17 Harmful Habits for Your Heart—And What To Do to Break Them

Lifestyle, health, and eating or drinking habits can affect heart health.

It's great for your body to have a healthy heart. For example, your heart works well when your blood pressure is in check. Having blood pressure in a healthy range can reduce the risk of developing heart disease.

Still, heart disease affects around 20.1 million adults in the United States. Risk factors can include high blood pressure and cholesterol, smoking, and health conditions like diabetes.

Below are the 17 worst habits for your heart. The good news is some simple, everyday habits can make a big difference in your ability to live a healthy lifestyle.

Lifestyle Habits

Certain lifestyle choices can affect your heart and its functioning.

Being Sedentary

Sitting for hours on end increases your risk of heart attack and stroke. A lack of movement, in general, may affect blood levels of fats and sugars.

However, increasing the time you're active doesn't mean you need to exercise or move every waking minute of the day. The recommended physical activity is 150 weekly minutes of intense activity with two days of strength training.

If you're trying to get more active, you can start by picking activities that you'll enjoy and that match your level of movement abilities. You can also try to combine exercise with activities you might normally do while sitting, like walking on a treadmill and reading.

Not Taking It Easy With Exercise

Another habit related to physical activity? Trying to do a lot of exercises all at once or in a short period of time.

While exercise is good for your heart, it is possible to put too much strain on your heart—especially with aerobic exercise. This type of exercise requires a lot of work from your heart and lungs for a long time. Too much heart strain from physical activity can lead to you:

  • Feeling dizzy, lightheaded, or nauseous
  • Having shortness of breath or chest pain
  • Experiencing an irregular heartbeat or pulse

With exercise, it's wise to aim for slow and steady. You can also split up your exercise time throughout the day or week. For example, to meet the recommended weekly goal of exercising 150 minutes, you can exercise five days a week for 30 minutes per day.

Not Flossing

If you don't floss, sticky bacteria-laden plaque builds up over time, which can lead to gum disease. Though the link is not direct, there is a connection between periodontal disease—gum disease—and heart disease. That connection may be in part due to inflammation.

Gum disease is considered an inflammatory disorder. At the same time, heart disease may be a function of heart inflammation. Inflammation happens when the body reacts to heart infections or injuries.

Make sure that you floss daily using one of the following:

  • Threaded floss
  • An interdental brush
  • Plastic or wooden toothpicks
  • A dentist-recommended water flosser

Don't forget to engage in other practices that can keep your teeth and gums healthy, like brushing your teeth at least twice daily and keeping up with regular dental visits.

Withdrawing From the World

One study examined the link between social isolation, social support, loneliness, and the prevalence of heart disease. The researchers found that both social isolation and social support were associated with instances of heart disease events.

See if you can find ways to strengthen your connections with family, friends, or other people you interact with regularly. You can do this by participating in group activities or support groups. Research has also indicated that people with societal connections, in general, tend to live longer, healthier lives.

It's OK to have alone time, but you should still reach out to others and keep in touch whenever possible.

Smoking or Living With a Smoker

Smoking promotes blood clots, which can block blood flow to the heart and contributes to plaque buildup in the arteries.

Even if you don't smoke, exposure to secondhand smoke can be bad for your heart. Secondhand smoke can be immediately harmful to the heart and blood vessels. The risk of developing heart disease also goes up by 25%-30% from secondhand smoke.

If you're looking to quit smoking, you can do so with the help of a quit plan. A quit plan may include deciding to quit, why you want to, and preparing to stay smoke-free.

If you don't smoke, try not to start and avoid secondhand smoke exposure when possible. You can also offer to support others who may be in the process of quitting smoking.

Being Less Attentive to Weight Management

Eating high-calorie foods without many nutrients may lead to a person gaining weight and obesity. These conditions affect almost 75% of adults aged 20 and older.

With more body fat and higher weight come increased risks of heart disease and high blood pressure. Other conditions that can result from obesity include breathing problems, type 2 diabetes, and some cancers.

A healthy weight will vary from person to person. Reaching a weight that's in a healthy range for you will, in part, require:

  • Engaging in healthy eating
  • Becoming more physically active
  • Getting enough sleep
  • Managing stress

Health-Related Habits

Other aspects of your health can play a role in your heart health.

Leaving Stress Unchecked

Feelings of stress and depression can take a toll on your heart. At a minimum, acute stress may lead to increases in heart rate, heart contractions, and blood pressure. Exposure to chronic stress can raise the risk of high blood pressure, heart attacks, or strokes.

While everyone sometimes feels stressed, how you handle these emotions can also affect your heart health. When stress hits, look for ways to relieve it in activities you enjoy or might find relaxing.

