The 3 Worst Habits for Your Heart

If caring for your heart were easy, heart disease wouldn't be the number-one killer in the U.S., as well as many other countries. Unfortunately, we have lives to live, and in the course of doing so, we eventually wear out the cardiovascular system. But there is one way we can shield ourselves from heart disease: quit the bad habits that are wreaking serious damage on the heart. Here are the top three worst.

Smoking: Perhaps the nastiest of bad habits, smoking damages almost every organ across the board. But it's particularly hard on the blood vessels. The carbon monoxide that you inhale travels through the bloodstream and destroys the top, or endothelial, layer of your blood vessels. Meanwhile, the nicotine in the cigarette releases stored fats that stick the walls of the now-damaged blood vessels, thus forming heart attack-triggering plaque.

Smoking can also cause blood vessels to harden, which makes them more narrow and prone to clogs. Plenty of smoking-cessation aids are on the market today-the patch, nicotine gum, antidepressants such as Wellbutrin, the nicotine-receptor-blocking drug Chantix-but the greatest weapon in your nonsmoking arsenal is the grim determination to quit and a supportive network of friends and family.

Inactivity: Experts and observers alike have generally agreed that our society has become far too sedentary. We need to shake ourselves--both literally and figuratively--out of this bad habit sooner rather than later. Just 30 minutes of moderate exercise every day is all it takes to keep your cardiovascular system in shape. Your best bet is to take up an activity that you can get passionate about, whether it's dancing, prepping for a marathon, or playing tennis.

By finding an activity you like to do, you can ensure that you will stick with it. If you find it hard to get excited about any sort of physical activity, try to schedule three 10-minute walks throughout your day to stay fit. And as always, when you embark on an exercise regimen, start slow and easy, and consult your physician beforehand.

Poor eating: Outside of inactivity, a diet packed with calories and fat but lacking in nutrients is the one bad habit that most Americans are guilty of and ranks among the primary reasons two-thirds of our population is overweight. Consuming too much salt can over time raise your blood pressure, while feasting on foods laden with saturated and trans fat will raise your bad cholesterol level and eventually clog your arteries.

Though eating right remains difficult in this prepackaged, ready-in-10-minutes-or-less culture, little things such as keeping a food diary or trying a new fruit or vegetable every week can go a long way on the road to dietary rehabilitation.