Every year around this time, people start to give serious thought to the resolutions they will make to improve their lives in the New Year. Among the more popular ones are: to save more money, to eat healthier and to exercise more.For the over 5 million Americans diagnosed with heart failure, a progressive condition in which the heart's muscle becomes weakened after it is injured from something like a heart attack or high blood pressure, the latter two couldn't be more important. If you are already 70 or older, you have a 10 percent or greater chance of developing heart failure and a lifetime risk for eventually having heart failure that may be as high as 1 in 5 individuals so this information is important for everyone to know.

One of the most important moves you can make in the coming year is to develop a treatment plan that is right for you, according to Clyde Yancy, MD, chair of the education committee for the Heart Failure Society of America, a non-profit organization of health care professionals and researchers who are dedicated to enhancing quality and duration of life for patients with heart failure and preventing the condition in those at risk."In the past, people with heart failure were advised to rest and give up many of their usual activities, but recent research has shown that activity can help them feel better, may decrease symptoms and may improve the heart's function," Dr. Yancy says.

Whether you've been diagnosed with heart failure, or are just trying to prevent yourself from falling victim to this major cardiovascular disorder that is on the rise, here are some tips on how to take charge of your condition:

o Become More Active

Start by picking a simple aerobic activity that you like, such as gardening, walking, fishing, swimming or biking, and do it regularly. The goal for most people with heart disease or at-risk for heart disease is to accumulate at least 30 minutes of mild to moderate activity per day on most days of the week. Note that you do not have to be active for 30 minutes in a row to benefit. For example, you can be active for three 10-minute blocks.

Whatever activity you choose, do it slowly and gradually. Spend a few minutes warming up and cooling down before and after each activity session to avoid injuring yourself and stressing your heart. Warming up by walking or stretching helps your body and your heart adjust to the increased demands of activity, and stretches tendons and muscles to avoid cramping. Cooling down allows your heart rate, blood pressure and other body functions to return to their usual resting levels and brings down your adrenaline level gradually.

Although regular activity is good for you, you should not exercise or increase your activities when you feel exhausted, have a fever or infection, have chest pain or are experiencing more shortness of breath symptoms at rest than usual. Be certain that you select activities that are not too strenuous or risky. Remember, moderation is the key. Above all, do not start a new exercise program or engage in a new activity without reviewing this with your physician.

o Change Your Diet

In addition to staying active, it's also important for patients with heart failure to change their diets. The most critical change they'll be advised to make it to cut back on sodium (salt) intake and here's why. Heart failure causes the body to hold on to extra sodium, which in turn causes extra fluid to build up in your body. The extra fluid makes your heart work harder.

Cutting back on sodium is admittedly a challenge because salt is everywhere - in canned soups, canned vegetables, fast food, restaurant meals and processed foods like frozen dinners, boxed noodle and rice dishes. So, even if you do not add salt while cooking or use a salt shaker at the table, you may be eating too much.

What can you do to cut back on the sodium (salt)? Here are four tips from the Heart Failure Society of America:

1. Instead of salt, flavor your food with black, cayenne and lemon pepper; fresh herbs like garlic, onion powder, dill, parsley and rosemary; lemon juice; and flavored extracts like vanilla, almond, etc.

2. Adapt preferred foods to low-sodium versions. Instead of buying lunch meats, which typically contain high amounts of sodium, you can cook fresh chicken, turkey, roast beef or pork without adding salt and then cut it up for sandwiches the next day.

3. If you like soup, instead of buying the canned version which is high in sodium and preservatives, you can cut up fresh vegetables, put them in a slow cooker and use herbs and spices for seasoning.

4. Pick foods naturally low in sodium, like fresh fruits and vegetables, fresh meat, poultry and fish.

It can be difficult to change your eating habits. It may take weeks before you enjoy the taste of low-sodium foods, but your taste buds will adjust. Eventually you may not even miss the salt. Your heart will thank you for the lifestyle change.

To learn more about heart failure and how to manage your condition, log on to the Heart Failure Society of America's Web site: www.abouthf.org.

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