Techniques like deep breathing exercises or watching your favorite show after a long day can be beneficial. You might also opt to go for a walk or do a workout, which can offer additional benefits for your heart health.

If you need additional help, you can also seek assistance from a mental health professional.

Not Getting Regular Health Checkups

You always want to know if your cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood sugar are in a healthy range. If these are elevated, you're at risk for silent killers like heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. Of note, people who have prediabetes or type 2 diabetes are likely to have elevations of these health markers.

Check in with a healthcare provider so that you know your numbers for cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood sugar. You can also monitor these metrics between medical appointments with glucose and blood pressure monitors.

Ignoring the Snoring

More than a minor annoyance, snoring can be a sign of something more serious: obstructive sleep apnea. This disorder, marked by breathing interrupted during sleep, increases the risk of heart disease. One way this can happen? Sleep apnea can cause blood pressure to skyrocket and not dip as often while a person sleeps.

A healthcare provider can determine a sleep apnea diagnosis with testing. You may need a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine to help your breathing in moderate or severe cases. If you have a mild case, lifestyle changes, including exercise and a bedtime routine, may be necessary to reduce breathing issues.

Stopping or Skipping Pills That Help Your Heart

Taking pills can be a pain. There may be side effects, and forgetting your meds is easy, especially if you feel fine.

However, you have to take your medications how they are prescribed to you. Like other medicine, heart medications are meant to keep symptoms at bay or keep them from getting worse.

You never want to stop taking your heart medications or change anything about the dose without speaking with a healthcare provider first. You'll also want to talk with a provider if you feel a medication is not helpful or you are experiencing side effects.

Assuming You're Not at Risk

Cardiovascular disease—including stroke, heart disease, and heart failure—claims more lives in the United States than any other illness, including cancer.

High blood pressure and cholesterol, diabetes, being overweight, and smoking are all risk factors that should be kept in check. Even if some factors don’t apply to you, others—like age and family history—may play a role in increasing your risk.

Consult with a healthcare provider to learn more about your risks. They can offer even more guidance about dealing with risk factors and making lifestyle or health changes where you can reduce risk.

Ignoring Physical Symptoms

Maybe you used to walk up three flights of stairs without a problem. Yet, if suddenly you're short of breath after one flight or have chest pressure, it's time to call a healthcare provider.

Symptoms such as chest pain and shortness of breath can indicate heart issues in the moment. However, research has also suggested that they could be markers of heart problems in the future.

The quicker you get treatment for possible trouble, the less likely you are to have permanent damage to your heart muscle. If you have any heart disease symptoms, seek medical care immediately.

Eating and Drinking Habits

What you eat and drink may affect your heart health.

Eating Red Meat

It's best to think of red meat as an occasional treat rather than the foundation of a daily diet. Red meat is high in saturated fat, which can increase the likelihood of developing heart disease.

Research additionally found that part of the increased risk is due to a high trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO) level. TMAO is a chemical that gut bacteria make during the digestion of red meat. One study found that people who ate red meat had three times the amount of the chemical in their bodies.

Skinless poultry and fish—in unprocessed forms—and nuts and beans can be good alternatives to red meat if you're looking to increase your protein intake. If you can't part with red meat, try to choose leaner cuts and limit how much you eat.

Avoiding Fruits and Vegetables

Research has found that people who eat more than five servings of fruits and vegetables daily had a lower risk of heart disease and stroke than those who ate less than three servings daily.

Half of each meal should be composed of fruits and vegetables. However, the average intake of fruits and vegetables for adults falls below dietary guideline recommendations.

Ensure you get enough produce in your diet by adding this type of food to meals when you can. For example, you can add fresh fruit to plain yogurt and salads or swap out some of your regular sandwich ingredients for veggies like tomatoes or lettuce.

A heart-healthy diet also includes consuming other nutrient-dense choices like nuts, whole grains, low-fat dairy, and protein.

Eating a Lot of Salty Foods

The more salt you consume, the higher your blood pressure rises. High blood pressure is a major risk factor for stroke, kidney failure, and heart attack.

Most of us should keep sodium intake below 2,300 milligrams a day. If you have high blood pressure or are over 50, cut back to 1,500 milligrams.

Not Eating Certain Foods in Moderation

Foods high in sugar, fat, and sodium often deliver calories but little to no nutrients your body can use. Studies have shown that a diet full of these foods increases the risk of obesity and diabetes.

Look for foods dense in nutrients, such as:

  • Vegetables and fruits
  • Whole grains 
  • Seafood, lean meats, and poultry 
  • Eggs 
  • Beans and peas
  • Fat-fee and low-fat milk
  • Unsalted nuts and seeds 

Drinking Alcohol in Excess

Research has suggested a small amount of alcohol may be good for your heart if it is safe for you to drink. A bit at a time can decrease the risk of developing heart disease.

