will be easy to participate regularly. Some people like the camaraderie of the class environment; others like the solitude of running, cycling or snowshoeing. Still others like a one-on-one approach with a personal trainer or fitness coach.

Jill Murphy, certified personal trainer and co-owner of Mission Fitness in Syracuse, recommends for heart health “exercise, exercise and exercise,” she said. “Doing cardiovascular exercise is a great way to challenge the heart and lungs. When doing it you want to make sure you find a pace that is going to challenge the heart and increase the heart rate.”

What you eat matters — a lot.

“Eating a healthy diet void of sugars and seed oils (vegetable oil, peanut oil, canola oil, soybean oils to name a few), which cause inflammation to the arteries, is the best way to prevent heart disease,” Murphy said. “Taking a high-quality fish oil is another way to promote heart health. Dr. Sears Omega RX is a great one. However, you have to consult with your doctor before taking any; there are certain medications that do not mix well with fish oils, that would cause someone to be unable to take them.”

Read the nutrition facts square on food labels to learn about what is in what you eat. You can also find information on the American Heart Association site (

Thomas Grady Jr., cardiologist with Oswego Health, recommends eating plenty of produce, along with lean sources of protein and avoiding pasta, marbled meat, heavy sauces and fried foods. Healthful seafood like salmon, cod and other fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids. This type of seafood promotes heart health.

“If you have to eat between a meal, have walnuts or an apple,” Grady Jr., said. “Walnuts offer a lot of good nutrients.”

Choosing whole grains as carbohydrate sources, like oatmeal, popcorn brown rice, sweet potatoes and whole grain pasta instead of white flour-based pasta, white rice and white potatoes is also healthful. Of course, the preparation of food matters as well. Olive oil is considered healthful for the heart, unlike many other choices.

Don’t rely only on packaging’s “heart healthy” claims. The American Heart Association offers its heart-check digital grocery list tool free online at You can look for heart-check certified foods and draft a grocery list to use digitally or print or email. The organization updates the tool to stay up-to-date information.

Maintaining a healthful diet and exercise regimen can help you stay at a healthy weight for your height. If you’re not sure what that is, ask your primary care provider.

Stress is not good for your heart. Grady encourages patients to find ways to mitigate the effects of stress by connecting with others through healthy relationships, getting in nature and engaging in hobbies that get them off of screens.

Coping through tobacco and vaping “is not a good thing,” Grady said. “Vaping is a stimulant that can lead to other addictions. Try to avoid drugs and alcohol.”

Sufficient rest helps reduce stress and contributes to heart health.

“Sleep hygiene is important,” he added. “Watch for sleep apnea. Ask your significant other if you snore or note if you wake up not refreshed. If not, you could have apnea.”

Carrying too much weight places people at risk for sleep apnea and is also not good for overall health, including cardiac health.

Keeping a close watch on your heart health relies upon a trusting relationship with your primary care provider (and cardiologist if you’ve already been diagnosed with a heart issue). The American Heart Association recommends beginning cholesterol screening at age 20, long before the average American begins asking about this testing — or before most providers suggest it. This strategy offers a baseline and can help detect rare but serious issues.