The good health habits of a person with congenital heart disease are exactly the same as those for someone who was not born with a heart defect. The primary difference is that forming good habits is even more important if you have congenital heart disease. Here are some examples that explain why:
The American Heart Association recommends the following heart-healthy lifestyle changes for children and their families:
- Eat vegetables and fruits, and limit juice intake.
- Use vegetable oils and soft margarines low in saturated fat and trans fatty acid instead of butter or most animal fats.
- Eat whole-grain rather than refined-grain bread and cereals.
- Reduce intake of sugar-sweetened beverages and foods.
- Use nonfat or low-fat (one percent) milk.
- Increase fish consumption, use only lean cuts of meat and reduced-fat meat products, and remove the skin from poultry.
- Reduce salt intake.
- Teach about a balanced meal, portion size and caloric contents of snacks
- Limit eating out and encourage eating at home. Follow tips for heart-healthy dining out.
Babies born with congenital heart disease may have special dietary considerations such as the need for extra calories and different ways to get food into the stomach. And just as with adults, children with heart disease should eat a balanced, healthy diet and limit cholesterol.
If you are an adult with congenital heart disease, speak with your physician about whether it is safe for you to drink alcohol in moderation (no more than one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men). Alcohol use can increase blood pressure and contribute to abnormal heart rhythms. Additionally, alcohol can adversely affect common heart medications such as warfarin (Coumadin).
If you are the parent of a teen with congenital heart disease, talk with your child about alcohol and recreational drug use long before you think it is likely that he or she may face peer pressure to use drugs or alcohol. It is important to note that anyone who has undergone a Fontan procedure should avoid alcohol completely. Patients who have undergone the Fontan procedure are at high risk of developing liver disease, and alcohol can increase the risk of having liver problems.
If you are a patient with congenital heart disease who smokes, seeking help to quit smoking is one of the best things you can do for your heart health. Smoking can increase your blood pressure, negatively affect your heart rate and damage the blood vessels throughout your body. Many patients with congenital heart disease rely on the lungs to be in the best possible condition to allow good circulation.
If you are the parent of a teen with congenital heart disease, be sure to discuss with your teen how smoking can contribute to heart disease before he or she is faced with a decision about whether to try smoking. There are no benefits to smoking; it can only do serious damage.
It’s important for everyone to get adequate exercise. Talk with your physician about appropriate types and levels of exercise for you or your child. Some people with congenital heart disease will have few to no restrictions on physical activity, particularly after corrective surgical or interventional procedures. Your physician can tell you what is safe for you or your child. If you are looking for light exercise options, you may want to consider seeking approval from your doctor for the following:
- Walking. Walking for 20 to 30 minutes, 3 to 5 times a week can help your heart health, overall fitness level and mood.
- Tai chi. The gentle, slow movements of this Chinese martial art make it a good choice for light exercise.
- Yoga. Find a neighborhood class and speak with the instructor about the various types and intensities offered, in order to identify the class that will meet your needs. Yoga can help you with muscle strength and balance, and classes are a structured way to be less sedentary.
- Light weight lifting. If your physician has placed restrictions on your physical activities, ask how much weight is safe for you to lift. If given approval, lifting light weights can increase your muscle strength.
- Gardening, housecleaning, playing, etc. Not all exercise has to be structured. If your child has congenital heart disease, he or she can meet many exercise needs through typical play. For adults, everyday activities such as gardening or cleaning the house also will contribute to heart health and overall physical fitness.
Maintaining a healthy weight is particularly important for children and adults with congenital heart disease. Obesity contributes to high blood pressure, heart disease in general and other diseases such as diabetes. Your care team can help you make nutritional and physical activity choices to keep your weight at a heart-healthy level.