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The heart is, quite literally, a pump that delivers life to the rest of the body. It is at the center of the circulatory system, a network of blood vessels that deliver blood and oxygen throughout the entire body. But poor eating habits and lifestyle choices can greatly affect the health of your heart and cardiovascular system.

Let’s look at how the heart works, how heart failure happens, and four easy ways to improve your heart health.

How does the heart work?

The heart is divided into two pumping systems, the right and left side, with two chambers that pump blood on each side. The right side of the heart receives oxygen-poor blood from your veins and pumps it to the lungs, where it picks up oxygen and gets rid of carbon dioxide. The left side of the heart receives oxygen-rich blood from the lungs and pumps it through the arteries to the rest of your body.

How does heart failure happen?

Heart failure is a term used to describe a heart that cannot keep up with its workload. As a result, oxygen may not reach everywhere that it is needed in the body, causing systems to shut down. Heart failure can affect the right or left side of the heart, or both at the same time. It can be acute (short-term) or chronic (ongoing).

Everyone loses some blood-pumping ability in our hearts as we age, but heart failure results from the added stress of heart conditions that directly damage the heart or simply cause it to work too hard.

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Four ways to live a heart-healthy lifestyle
1. Exercise regularly

Regular exercise is one of the best ways to promote heart health. Exercise can reduce “bad” cholesterol levels in the blood (the low-density lipoprotein [LDL] level), as well as total cholesterol, and can raise the “good” cholesterol (the high-density lipoprotein level [HDL]).

That’s not all: exercise also promotes healthy physiological changes, such as encouraging the heart’s arteries to dilate more readily. It can also help your sympathetic nervous system (which controls heart rate and blood pressure) to be less reactive.

Check with your doctor before starting any new exercise program to ensure it is the right fit for you.

2. Eat heart-healthy foods

Equally as important as regular exercise is eating heart-healthy foods. A nutrient-rich diet is one that includes a variety of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, skinless poultry and fish, nuts and legumes, and oils such as olive, canola, flaxseed, or sesame oils.6 Try to add in foods that are high in nutrients and fiber.

3. Manage your stress

Everyone experiences and reacts to stress differently. However, how much stress you experience and how you respond to it can lead to a wide variety of health problems – including effects on your heart.

While more research is needed on how exactly stress affects the heart, it is evident that stress may lead to other behaviors and factors that increase heart disease risk. When stressed, self-care is often neglected, leading to unhealthy habits such as smoking, physical inactivity, and overeating, and ultimately raising blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

Managing stress is a good idea for all aspects of your health, including your heart. Try to recognize the unhealthy habits or behaviors you resort to when stressed and develop healthy alternatives.

4. Take a heart-healthy supplement

Heart-healthy supplements can offer the added support your heart needs.* Let’s look at a few supplements that help support a healthy cardiovascular system.*