Lifestyle changes and medications are the most common methods for treating heart failure in adults. Because there is no cure for most forms of heart failure, treatment consists primarily of measures to manage the condition and prevent it from worsening.
In heart failure, the heart muscle is weakened and unable to pump enough oxygen-rich blood to meet the needs of the body’s tissues. Lifestyle changes will be directed at reducing the burden on the heart muscle, as well as treating underlying conditions that contribute to heart failure.
The following lifestyle changes are typically recommended for patients who have heart failure.
Manage Your Blood Pressure
High blood pressure (hypertension) is one of the leading causes of heart failure. Blood pressure is the force with which blood pumps against artery walls. If blood pressure is too high, the force can damage the artery walls. Additionally, the heart muscle has to work harder to pump against this pressure to move blood throughout the body. If you don’t know if you have high blood pressure, schedule a check-up with your doctor. If you already have high blood pressure, be sure to take any medications that have been prescribed, get regular exercise, maintain ideal body weight, limit alcohol and salt, and eat a heart-healthy diet.
Visit the SecondsCount High Blood Pressure Center here.
If You Smoke, Quit
Quitting smoking is one of the best things you can do for your cardiovascular health. Smoking damages the lining of the arteries that carry blood throughout your body. Additionally, chemicals in cigarettes and other tobacco products can directly damage the heart muscle, contributing to heart failure. All forms of nicotine are harmful, including chewing tobacco and e-cigarettes, as is secondhand smoke exposure. Talk with your healthcare team about how to get started with quitting smoking.
Eat a Heart-Healthy Diet
A dietitian can help you change your eating habits to be more heart healthy. For heart failure patients it is usually important to reduce the amount of salt you eat and lower cholesterol.
To learn more about heart-healthy nutrition, click here.
Managing sodium is important for heart failure patients for several reasons. Sodium can increase blood pressure, and high blood pressure is one of the leading causes of heart failure. Sodium can cause fluid retention and higher blood volume, which places extra strain on the already weakened heart muscle. Additionally, sodium can interfere with the ability of prescribed diuretics to work effectively. Heart failure patients should consume less than 2,000 milligrams of sodium a day.
Check Nutrition Facts labels for the sodium (salt) content of foods; avoid salty snacks such as chips; and look out for sauces that may be high in sodium, such as soy sauce.
Visit Heart-Healthy Eating Guidelines: How to Skip the Salt & Sodium for handy tips for reducing sodium when you are cooking and shopping.
Lower Your Cholesterol
Dietary cholesterol is one of the substances that contributes to the build-up of artery clogging plaque. This build-up occurs in arteries throughout the body and can contribute to coronary artery disease (the disease process that causes heart attacks), heart attack, stroke, and peripheral artery disease.
Coronary artery disease and prior heart attack can both cause heart failure. If you don’t know your cholesterol level, schedule a check-up with your physician to have it tested. If you have a family history of high cholesterol or already know that your cholesterol levels are high, work with your healthcare team to reduce your levels. This may mean taking medications as prescribed, eating a heart-healthy diet, exercising regularly and, if you are a smoker, quitting smoking.
The recommendation for physical activity for most people (even those who have existing cardiovascular disease) is 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week. For heart failure patients, this may require pacing activity because of fatigue, but doing three 10-minute walks a day is still 30 minutes of activity. It is never a good idea to “push it” or “overdo it.” Rather, most doctors recommend doing activity to your tolerance level and then taking a break and doing more later.
No matter what, it’s important to check with your doctor about the type, duration and intensity of exercise that would be safest and most beneficial for you. Regular physical activity can lower blood pressure, help manage weight and reduce stress—all of which can help manage heart failure—but what you take on should be tailored to your condition.
Alcoholism is a substantial contributor to heart failure. Alcohol can be a cardiotoxin; this means that it can damage the heart muscle if too much is consumed. Some research suggests that light drinking may help heart health, but don’t start drinking alcohol if you don’t already. Doing so carries risks of alcohol dependence and other health problems. The recommendation is that women drink no more than one drink per day and that men drink no more than two drinks per day.
Weigh Yourself Daily
Rapid weight gain can be a sign of fluid retention. SecondsCount’s Weight Log can be used to track weight each day. If you notice a significant difference (such as 2–3 pounds in one day or 5 pounds in one week), contact your heart failure team. Catching worsening symptoms sooner rather than later may prevent a hospital admission.
Watch Your Weight
Obesity can contribute to high blood pressure, diabetes, coronary artery disease (disease of the arteries that supply the heart muscle with blood) and other factors that cause and worsen heart failure. If you are overweight, work with your healthcare team to manage your weight and cardiovascular health.
Join a Cardiac Rehabilitation Program
Cardiac rehabilitation programs help participants resume a healthy lifestyle after a cardiac event, such as a heart attack, open-heart surgery, or angioplasty and stenting. Cardiac rehab for heart failure has recently been approved for coverage under some care plans. Consider participating in a cardiac rehab program to get help with making the changes above, such as becoming more physically active and adopting a low-sodium, heart-healthy diet.
If you were hospitalized for heart failure, you will likely need to begin making lifestyle changes as soon as you get home. This will help increase your odds of avoiding hospital readmission. Read Transitioning Home after Hospitalization for Heart Failure: Tips for Avoiding Hospital Readmission to learn more.
Lifestyle changes will be one aspect of treating heart failure. To learn more about medications and other heart failure treatments, please see Heart Failure Treatment.