How Can Women Have Healthy Hearts?

Although there are some risk factors for heart disease that women can't change, like menopause and family history of heart disease, there are many lifestyle choices which can help decrease the risk of developing heart disease.

  • Don't smoke. Women who smoke have a higher risk of having a heart attack than non-smoking women of the same age. The risk is even higher for women smokers over the age of 35 who are also taking hormone-based birth control, like "the Pill". Women who stop smoking can reduce their risk of heart disease.
  • Be physically active. The heart is a muscle that needs regular exercise in order to stay healthy. The Physical Activity Guidelines recommend at least 150 minutes (2.5 hours) of physical activity for adults per week. Walking, climbing stairs, dancing and stretching are all activities that can be included in your daily routine to help your heart stay healthy.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. Women who are overweight have a greater risk of developing heart disease. You can talk to your doctor to determine what your own healthy weight is and work out a plan for achieving and maintaining it. Although it may be difficult to reach a recommended healthy weight, even losing a little weight can help reduce your risk.
  • Eat healthy foods to reduce cholesterol. Cholesterol is a fat found in foods and also produced by the liver. It is an essential nutrient for the body, but too much of the wrong type of cholesterol can block your arteries and increase the risk of heart disease and stroke. Here are some suggestions on how you can lower your cholesterol levels:
    • Eat less saturated fat, which is found in foods from animal sources (meat, butter, whole milk, etc.), and trans fats, which are formed when vegetable oils are hardened. Trans fats may be found in some types of margarine and in shortening, as well as in some processed snack foods. Food labels should indicated the content of trans fats.
    • Choose unsaturated fats. These are "good" fats that are found in foods from both plant and animal sources. These fats can be either monounsaturated (sources include canola oil, avocados, almonds, and olive oil) or polyunsaturated (sources include sunflower and corn oils). Some types of fish, such as tuna and salmon, also contain healthy polyunsaturated fats called Omega-3 fatty acids. Some vegetable oils, such as canola oil, are a good source of another type of omega-3 fatty acids (specifically ALA: a-LINOLEIC Acid)
    • Follow a diet high in soluble fibre. Soluble fibre is the type of fibre that can dissolve in water. Good sources of soluble fibre include fruits, vegetables, beans, oats, and barley.
  • Reduce stress and take time to relax. Stress may be associated with an increased risk for heart disease in some women. Women often experience stress from taking on multiple responsibilities. Many women work, take care of their children, do the housework and sometimes even care for an aging parent. Single mothers often feel the added strain of being the only financial and emotional support for their families.

    Here are some suggestions for how you can deal with stress:
    • Do regular breathing exercises or use a relaxation technique.
    • Get active! Taking a brisk walk or going for a bike ride can help to reduce tension.
    • Do something enjoyable, such as seeing a movie, taking a hot bath, reading a book or visiting a friend.
    • Live in the present; try to do one thing at a time.
    • Know your limits and learn how to say "no"; don't try to be perfect.
    • Try to avoid stressful situations or find ways to accept them.
  • Get regular medical-check ups. You should see your doctor regularly to have your blood pressure and cholesterol levels checked. Since diabetes also increases your risk for developing heart disease, you may also need to be screened for it, especially if you're related to someone with diabetes or if you had gestational diabetes during pregnancy.

    Medications may be prescribed for blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar or heart disease. You may be able to limit the number of medications that you need by healthy eating, regular exercise and stress reduction. In some cases, medication may still be required.

Additional Resources

Selected Books:

Women Are Not Small Men: Life-Saving Strategies for Preventing and Healing Heart Disease in Women. Nieca Goldberg, 2003.

The Women's Heart Book: The Complete Guide to Your Healthy Heart. Frederic J. Pashkow & Charlotte Libow, 2001.

Adapted from an article by the Canadian Women's Health Network and revised by This FAQ appeared originally on the Canadian Health Network Web site. It has been edited for publication by the Public Health Agency of Canada.

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