Cardiovascular Risk: How Does Diet and Exercise Help?

Cardiovascular risk can be reduced by adopting a few basic measures. Nowadays, there are many factors that threaten the good health of the heart and circulatory system. Prevention is best.
Cardiovascular Risk: How Does Diet and Exercise Help?

Written by Edith Sánchez

Last update: 16 June, 2022

The best way to reduce cardiovascular risk is to adopt a healthy lifestyle. There are two fundamental axes of this: diet and exercise. Both factors together are optimal means to prevent all kinds of diseases.

The two leading causes of death in the world are ischemic heart disease and stroke, according to the World Health Organization. This information alone shows the importance of taking measures to reduce cardiovascular risk.

It’s estimated that at least one-third of cardiovascular diseases are preventable. Despite this, the number of deaths from cardiovascular disease is not being reduced due to the persistence of inappropriate habits, such as sedentary lifestyles and unhealthy diets.

What are cardiovascular diseases?

Anatomía del corazón humano.
Cardiovascular diseases are one of the two leading causes of death worldwide.

Cardiovascular diseases include several pathologies associated with the functioning of the heart and blood vessels. These include hypertension, heart failure, and cerebrovascular disease, among others.

Cardiovascular disease is often caused by arteriosclerosis, a condition in which fat and cholesterol build up on the walls of the arteries. This leads to narrowing and causes problems throughout the body. A clogged artery can lead to a heart attack or stroke.

Multiple conditions increase the likelihood of cardiovascular conditions. High cholesterol levels, diabetes mellitus, smoking, stress, and obesity are some of the most important.

Cardiovascular risk is also increased by a  sedentary lifestyle and an inadequate diet. In the same way, regular exercise and healthy nutrition reduce the probability of suffering from any of these diseases.

How does diet influence cardiovascular risk?

To minimize cardiovascular risk, it’s important to reduce the consumption of sodium, sugar, saturated fats, and cholesterol. A study by the Joseph Fourier Universityin Grenoble (France), found evidence that the Mediterranean diet helps to prevent heart problems.

The best thing to do is to reduce or eliminate foods that have the potential to increase levels of “bad” cholesterol (LDL) and triglycerides. Also, you should control your consumption of substances that demand a harder work from the heart, such as sodium.

The Mediterranean diet meets these criteria. Another study from Lund University indicates that the Swedish diet also meets these criteria. So does the so-called DASH diet or dietary approach to stop hypertension.

A proper diet protects the circulatory system by preventing plaque from forming in the arteries; it also strengthens the heart and blood vessels. When eaten on a regular basis, this type of diet consistently prevents cardiovascular risk.

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Useful tips

In general terms, it’s recommended to eat fruits, vegetables, and greens every day, preferably steamed. Also, eat nuts and whole grains frequently.

Other tips to take into account are the following:

  • Limit your salt intake. Don’t consume more than 3 grams of salt daily, which is equivalent to one teaspoon. Basil, lemon, and garlic, among others, also give an excellent flavor to food.
  • Eat fish at least twice a week. Preferably oily fish.
  • Reduce your consumption of red meat.
  • Opt for skimmed dairy products.
  • Don’t eat more than four eggs per week.
  • Avoid sugary drinks.
  • Don’t make highly seasoned dishes and cook them steamed or grilled.
  • Opt for vegetable oils, such as sunflower, flaxseed, olive, or canola oil.
  • Avoid highly processed foods and refined flours.

How does exercise influence the risk of cardiovascular disease?

Los ejercicios para glúteos y piernas incluyen subir escaleras.
Research has shown that physical activity decreases cardiac risk.

A study carried out by the Department of Epidemiology and Population Health of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine indicated that eliminating a sedentary lifestyle reduces cardiovascular risk by 15 to 39%.

The same study adds that reducing the time a person sits for only three hours a day could increase life expectancy by up to two years. Experts recommend 150 minutes of aerobic activity or 75 minutes of intense activity per week.

Adults without a history of cardiovascular disease can begin a gradual exercise program without major problems. However, it’s always best to consult your doctor, especially if you have any questions.

Evidence indicates that exercising at least twice a week is associated with a decrease in cardiovascular risk, as it helps the heart beat faster, keeps blood pressure stable, and lowers cholesterol.

We think you may be interested in reading this, too: Work Stress Associated with Risk of Heart Attack

Useful tips

Introducing regular exercise into your lifestyle habits not only reduces cardiovascular risk, but is also great for maintaining a good mood and reducing stress. The key is to practice a sport and if this is not possible, to create an exercise routine.

It’s best to start with activities that are not so demanding and gradually increase them. The following data on the level of activity helps to better program the exercise plan.

  • Light physical activity. It’s the appropriate one to start when a person is sedentary. This includes activities such as walking, slow swimming, golf, Tai-Chi, yoga,  and pilates.
  • Moderate physical activity. After a couple of weeks of doing light physical activity, the intensity can be increased, unless your doctor says otherwise. Activities such as ballroom dancing, bicycling, swimming, brisk walking, or horseback riding may be appropriate here.
  • Intense physical activity. This should only be initiated if it’s clear that there’s no risk. You can include activities such as rock climbing, aerobic dancing, running, canoeing, and playing any sport at an intense pace.

Strength exercises should be done a couple of days a week. Weight lifting or resistance bands are very convenient. It’s advisable to monitor vital signs and stop the activity if there is dizziness or shortness of breath. Over time, the body’s ability to respond better increases.

Preventing cardiovascular risks

Studies indicate that the best results are obtained when a healthy diet is combined with regular exercise. One measure enhances the other and makes it more beneficial. For this reason, it’s best to adopt both habits at the same time.

It’s normal for there to be resistance to adopting new habits at first. However, once you start and break that initial barrier, little by little, everything becomes easier. On average, it takes a person just over two months to incorporate a new habit. The end result? Prevention instead of a cure.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • De Lorgeril M, Salen P. Mediterranean diet and n-3 fatty acids in the prevention and treatment of cardiovascular disease. J Cardiovasc Med (Hagerstown). 2007 Sep;8 Suppl 1:S38-41. doi: 10.2459/01.JCM.0000289268.90482.7b. PMID: 17876197.
  • Hlebowicz, J., Drake, I., Gullberg, B., Sonestedt, E., Wallström, P., Persson, M., Nilsson, J., Hedblad, B., & Wirfält, E. (2013). A high diet quality is associated with lower incidence of cardiovascular events in the Malmö diet and cancer cohort. PloS one, 8(8), e71095.
  • Ebrahim S, Taylor F, Ward K, Beswick A, Burke M, Davey Smith G. Multiple risk factor interventions for primary prevention of coronary heart disease. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2011 Jan 19;(1):CD001561. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD001561.pub3. PMID: 21249647.
  • O’Donnell, C. J., & Elosua, R. (2008). Factores de riesgo cardiovascular. Perspectivas derivadas del Framingham Heart Study. Revista española de Cardiología, 61(3), 299-310.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.