10 Worst Habits for Your Heart

There’s good news and bad news when it comes to your risk of developing heart disease, the leading killer in the U.S.

Let’s start with the bad. Several factors raise a person’s risk for getting heart disease — a term used to describe a range of conditions that affect the heart — including some that can’t be controlled, such as family history, and others that are more complex, such as having access to good-for-you foods and safe, affordable housing. 

That said, there’s a lot you can do to help prevent heart disease and, in certain cases, reverse it. Some of these actions, however difficult to achieve, are obvious: Get active, eat better, lose weight, and stop smoking. “Lifestyle changes are difficult for everyone,” says Sabra Lewsey, M.D., a cardiologist and assistant professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins Medicine. “But they are profoundly important and can make lifesaving gains in your health.”

Here are 10 habits to avoid if you hope to improve your heart health.


1. Being a couch potato

Not moving enough, especially on a regular basis, is risky for your health. Inactivity has been linked to cognitive decline, more frailty and even an increased risk of death. Fortunately, almost any sort of activity that raises your heart rate is a good place to start.

It’s important to move your body and elevate your heart rate for at least 150 minutes every week. You should throw in twice-weekly strength training sessions, according to the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, established by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

That may seem like a lot of exercise, but it doesn’t need to be done all at once. As long as you get your heart rate up for 15 minutes or more at a time, it counts. Also, “activity” doesn’t just mean a walk or a gym class or a bike ride. It could be gardening, shopping, walking the dog or cleaning.

“You don’t have to go from doing nothing to running marathons,” says Quentin Youmans, M.D., assistant professor of medicine at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “In fact, the biggest leap in benefit comes from doing nothing to doing something. Just start by dedicating yourself to doing some activity every day to get your body moving.”

Take, for example, starting off with a 10-minute walk. A new study published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology found that increasing your activity by 1,000 steps a day — or about 10 minutes of walking — was associated with a 15 percent reduction in dying from any cause; an increase in 500 steps was linked to a 7 percent reduction in dying from cardiovascular disease. 

A 2014 survey found that more than a quarter (27.5 percent) of people older than 50 said they did no physical activity (other than their job) in the past month. Among the older age group — 75 and up — more than one-third (35.3 percent) of people said the same thing.


2. Drinking too much alcohol

“Not everyone recognizes the connection between heart health and alcohol,” Youmans says. Drinking too much alcohol can raise blood pressure, cause irregular heartbeats “and even have a direct toxic effect on the heart.” 

Imbibing too much “can lead to heart failure or a weakening of the heart,” says Amber Johnson, M.D., a cardiologist and assistant professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

How much is too much? When it comes to health risks, the World Health Organization said in 2023 that no alcohol is the safest amount.

For those who do drink alcohol, the recommended limits in the U.S. are up to one drink a day for women and up to two for men. 


3. Skimping on sleep

Not getting your seven (or eight or nine) hours of shuteye a night will slowly, but quite reliably, damage your health, including your heart.

“Poor-quality sleep or untreated sleep apnea can lead to high blood pressure and affect heart health,” Lewsey cautions. Lack of sleep has also been associated with diabetes and weight gain, which negatively affect heart health, too. 

Sleep apnea can “cause abnormal heart rhythms,” Johnson points out.

4. Opting for unhealthy foods

A heart-healthy diet includes a panoply of delicious options: fruits, vegetables, lean protein, nuts and whole grains.

In a new review of heart-healthy diets, published in the journal Circulation, an American Heart Association committee ranked the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet at the top of the list. This diet, designed to treat or prevent high blood pressure, is low in salt, added sugar, alcohol and processed foods, and rich in vegetables, fruits, whole grains and legumes.

Also ranking high for its heart-health benefits is the Mediterranean diet, which, like DASH, consists of mostly plants, limits meats and focuses on “good fats” including walnuts, almonds, olive oil and avocados.

A few other tips: Swap sodas for water — a lot of water. Watch out for processed, sugary and fried foods, and be mindful of what you eat and drink at restaurants. Food full of saturated and trans fats, salt and cholesterol is best reserved for special occasions, rather than on the daily.

“Avoiding [foods] high [in] sodium is really important,” Johnson says. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that most adults consume fewer than 1,500 milligrams of sodium per day, with 2,300 mg as an upper limit. Yet the average American eats more than 3,400 mg of sodium a day, the AHA says.

Pay attention to those numbers from your routine blood tests, too. Watch out for an excess of bad cholesterol (LDL) and/or triglycerides and not enough good cholesterol (HDL). Also, high blood sugar can damage your blood vessels. People with diabetes are twice as likely to develop heart disease; plus, they’re more likely to experience heart failure. 

Try not to “overindulge with food,” Youmans warns. “We all love that slice of pizza or juicy hamburger, and, in fact, occasionally, those foods can be OK. But when our diets consist of foods high in fats and sugars all the time, it starts to affect our heart health negatively.”


5. Living a lonely life

It’s so important to have friends and family to lean on. Unfortunately, it’s not as common as you may think.

