Heart Failure

Lifestyle & Management

If you have heart failure, you can be physically active and take positive steps to help manage your symptoms and keep your condition from becoming more serious. 

Make Changes to Your Diet

You need to make sure your diet does not have high amounts of sodium (salt). If you are overweight, you may need to lose weight. 

Eat a Low-Salt Diet

Your body needs some salt to function properly, but most of us take in much more salt than we need. Salt attracts and holds water. Therefore, a low-salt diet helps to reduce the amount of fluid that builds up in your blood, heart, lungs, legs, and feet.  Your healthcare provider may recommend that you meet with a nutritionist to plan a low-salt diet. Here are a few low-salt diet tips:  

  • Avoid snack foods such as chips, pretzels, and salted nuts.
  • Avoid prepared, canned, and fast foods, as well as bakery and deli items, which are often high in salt.
  • Read the labels and buy “low sodium” products.
  • Try to cook your own meals as much as possible. This allows you to control the amount of salt in your food.
  • Take the salt shaker off your table. Choose low-sodium ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, and other condiments.
  • Instead of using salt, spice up your food with pepper and other spices and herbs. Use the zest and juice of citrus fruits such as lemons and oranges to add extra flavor.
  • When you eat out, order salads, steamed vegetables, and grilled poultry or fish. Avoid dressings and sauces.
  • Use unsalted, soft margarine (margarine that is harder is higher in saturated fat).

Watch Your Weight

If you have heart failure, your healthcare provider may recommend that you weigh yourself and record your weight every day. Weigh yourself in the morning without clothes, after going to the bathroom but before eating. This is called your “dry weight,” and it is based on the home scale, not the office scale. Call your healthcare provider if you gain or lose more than two to three pounds in one day.  Such quick changes in weight are usually a sign of fluid buildup, and you may need to adjust your medications to rid your body of extra fluid.

If you’re overweight, you can also improve your heart failure by losing weight. A nutritionist can help you plan a weight loss program that works for you. 

Hint: Many of the suggestions for following a low-salt diet apply to weight loss, too. 

These tips can also help you lose a few pounds:

  • Make small changes to your diet, and don’t try to lose weight too quickly. Small changes are easier to stick with. Set reasonable weight loss goals (no more than 1 to 2 pounds per week).
  • Avoid high-calorie snack foods and fast foods.
  • Reduce the amount of sugar you eat by cutting down on desserts. Avoid all sugary drinks, such as soda and fruity beverages.
  • Do you eat when you’re bored? If so, try enjoyable activities to keep you engaged, such as knitting, drawing, gardening, or other hobbies.
  • If you are a fast eater, slow down. It takes about 20 minutes for the message to get to your brain that you’ve had enough to eat. 
  • Eat more fresh fruits and vegetables.
  • Reduce the amount of fat in your diet.
  • Instead of butter, use unsalted soft margarine made of vegetable fat.
  • Reduce your alcohol intake.
  • Match your food and calorie intake with your level of activity. 
  • Ask your healthcare provider to refer you to a dietician to make an individual plan to help your heart failure based on your lifestyle and diet habits. 


Heart failure doesn’t mean you should stop exercising, even if you do get tired more easily or become short of breath. In fact, it’s important for people with heart failure to remain as fit as they can. Your healthcare provider will help you plan an exercise program that is safe for you and that will help strengthen your heart and regulate your heart rate. This will help keep your heart failure from becoming more serious. 

People with more serious heart failure can exercise in a cardiac rehabilitation center under the supervision of a trained exercise therapist.  

Quit Smoking and Drink Cautiously 

Smoking damages your blood vessels. If you have heart failure and still smoke, try to quit as soon as possible. There are many helpful programs to help you break the habit.

Drinking alcohol can have a direct toxic effect on the heart. Heavy drinking over time damages the heart and leads to high blood pressure, heart failure, and stroke. If you drink, talk with your healthcare provider about cutting down or stopping. 

Avoid Certain Non-prescription Drugs and Herbal Remedies

Medications that you can buy without a prescription can cause fluid buildup and can make your heart failure worse. Avoid the following over-the-counter medicines and herbal remedies: 

  • Sodium-based antacids such as sodium bicarbonate
  • High doses of aspirin
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen (Advil or Motrin) and naproxen (Aleve or Naprosyn), especially in pill form. Topical NSAID formulations (applied directly to the skin) are less likely to worsen heart failure.
  • Decongestants
  • Ginseng (may aggravate high blood pressure)
  • Ginkgo biloba (may contribute to bleeding)


Last Updated August 2020