A healthy lifestyle is good for your heart. You've heard that so often your eyes are glazing over.

But what if we told you there's a way to cut your chances of heart disease by a whopping 87 percent? Would that get your attention?

That is, in fact, the finding of a 16-year study that tracked nearly 43,000 male health professionals, ages 40 to 75. The results appeared in the journal Circulation. They show that a combination of eating a healthy diet, staying at a healthy weight, exercising regularly, not smoking, and drinking alcohol in moderation may sharply cut your risk of heart disease.

Why? The study's authors, from Harvard and the American Cancer Society (ACS), say those steps take aim at a number of heart disease risk factors, including blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

Lifestyle changes important

Here's another eye-popping statistic from the study: 62 percent of the heart attacks suffered by men who didn't follow any of the five healthy lifestyle measures might have been prevented if they had followed all five steps. In other words, healthy lifestyle changes could head off most U.S. heart attacks.

"At the beginning of the study all of these men were apparently healthy," says lead author Stephanie E. Chiuve, Sc.D., a research fellow in the Harvard School of Public Health's Department of Nutrition. "It shows the power of following a healthy lifestyle."

That's also true for women, based on a similar large, long-term study of nurses. "Even though the biology between men and women is different, that study found similar results," says Dr. Chiuve. "The magnitude of the benefit derived from these five lifestyle factors may be different, but the benefits for everyone are clear."

Can lifestyle changes do more than pills? The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) studied more than 800 men and women who had hypertension (high blood pressure) or pre-hypertension. After 18 months, three out of five people who went to sessions on weight loss, physical activity, and limiting sodium and alcohol no longer had high blood pressure.

"Only 50 percent of people with high blood pressure who see a doctor and are prescribed blood pressure medications get their blood pressure under control," says NHLBI research nutritionist Eva Obarazanek, Ph.D., co-author of the study. "So, with 60 percent success, a healthy lifestyle is better than drugs in controlling blood pressure."

With that kind of evidence, why not follow these five steps?

Step 1: Eat healthy

In the Circulation study, a low-risk diet included about three servings of vegetables, 2-1/2 servings of fruit, half a serving of nuts and 9 grams of cereal fiber a day, with fairly low fat intake. The healthy diet was low in red meat, which is often high in saturated fat. For each serving of red meat the men ate, they ate 2-1/2 servings of chicken and fish.

Dr. Chiuve says many sensible diets would have met this low-risk test. For example, depending on your age and sex, the government's new food pyramid calls for you to consume 2 to 3 cups of vegetables and 1-1/2 to 2 cups of fruit each day. You should also shoot for 5 to 8 ounces of grains, with a focus on whole grains. A slice of bread, a cup of cereal or a half-cup of cooked pasta counts as an ounce. You can eat more if you're physically active.

The pyramid also says you should keep your total fat intake between 20 to 35 percent of calories. Make most of your fat the healthy polyunsaturated and monounsaturated kind, such as fish, nuts and vegetable oils. Eat as little trans fat (common in baked goods and fried foods) as you can. And try to keep saturated fats (like butter or red meat) to less than 10 percent of calories.

"The key is making small changes you feel comfortable with and can sustain over time," says Alice Lichtenstein, D.Sc., director of cardiovascular nutrition at the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University.

"Consider switching to low- and non-fat dairy products," she says. "Continue eating what you enjoy, but you might want to make changes in your portion sizes, or in the proportion of meat to vegetables at dinner."

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