According to the American Heart Association (AHA), as many as 70 percent of Americans are overweight or obese. Unfortunately, this isn't the kind of commonality that people seek. Being overweight is linked to an increased risk of developing heart disease. If you have a large waistline--over 40 inches for men or over 35 inches for women--your risk may be even greater.

A study published in the journal Circulation: Heart Failure showed that people with a four-inch increase in their waist size had a 15 percent greater risk of heart disease--in both those of normal weight and those who are obese. Although researchers measured additional variables such as waist-to-hip ratio and body mass index (BMI), they found that waist circumference by itself predicted the risk of heart disease regardless of the other factors.

The message is clear: For optimum heart health, it may be important to focus on having a leaner body. Losing a small amount of weight is easier than you think. Take the first steps toward protecting your heart by finding out if you might benefit from shedding a few pounds:

Measure Your Waist

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) report that measuring around your waist can help you screen for elevated health risks, including your risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Some people carry more fat around their waist than their hips. If you're one of them, then you may have a higher risk of developing these conditions.

To get a sense of where you stand, simply wrap a tape measure around your waist. The tape should ride slightly above your hipbones. Ultimately, your aim is to have a waist circumference that's less than 35 inches for women, and less than 40 inches for men.

Calculate Your BMI

In addition to waist size, body mass index can help you determine if you would benefit from losing weight. The National Institutes of Health note that body mass index is determined based on your height and weight measurements. A BMI between 25 and 29 indicates that you are overweight, while a BMI over 30 signals obesity.

You can use a BMI Calculator, like this one from the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute, to determine your BMI.

Create a Calorie Deficit

Once you know if you're overweight, you can do something about it. The AHA emphasizes that you don't have to lose large amounts of weight to make a difference--even losing 10 pounds may lessen your risk of heart disease.

To lose weight, you must eat less, exercise more, or both. Get started by setting a goal to reduce your daily calorie intake. The AHA reports that cutting back by 500 calories each day usually leads to losing one pound per week. This may vary based on your age, current weight, activity level, and metabolism.

There are many easy ways to cut calories out of your diet. A single candy bar may have close to 300 calories, while a king-sized bar may have over 500! You can also cut calories by drinking fewer sugar-sweetened beverages, eating less saturated fat, and replacing salty, fatty snacks with more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

Get More Active

The AHA says that physical activity is important both for initial weight loss and for maintaining your weight after you've shed the pounds. There are many ways to exercise more even if you never set foot in a gym. Doing active chores at home like vacuuming, walking the dog, and parking further away from the grocery store all count toward your fitness goals.

HealthAhead Hint: Be Heart-Smart

You know it's important to take care of your heart--now, it's time to put your knowledge into action. If the size of your waistline indicates that you may have an elevated risk of heart disease, you have the power to make a change. Simple lifestyle modifications, like taking short daily walks and losing a small amount of weight, might make a real difference to your heart. Remember, the health problems caused by being overweight or obese may be life threatening, so taking preventive actions is time well spent.