When life gets busy, developing heart healthy habits like exercising, preparing nutritious meals and managing stress may seem like the last of our priorities. According to Dr. Andrew Fiedler, a cardiologist at Memorial Hospital in South Bend, healthy lifestyle habits are key to keeping us from developing heart disease or other serious health problems.

Heart disease refers to a variety of heart conditions, the most common of which is coronary heart disease, which is caused when plaque builds up in the arteries, reducing blood flow and sometimes resulting in a heart attack.

Across America, heart disease is claiming the lives of 610,000 Americans a year, making the illness the leading cause of death among both men and women in the U.S., according to data gathered in 2009 from the Center for Disease Control. Developing healthy eating, exercising habits and stress management abilities could give those who commit to the lifestyle a better chance at staving off heart disease.

Fiedler has seen this first hand through his work as the medical director with the Ornish Program. Most who seek help through the program have heart disease or are at serious risk. Through the nine-week program offered at Memorial Hospital and the Elkhart General Hospital, patients work with health experts to exercise, learn how to manage stress and prepare vegetarian meals. For some, the program has been life-saving.

What are three things that someone can do every day to help prevent heart disease and maintain a healthy heart?

I think the keys to health are number one, remaining active. I would say in the U.S. the vast majority of folks think they are active, but they are really not.

We are shooting for the national recommendations, which are 30 minutes of exercise a day or an hour every other day, so totaling three to five hours a week. Most people fall way short of that, so I think folks should really give thought to finding something that they enjoy doing and doing it regularly — sticking with it.

The second thing would be what we eat. The diet is extremely important. There are many healthy patterns of eating, but I would say in general in the U.S. the diet is poor.

The American Heart Association does a survey to see what Americans eat and only about 5 or 10 percent of the population of the U.S. actually eats what would be considered a healthy diet. That allows for a little fudging, too. None of us are spot on perfect, but a healthy diet requires some thought and some preparation and some commitment.

We think about what we like or what we want [to eat] and we really need to spend a little more time thinking about what our body needs.

I think the third thing would be, it turns out that everyone knows that managing stress in their life is important, but most people do not know how to do that. I think one thing we see in this program that is a really big deal is that one, we do stress management and we ask people to sit and get quiet, most people have a very difficult time with that.

What are three things that someone can do every day to help prevent heart disease and maintain a healthy heart?

There is an Ornish website, ornish.com. There is a lot of information there. There is very robust information that is sort of password protected for participants, but there is a lot of information on that website, including recipes and meal preparation and so forth, so I think that is one of the key sites.

A lot of people blame their poor diet on a lack of cooking skills. How difficult are these meals to prepare?

They can be as difficult or as easy as you want them to be. For example, whole grain rice and beans is a very easy meal and it is very easy to make and so is whole grain pasta, with a marinara sauce, so some of it is very, very simple.

If you want to keep the cost as low as possible and eat fresh foods, then it requires at least once or twice a week doing food preparation and most people will do it in batches like that, so I think it can be as easy or as complicated [as you want].

There is a story on the website about how to eat really healthy for just a few dollars a day. Everyone thinks that it is going to be really expensive, but I do not if they have looked at the price of meat lately, because if you take the meat out of the diet. Your bill is a lot lower.

I’m sure you live a very busy life. What is one of your favorite quick, healthy meals?

My favorite lunch time meal is I happen to work very close to the hospital and I walk into the cafeteria, which has a salad bar that has dozens and dozens of options to put in that salad. I mean you can make a very unhealthy salad, but you can make a very healthy salad that also has some good protein sources in it like beans and is all fresh and is very healthy for you.

When we tell people to eat salad, we have to have a long disclaimer of we are not talking about a pile of cheese and a glob of dressing. We are talking about a variety of fresh and cooked vegetables.