Being overweight increases your risk of heart disease. If you already have heart disease, maintaining a healthy weight should be an important part of your treatment plan. The Mayo Clinic reports that people who carry excess belly fat are more likely to develop heart disease and diabetes. Weight loss is particularly crucial for men with waist sizes more than 40 inches and women with waist sizes more than 35 inches.

How can you control your weight if you have risk factors for heart disease, or have already suffered a major cardiac event such as a heart attack? You can make changes to your diet and exercise routine that will help you get your weight back on track—and keep it there.

The American Heart Association (AHA) emphasizes that losing weight can be summed up in a short statement: you must burn off more calories than you take in. This is true for everyone, male or female, whether or not you have heart disease. Though this concept may sound simple, when you’re overweight or have other risk factors for cardiovascular disease, it can seem challenging.

There are two primary lifestyle changes you can make to shift the balance of calories: eating fewer calories than you use (making dietary changes) and using more calories than you eat (making changes in your level of physical activity). One pound equals 3,500 calories. Therefore, in order to lose one pound a week in a healthy manner, the AHA recommends decreasing your daily diet by about 500 calories per day.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) suggests that increasing your intake of fruits and vegetables is one of the best changes you can make to reduce your risk of heart disease and manage body weight. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends eating at least 4.5 cups of fruits and vegetables each day—including plenty of dark green, red, and orange varieties and legumes like peas and beans. The FDA also recommends following these guidelines when preparing meals to help keep calories down and lose weight while keeping your heart healthy:

  • Eat whole grains (such as brown rice and whole wheat bread) instead of white grains (such as white rice and white bread).
  • Eat seafood in place of some red meat and poultry.
  • Use oils (like olive oil) to replace solid fats (like butter).
  • Use fat-free or low-fat dairy products.
  • Reduce sodium intake. People age 51 and older and those with high blood pressure should restrict their intake to 2,000 milligrams per day.
  • Choose foods and beverages low in added sugars (such as sucrose, glucose, and corn syrup).
  • In restaurants, choose dishes that are steamed, grilled, or broiled instead of fried or sautéed.

When it comes to effective weight loss, eating right is only half the equation. Regular physical activity can also help you lose weight and control your weight and blood pressure, according to the AHA. Exercise can help decrease your risk for heart disease and stroke.

What’s more, to lose weight and keep it off, the AHA emphasizes that you need both regular physical activity and a healthy eating plan. Changing just one component or the other isn’t enough to sustain weight loss over time.

The amount of physical activity that each individual needs to achieve weight loss safely can vary, so check with your healthcare provider for guidance before beginning a new exercise program. The AHA offers these general guidelines:

  • Aim for 30 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic physical activity (such as brisk walking) five days a week, every week.
  • Start out slowly. If you’re not used to exercising, begin with 10 minutes and gradually work your way up to 30-minute sessions.
  • If longer workouts are difficult, try breaking them up into shorter sessions (such as two or three 10-minute sessions)
  • Strengthen major muscle groups in your arms, legs, back, chest, abdomen, hips, and shoulders by lifting light to moderate weights. Besides helping you lose weight, strength training also can help to reduce abdominal fat and preserve muscle mass during weight loss. However, the NIH notes that muscle strengthening doesn’t help your heart the way that aerobic exercise does.

If you have a heart condition, it’s important to pace yourself and know your limits. Your doctor can help you determine weight loss goals appropriate for your condition and fitness level. Though it can be challenging, modifying your lifestyle for better heart health can help you achieve and maintain a healthy weight.