In 2023, one in three adults ages 50 to 80 reported feeling isolated in the past year, according to the University of Michigan National Poll on Healthy Aging. More than one in three older adults (37 percent) reported feeling a lack of companionship. These circumstances can be terrible for your health, including your heart.

A 2023 advisory from the U.S. Surgeon General explains that social isolation and loneliness are associated with a 29 percent increase in the risk of heart disease and a 32 percent increase in the risk of stroke. What’s more, the report says the effect of social isolation on high blood pressure among older adults “is even greater than that of other major clinical risk factors such as diabetes.” 

That’s why it’s crucial to find a group of people who will support you and make you feel fulfilled. Try to “seek community resources and support groups to help you with these lifestyle changes,” Lewsey says, and work to “build a network of support” to help you along the way. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a list of helpful resources for people who are feeling lonely or socially isolated. 

Vaccines and Heart Health

Vaccines don’t just help fight off some pretty nasty illnesses. Research suggests they can also help protect your heart.

  • A study published in the American Heart Association journal Stroke found that people who were hospitalized for a flu-like illness were 38 percent more likely than adults hospitalized for other reasons to have a stroke within a month of their hospitalization. Receiving a flu vaccine within the year before hospitalization lowered a person’s stroke risk to 11 percent. 
  • A study published in JAMA Network found that full vaccination against COVID-19 was associated with a reduced risk of heart attack and ischemic stroke after a coronavirus infection.

Source: American Heart Association

6. Smoking tobacco

Whether you vape or smoke cigarettes or cigars, tobacco is terrible for your health. Secondhand tobacco smoke is, too. Most people know this, but what you may not realize is that tobacco doesn’t just ravage your lungs and cause cancer: Your heart is also a victim.

“Even in someone who has been a long-term smoker, there are immediate and long-lasting cardiovascular benefits of quitting smoking,” Lewsey says.

Tobacco damages blood vessels and causes plaque buildup (atherosclerosis), which can trigger a heart attack, abnormal heart rhythms and, eventually, heart failure.

What can you do? “Set a quit date,” Youmans says. “Let your friends and/or loved ones know so that they can hold you accountable, and use nicotine replacement or other medicines to help you quit with the help of your doctor.”


7. Minimizing your mental health 

Managing your stress is key for maintaining good health. If anxiety gets out of control, we’re more likely to do things that are damaging. Stress raises your blood pressure. To combat this, try to find something you enjoy that will help you calm down and breathe better. For some people, it’s meditating. Others enjoy hiking, cooking or playing board games with friends.

Can anxiety or panic attacks damage your heart? Not usually. Rarely, though, heartbreak can truly hurt your ticker. The condition is commonly called broken heart syndrome, and it’s “a type of heart failure,” Johnson explains. “If you are under very intense stress, like if you are in a car crash or your loved one dies suddenly, that can cause a weakening of the heart,” she says.

The solution is often medication (such as beta-blockers) plus a plan to manage stress in a healthy way.


8. Waiting to lose weight 

Carrying around extra weight, especially around your waist, is bad for your heart.

Obesity is a risk factor for heart disease. Researchers have found that the heavier you are, the higher your risk is for heart disease — it’s a so-called silent heart injury, even if you feel healthy, even if your numbers look good.

It’s also true that being overweight or having obesity can spike your cholesterol levels, your blood sugar, your triglycerides and your blood pressure. All of these factors damage your heart and raise your risk for developing heart disease. Obesity is commonly linked with diabetes, as well 

“One tip is to buy a scale, as knowledge is power, and this will help you keep track [of your weight],” Youmans suggests. “To help to move the scale in the right direction, remember that you need to burn more calories than you consume, so try getting more active and eating fewer calories.”

You don’t need to lose much to reap heart-health benefits: Losing 5 to 10 percent of your body weight can improve your blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar numbers.


9. Neglecting your teeth 

Though a clear scientific link between dental hygiene and heart health hasn’t been established, some researchers say there is an association between the two. That is, poor oral health can mean poor heart health. Gum disease is associated with heart disease, and bacterial infections and inflammation appear to play a part, too.

“Good dental health, with regular cleanings, is also important [for] overall heart health,” Lewsey says.

Despite that benefit, a 2017 federal survey found that about one-third of people 65 and older hadn’t seen a dentist in the past year.


10. Giving up too soon

Good heart health is often difficult to achieve and even harder to maintain — especially when everyone around you continues to do things you know aren’t good for you.

“A lot of these health behaviors that we have found to be important vary from community to community or culture to culture,” Johnson says. “Certain cultures may not eat the foods that are considered heart-healthy ... so there may be some disparities. 

Above all, it’s important not to give up. And, hey, try to be patient.

“Habit change is hard,” Youmans says. “It can take some time to break them, particularly if they are enjoyable.”

He adds, “Anything that is worth having takes time. Making a small change that you can sustain for a long period is much more important than a bigger change that may be harder to sustain.” 

Every day is an opportunity to get healthier, whether it’s walking past the candy jar, meditating or taking the stairs. Make your lunch the night before, instead of grabbing fast food. Set up a weekly social group. Get 15 more minutes of sleep. Do it again, again and again.

SOURCE: Jeanette Beebe, AARP