However, overconsumption has the opposite effect. Excess alcohol is linked to a greater risk of high blood pressure, high levels of blood fats, and heart failure.

If you drink, stick to no more than two drinks per day for men and no more than one a day for women. One drink means a 12-ounce beer or a 5-ounce glass of wine, for example.

A Quick Review

Different things can have a negative effect on your heart health, like not managing stress, eating too much salty food, or having a more sedentary lifestyle.

Fortunately, there are habits you can pick up to help improve your heart health. They include having a heart-healthy diet, aiming for regular exercise, and consulting with healthcare providers during and between regular health check-ups.

Was this page helpful?
37 Sources
Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. High blood pressure - prevent high blood pressure.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Heart disease - heart disease facts.

  3. Dunstan DW, Dogra S, Carter SE, Owen N. Sit less and move more for cardiovascular health: emerging insights and opportunities. Nat Rev Cardiol. 2021;18(9):637-648. doi:10.1038/s41569-021-00547-y

  4. Crichton GE, Alkerwi A. Physical activity, sedentary behavior time and lipid levels in the Observation of Cardiovascular Risk Factors in Luxembourg study. Lipids Health Dis. 2015;14:87. doi:10.1186/s12944-015-0085-3

  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Adding physical activity to your life.

  6. MedlinePlus. Being active when you have heart disease.

  7. American Dental Association. Floss/interdental cleaners.

  8. Pietropaoli D, Del Pinto R, Ferri C, et al. Poor oral health and blood pressure control among US hypertensive adults: results from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 2009 to 2014Hypertension. 2018;72(6):1365-1373. doi:10.1161/HYPERTENSIONAHA.118.11528

  9. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. What is heart inflammation?

  10. National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research. Periodontal (gum) disease.

  11. Freak-Poli R, Ryan J, Neumann JT, et al. Social isolation, social support and loneliness as predictors of cardiovascular disease incidence and mortalityBMC Geriatrics. 2021;21(1):711. doi:10.1186/s12877-021-02602-2

  12. Vila J. Social support and longevity: meta-analysis-based evidence and psychobiological mechanismsFront Psychol. 2021;12:717164. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2021.717164

  13. American Heart Association. Understand your risk for excessive blood clotting.

  14. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Health problems caused by secondhand smoke.

  15. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Guide for quitting smoking.

  16. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. What are overweight and obesity?

  17. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Aim for a healthy weight.

  18. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Healthy weight, nutrition, and physical activity.

  19. American Psychological Association. Stress effects on the body.

  20. American Heart Association. Know your numbers.

  21. American Heart Association. What you need to know about how sleep apnea affects your heart.

  22. Cuspidi C, Tadic M, Sala C, Gherbesi E, Grassi G, Mancia G. Blood pressure non-dipping and obstructive sleep apnea syndrome: a meta-analysisJCM. 2019;8(9):1367. doi:10.3390/jcm8091367

  23. MedlinePlus. Heart failure - medicines.

  24. MedlinePlus. High blood pressure medications.

  25. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Heart disease facts.

  26. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Know your risk for heart disease.

  27. Ejiri K, Mok Y, Ding N, et al. Chest symptoms and subsequent risk of incident cardiovascular disease: the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities (ARIC) study. Circulation. 2022;146:A11021.

  28. National Institutes of Health. Eating red meat daily tripes heart disease-related chemical.

  29. American Heart Association. Picking healthy proteins.

  30. Wang DD, Li Y, Bhupathiraju SN, et al. Fruit and vegetable intake and mortality: results from 2 prospective cohort studies of us men and women and a meta-analysis of 26 cohort studies. Circulation. 2021;143(17):1642-1654. doi:10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.120.048996

  31. U.S. Department of Agriculture. Dietary guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025.

  32. American Heart Association. The American Heart Association diet and lifestyle recommendations.

  33. MedlinePlus. High blood pressure.

  34. American Heart Association. Shaking the salt habit to lower high blood pressure.

  35. Sinha S, Haque M. Obesity, diabetes mellitus, and vascular impediment as consequences of excess processed food consumption. Cureus. 2022; 14(9):e28762. doi:10.7759/cureus.28762

  36. Chiva-Blanch G, Badimon L. Benefits and risks of moderate alcohol consumption on cardiovascular disease: current findings and controversies. Nutrients. 2019;12(1):108. doi:10.3390/nu12010108

  37. American Heart Association. Is drinking alcohol part of a healthy lifestyle?

Related Articles