21 days to a new you: Get heart-healthy

So, this is going to be the year you focus on taking care of your best friend: your heart.
© MSN Healthy Living // © MSN Health

Excellent idea, since as your heart gets healthier, so go you. And there are a lot of small steps you can take that will add up to a big payoff in lower blood pressure, better cholesterol levels, a more regular heartbeat, stronger lung power and more. If you take care of your body's motor--your heart--the rest of your body will run smoothly and fire on all pistons. You won't believe how much better you'll feel overall. Ready? Let's do this!

By Anne Hurley for MSN Healthy Living

1 of 23 Healthy heart sign (Gary D'Ercole/Getty Images)

Day 1: Switch from full-fat dairy products to low- or nonfat

Every little bit of saturated-fat reduction helps when it comes to taking better care of your heart. One of the easiest swaps to make is trading in full-fat milk for low- or nonfat milk. The taste is virtually identical, and, because of the reduced fat, nonfat milk contains more calcium and more protein than full-fat. For your coffee, if you use cream, go half-and-half, then to regular milk; it will still taste creamy and delicious. Then, if you can take that extra step and use skim in your coffee, all the better. Bonus: Besides reducing your fat intake, you're dramatically reducing your calorie intake, too.

Video: How diet can prevent heart attacks

2 of 23 Low-fat creamer (Diyosa Carter/Getty Images)

Day 2: Say hello, olive oil; bye-bye, butter

Butter is delicious, but it's high in saturated fats. Luckily, olive oil is a great dip for your dinner roll or bread, and it’s full of heart-healthy monounsaturated fats, which are not only not bad for your heart, they also actually promote heart and circulation health. Experiment with different types. Extra-virgin is especially flavorful and great for cooking; you might also want to try some herb-infused olive oils. Once you realize just how delicious olive oil is, you won't miss that butter anymore.

3 of 23 Olive oil (Tom Grill/Getty Images)

Day 3: Use ground turkey in hamburger recipes instead of beef

This is another super-simple swap. Red meat contains a ton of both saturated fat and cholesterol, so gradually weaning off of it, or at least cutting way back, is an excellent goal. Ground turkey has half the fat--half!--of lean ground beef, and can be used in virtually every recipe that calls for ground beef. Turkey can be bland and a smidge dry, so be sure to boost your seasonings and maybe mix in some Worcestershire sauce or even a little ketchup for moisture. You and your family will never notice the difference, and your heart and cholesterol levels will thank you.

4 of 23 Turkey burger (Lauri Patterson/Getty Images)

Day 4: Get at least 20 minutes of exercise a day

You don't have to go crazy (unless you want to). According to Prevention magazine, just 2.5 hours of exercise a week, or a little more than 20 minutes a day, can reduce the risk of heart attack by one third. That could mean preventing 285,000 deaths from heart disease in the U.S. every single year. I'd say that's worth the time investment, wouldn't you? Incorporate a brisk walk morning and evening as you head to your bus or subway, or take a walk during your lunch break and eat later at your desk.

5 of 23 Briskly walking (Paul Bradbury/Getty Images)

Day 5: Get your blood pressure and cholesterol levels checked

It's a good idea to get your numbers in hand, and then talk with your doctor about what the healthy ranges are for your age and body type. This way, you'll have his or her support and together you can put a plan of action in place. Follow up in a month, and again in three months, to get everything checked again. By the end of the year, you should notice an improvement in all your levels and be feeling pretty darn great.

6 of 23 Blood pressure test (Team Static/Getty Images)

Day 6: Get started on losing that muffin top

Studies show that weight gained around the middle is far more dangerous to one's heart and overall health than fat anywhere else on the body. (And it doesn't look so hot hanging over the top of your skinny jeans, either.) Today, begin incorporating more cardio into your workouts, and cut out calories where you can. Losing excess baggage around the middle is one of the best things you can do for your overall heart health. You don't have to be a twig--who is?--but focus on losing the extra weight around your midsection, which will take a big load off your heart.

7 of 23 someone with a 'muffin top' (Dan Hallman/Getty Images)

Day 7: Commit to a plan to quit smoking

Yes, it's hard. But if you are serious about taking better care of your heart, you’ll need to quit those bad boys. If you can't do it cold-turkey, set a date by which you'll have gradually tapered down to just two cigarettes a day, then one, then none. The American Medical Association says that quitting smoking is the single biggest thing you can do to give your heart a new lease on life. And the great news is, even if you have smoked for years, your body can repair and even reverse a lot of the smoke-induced damage after you quit. So what are you waiting for?

8 of 23 Quit smoking (Image Source/Getty Images)

Day 8: Start a food journal

It's one thing to say you'll be watching your portion control or calorie intake, but it's quite another to see exactly what you eat and when during the day. Start a food journal to see what types of foods you gravitate toward, how much of them you eat and at what times of the day. Don’t judge what you learn as you go, but instead use the data to make better decisions for the future. If you tend to crave sweets at night watching TV, try to develop a healthier habit, like making a pot of tea to sip instead. Keep notes to see what sticks and what doesn't. You'll find the whole process eye-opening.

9 of 23 Food journal (Annabelle Breakey/Getty Images)

Day 9: Bring healthy snacks to work to avoid the 'candy-dish syndrome'

Sure, it's nice that your cube-mate has miniature chocolates in his dish for anyone walking by. But free random snacks can add up to a lot of mindless snacking, and a lot of not-exactly-heart-healthy eating. To avoid falling into the trap of office snacking, bring your own healthy snacks to work and have them handy when you know your blood sugar is going to be low. Try to combine protein with fresh fruits or veggies. I have a friend who keeps a jar of organic peanut butter at his desk, then brings in carrot or celery sticks or apple slices to dip in it for a tasty, healthy mid-afternoon snack.

10 of 23 Healthy snacks (George Crudo/Getty Images)