A new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention backs up that advice with a number: At least 200,000 deaths each year from cardiovascular disease could be prevented. More than half of those deaths involve people under the age of 65.
"These findings are really striking," CDC director Dr. Tom Frieden told reporters Tuesday. "We're talking about hundreds of thousands of deaths that happen, that don't have to happen."
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S., taking up to 800,000 lives each year. That's 30 percent of all deaths in the country.
The CDC's report found that about 80 percent of deaths from coronary artery disease -- a name for heart disease caused by narrowing of the arteries which leads to reduced blood flow to the heart -- can be attributed to preventable factors like obesity, poor physical activity, heavy drinking, eating unhealthy foods and not keeping your blood pressure and cholesterol under control.
These lifestyle changes could also prevent about 50 percent of stroke deaths, the report's authors added.
For the report, the CDC analyzed data on U.S. deaths collected from 2001 to 2010, in order to determine which deaths could have been avoided either through preventive lifestyle modification or treatment for those individuals at higher risk. They also looked for trends to see which groups fared worse.
They found about six in ten of the preventable heart deaths occurred in people younger than 65 years old. Black Americans were about two times more likely to die from avoidable heart disease or stroke compared to white Americans of the same ages.
The state with the fewest avoidable deaths was Minnesota, with about 36 per 100,000 people, while the District of Columbia had the highest rate at about 100 deaths per 100,000 people.
Counties with the highest avoidable death rates were located primarily in the South, which has previously been nicknamed the "Stroke Belt."
Frieden emphasized this isn't just a problem facing black residents in these regions, and said a map of only white individuals would look virtually the same.
There were some positive trends that suggest strides have been made against preventable deaths. All states saw overall declines in deaths from avoidable causes, with a 29 percent drop in rates from 2001 to 2010.
Adults aged 65 to 74 showed decreases in preventive deaths faster than younger people, which may be due to their Medicare coverage.
But there's much more to be done, according to the CDC.
"We know that all these places can reduce their rates by doing a few simple things," said Frieden.
That starts with better management of blood pressure, cholesterol and diabetes, he said, which all raise risks for cardiovascular deaths. Lifestyle modifications such as eating healthily, exercising regularly and not smoking are also key. Communities could take charge and create healthier living spaces, such as by adding more smoke-free areas or creating exercise spaces, the CDC added.
The federal government will continue to lead campaigns such as Tips From Former Smokers and the Million Hearts Initiative, the latter aiming to prevent one million heart attacks and strokes by 2017. The CDC also hopes with the Affordable Care Act's expansion taking place next year, more people will have access to preventative care and doctors who will encourage healthy habits or put high-risk people on treatments like taking aspirin to avoid heart attacks and strokes.
"Even one preventable death is one too many," said Frieden. "It's really possible for us to make rapid and substantial progress in reducing these deaths," he added.
The CDC's Vital Signs report on Preventable Deaths from Heart Disease and Stroke was published Sept. 3 on the agency's website.