7 Lifestyle Changes That Could Prevent Diabetes and Heart Disease

If you don't have diabetes, chances are you know someone who does. In 2015, it was reported that nearly 10 percent of the population (30.3 million Americans) had been diagnosed with the disease, according to the American Diabetes Association (ADA). Scarier still, the condition was the seventh leading cause of death in the country.

Diabetes (when not properly managed) is associated with a long list of potential risks and side effects, one of which is a higher risk of heart disease. Almost two-thirds of people who have diabetes also have high blood pressure. The culprit is elevated blood sugar levels—over time, that extra glucose can lead to a buildup of fat in the arteries, which can impede blood flow and increase the risk of heart attack or stroke. In fact, according to the ADA, people with diabetes are up to four times more likely to die of heart disease.

There is some good news, however. Whatever your diagnosis, weight or current level of health, you are not powerless to control your personal outcome. The American Heart Association (AHA) has released its "Life's Simple 7," based on the idea that small steps lead to big results. You don't necessarily have to make large, sweeping changes to start seeing noticeable upticks in health and wellness.

As the AHA points out, "Any person can make these changes, the steps are not expensive to take and even modest improvements to your health will make a big difference."

Managing Blood Pressure

As your heart beats, it pushes blood through your arteries, veins and capillaries at a certain pressure that's individual to your body. According to the AHA, high blood pressure (also known as hypertension) happens when "the force of your blood pushing against the walls of your blood vessels is consistently too high."

Blood pressure is measured in millimeters of mercury (mm HG) and recorded as two numbers—systolic (pressure on the arterial walls as the heart contracts) over diastolic (pressure on the arterial walls as the heart relaxes between beats). You can check the AHA's chart to gauge whether your BP is within a healthy range.

Dr. Joshua J. Joseph, assistant professor of endocrinology, diabetes and metabolism at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, warns that high blood pressure can boost the risk of developing diabetes and heart disease. "High blood pressure can damage the walls of your blood vessels, which can send signals to the rest of the body that raise the risk of type 2 diabetes," he says. "The injury to the vessel walls also makes it easier for plaque to build up in the vessel wall and cause heart disease."

There are some organic ways to help keep blood pressure at a healthy level. Dr. Joseph recommends sticking to a regular exercise regimen, quitting smoking (or not starting), consuming less salt and eating more fresh fruits and veggies. Other tips from the AHA include limiting alcohol, finding healthy ways to manage stress and taking blood pressure medications (as recommended by your doctor).

Controlling Cholesterol

Cholesterol is an oil-based substance that is essential to the body. There are two types: LDL (low-density), which is considered the "bad" kind, and HDL (high-density), which is known as "good" cholesterol. An excess of "bad" cholesterol can build up in the arteries, increasing the risk of heart disease and heart attacks.

Diabetes lifestyle expert Toby Smithson, M.S., R.D.N., L.D., C.D.E., compares a high blood sugar reading in the arteries to pouring honey through a straw. "The straw—or your blood vessels—will become sticky," she says. "Cholesterol and other particles may then build up, and eventually may stop blood flow and prevent oxygen from getting to important organs, like your heart or brain, resulting in a heart attack or stroke."

The best way to keep cholesterol at a healthy level, notes Smithson, is through smart lifestyle behaviors, like eating healthy and staying active. She recommends limiting foods high in saturated fat and cholesterol and avoiding trans fats, while including fish (which contain Omega-3 fatty acids) into your diet twice per week, consuming foods higher in fiber and using healthier oils, such as canola and olive oil. Adding regular exercise will help to raise good cholesterol while also maintaining a healthy weight.

"For some, medications may be needed as a preventative measure at a lower dose, or to actually lower elevated cholesterol levels," Smithson says.

Managing Blood Sugar

As Dr. Joseph notes, diabetes is defined by an abnormal elevation of blood sugar, which means keeping it within a healthy range is critical to lowering the risk of type 2 diabetes. High blood sugar also damages the vessel walls, increasing the risk for heart disease.

"Blood sugar can be managed by both aerobic and strength training exercise, healthy diet and weight loss (for those who are overweight)," he says.

To manage blood sugar levels, Smithson recommends eating a balanced diet that includes three meals per day. She suggests using a visual to determine which foods (and how much of them) to eat: "Picture half your plate filled with vegetables, one quarter filled with a source of protein (for heart health, choose lean cuts of protein foods) and the other quarter of the plate filled with carbohydrates."

Christel Oerum, founder of Diabetes Strong, notes that for those who are treating diabetes with insulin, it's also important to understand how different foods impact blood sugar. "Use that knowledge to work with your doctor, adjusting your insulin to manage blood sugars," she suggests.

Including Physical Activity

Not only is physical activity key to maintaining a strong, healthy body, it also aids in the reduction of heart disease and diabetes risk. "Exercise helps the body naturally lower blood sugar by making the body more sensitive to insulin, which helps to transport sugar from the bloodstream into the muscle, where it is used for energy, thus lowering the sugar in the blood," Dr. Joseph explains.

That doesn't mean you have to spend hours at the gym. The AHA recommends at least 150 minutes of activity a week, which can be split up into 10-minute sessions.

Smithson advises her clients to take baby steps when adding more movement into their daily routines. "Add intentional exercise slowly—start with five, 10 or 15 minutes, three days per week," she suggests. "Once you feel comfortable with the activity, start adding more time, with a goal of 30 minutes at least five days per week." One idea is to use resistance bands, hand weights or simply walk in place during commercial breaks of a one-hour television program, which will add up to 15-20 minutes of exercise.

"According to the American Diabetes Association, doing moderate exercise for 30 minutes, five times weekly and reducing your bodyweight by seven percent, can reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes by 58 percent," Oerum points out.

Maintaining a Healthy Weight

Carrying extra weight is another increased risk factor for diabetes and heart disease. "Obesity can increase inflammation in the body and lead to insulin resistance, which is the inability for insulin to help transport sugar in the blood into the muscle, which is a primary step in the development of type 2 diabetes," Dr. Joseph explains. "The inflammation also helps the cholesterol in the blood stick to the blood vessels and build up plaque, which leads to heart disease."

Strategies for managing weight mirror the action items for the other risk factors. Dr. Joseph recommends setting goals for exercise and diet, meal planning, eating at home and getting friends involved to help you move toward your goals.

"Setting clear goals, controlling portion sizes and moving more throughout the day are [all] effective methods to reduce body weight," he says.

Not sure where to start? Oerum suggests tracking everything you eat to help you understand what you're currently consuming and identify how to reduce your caloric intake.

Quitting Smoking

There are already countless reasons to quit smoking, but here's another one: "Smoking causes increased inflammation in the body, which can lead to diabetes and heart disease," Dr. Joseph says.

To successfully kick the habit, he says it's important to have a strong underlying reason for quitting. "Nicotine gum or slow-release patches can reduce cravings and symptoms of withdrawal," he adds.

Although no one makes a conscious choice to invite diabetes or heart disease into their lives, certain behaviors can greatly increase the risk factors. By taking steps to embrace Life's Simple 7, you can help keep these serious conditions at bay (or manage them in healthy ways).