I'd like to improve my heart health, but am worried I don't have the motivation to join a gym or make big diet changes. Any advice?

Answers from Martha Grogan, M.D.

It's great that you want to improve your heart health. Don't think that you have to make big changes to have an effect on your heart health, though. Even small, basic steps can have dramatic effects.

One of the biggest drops in heart disease risk occurs when you go from a sedentary lifestyle to being active as little as one hour a week. That's right, just one hour. Obviously, the more active you are, the better. But just one solid hour of activity over the course of a week makes a difference.

Health professionals at Mayo Clinic have developed the Mayo Clinic Healthy Heart Plan. The entire plan is contained in the book Mayo Clinic Healthy Heart for Life! A Plan for Preventing and Conquering Heart Disease. But one of the key messages in the plan is that even little steps may make a big difference. Some of these steps for getting started are in a two-week "Quick Start" section of the book termed Eat 5, Move 10, Sleep 8.

Here's a summary of the Mayo Clinic Healthy Heart Plan's quick start:

  • Eat 5. Eat five servings of fruit and vegetables a day to boost your heart health. Start by eating breakfast and including at least one serving of fruit or vegetable. Snack on vegetables or fruit in between meals. Make a conscious effort to include fruits and vegetables in your daily meals. Don't worry so much about foods you shouldn't eat, just work on getting five or more servings of fruits and vegetables a day.
  • Move 10. Add at least 10 minutes of moderately intense physical activity to what you do every day. Sure government recommendations say 30 minutes or more, but the bottom line is even 10 minutes makes a difference. For example, just 60 to 90 minutes a week of physical activity can reduce your heart disease risk by up to half. That's a big benefit from a pretty small commitment on your part. It doesn't have to be elaborate — take the stairs, take a walk, just get moving. As you become more active, you can try to increase your total amount of activity a day.
  • Sleep 8. Quality sleep is good for your heart. It can be a challenge to make time for good sleep, but it's important. For two weeks try to get eight hours of good, quality sleep each night. Yes, each person's sleep needs vary slightly, but eight is a good number to shoot for.

All of these tips — Eat 5, Move 10, Sleep 8 — are meant to be tried for two weeks before you move on to a more established healthy heart plan. But there's nothing wrong with continuing this quick start for longer periods. Consider trying other reputable diet and exercise plans offered by the American Heart Association and government agencies. The point is to get started with something and keep at it.

Jan. 31, 2012 See more Expert Answers