Improve Your Heart Health With This Checklist

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If you want to reduce your chances of an early death from a heart attack or stroke, you’ve probably heard of a few ways to do that: get more exercise, eat “good fats,” maybe pay attention to the heart health metrics on your smartwatch. But there are a lot of things that are supposed to be good for our hearts, and sometimes it gets a bit overwhelming to figure out where to start.

Fortunately, the American Heart Association has a tool that breaks down your personal and lifestyle risk factors into eight categories. While the AHA already had a similar seven-point model, they have just launched the updated version, called “Life’s Essential 8,” so named because they added sleep as one of the factors. There is an online quiz that makes it easy to figure out where you stand.

The categories they look at include the following:

  • Sleep. Adults should get seven to nine hours each night, more for kids.
  • Nicotine exposure. This used to be “smoking,” but nicotine vapes count, too.
  • Physical activity. We should all get at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise (walking counts), or vigorous exercise, which counts double. Kids should get an hour a day.
  • Diet. A heart-healthy diet is defined here as one with plenty of fruit, veggies, legumes, whole grains, and fish.
  • Weight. The AHA acknowledges that BMI is “imperfect,” but since you’re filling out a form online, they need some kind of simple metric to guess your body composition. They consider a BMI score under 25 as a good sign for heart health.
  • Blood glucose. The tool will ask for your last test result for either fasting blood glucose, or hemoglobin a1c (which indicates what your blood glucose has been like over a longer timeframe).
  • Cholesterol. Total and non-HDL cholesterol count for this item.
  • Blood pressure. Ideally you’ll be under 128/80.

If you just want a ballpark sense of where you stand, you can probably look over this list and be like: “Oh. Yeah. I see where I’m falling short.” For a more detailed look, click on over to the My Life Check tool (free, but registration required) and answer the questions.

Most are pretty straightforward, but when I got to the diet questionnaire, I was like: wait. They want to know how many servings of vegetables I have per week? How many servings do I have per week? (There are similar questions for other foods including fruits, beans, red meats, fish/seafood, butter, and sweets.) I gave my best guesses and then moved on. It also took me a bit to add up my minutes of exercise in a typical week.

One annoying thing about this tool is that it requires you to put in a value for your cholesterol and blood glucose test results. I didn’t have those values handy, so I had to make some up just to be able to click to the next screen.

A score of 93.8 appears in a circle on the left side. On the right, there's a heading that says "improve" and, under that, an icon for "eat better." Then there's a heading labeled "celebrate," and the other factors are there: get active, lose weight, stop smoking, reduce blood sugar, manage blood pressure, control cholesterol, sleep.

Screenshot: American Heart Association

In the end, you get a numerical score, ranging from 0 to 100. I did pretty well, at 93.8. My made-up lab values must have been good ones! The eight bullet points above appear under two headings, based on how you did: things to “improve” and things to “celebrate.” For example, I don’t smoke and I pretty much live in the gym, so smoking and physical activity were celebrations for me. On the other hand, I must eat too many pastries and not enough vegetables, because my diet was listed as a thing to improve.

The average American would score around a 65, according to the AHA. They consider anything under 50 to be “poor” heart health, and anything above 80 to be “high.”

As always, we shouldn’t base major life decisions on an online quiz. But if you’re trying to get a sense of what’s most important, a tool like this can help. You might be overthinking which vegetables to include in your diet, while forgetting how big a deal it is to stop smoking or get more sleep. So give this tool a try if you want to figure out where to start.

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