The human heart is quite possibly the most significant vital organ, carrying meaning in an emotional, figurative way and in the physical, literal realm.

We can have our hearts broken, wear them on our sleeves or feel them soar with happiness.

We can also feel the physical strain of a heart working overtime to pump blood through arteries thick with cholesterol, or the pain of a heart deprived of blood and oxygen because of a blockage.

The key to avoiding pain, the physical kind, at least, is paying attention to the condition of this amazing muscle, starting early and staying consistent.

“The sooner adults get a handle on their heart health routine, the better their chances of avoiding heart disease and complications like heart attack and stroke,” said Catherine Wood, MD, a primary care physician with Endeavor Health.

“It doesn’t take a lot of time in your schedule to keep your heart healthy. Make good habits like exercise and healthy food part of your lifestyle, and check in with your doctor regularly to keep track of your blood pressure and cholesterol,” Dr. Wood said.

Take action to ensure your heart stays healthy for years to come. This list is a good place to start:

  1. Know your family’s heart health history. Having a first-degree relative (parent, sibling or child) who either developed heart disease before age 55 or died at an early age of sudden cardiac arrest can increase your risk as much as having high cholesterol or diabetes. Try to learn about the heart health of cousins, aunts and uncles, and grandparents too if possible. The more information you have, the better.
  2. Exercise regularly. Exercise makes your heart stronger, making it easier for your heart to pump blood through your body. It also lowers your blood pressure and “bad” cholesterol levels (see below), two factors that contribute to heart disease. Staying active also helps regulate your weight and the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends adults do 150 minutes of “moderately intensive” aerobic exercise each week. If you aren’t active now, talk to your physician about safely starting an exercise routine.
  3. Stop smoking (and if you don’t smoke, don’t start). Not only is smoking linked to heart disease, it’s also linked to a higher risk of stroke, lung cancer and other chronic diseases. The AHA reports almost a third of coronary heart disease deaths are due to smoking and breathing secondhand smoke. Nicotine can raise your blood pressure, cause a racing heartbeat and narrowing of your arteries. Talk to your physician about how to quit.
  4. Monitor your numbers. Keeping tabs on your blood pressure and cholesterol levels is one of the smartest things you can do to keep your heart healthy. High blood pressure has no symptoms, so unless you monitor it you wouldn’t know if it’s high. Cholesterol also causes no symptoms. There are two types of cholesterol: LDL, the fatty cholesterol that clogs arteries, and HDL, the cholesterol that helps get rid of LDL. Talk to your physician about your blood pressure and cholesterol and how to keep it in a healthy range.
  5. Check in with your doctor. Keeping regular check-ups with your primary care physician is not only heart-smart, it’s good for your overall wellbeing and health. Annual check-ups create a record of your health over time, so your doctor can see if your blood pressure or cholesterol levels change, for example. Your doctor can also recommend lifestyle changes and even medication if needed to help keep your heart healthy.
  6. Eat healthier. Healthier, that is, if your typical menu consists of take-out, processed food or sugary food. Sticking with a healthier diet, which allows some indulgences but is mostly healthy overall, will also help keep arteries clear and flexible, which keeps your heart healthier. You’ll also have more energy and likely maintain a healthier weight.