Heart disease is the single biggest cause of death in the world, according to the WHO. It is also one of the most preventable diseases. Whatever your age, taking steps to live healthily – moving more, eating well and taking care of your mind and body – can reduce your chances of heart attack and stroke.
Dr Rakesh Sharma, Consultant Cardiologist at Cromwell Hospital says: ” Your heart is a vital organ and it’s important that you look after it. Following these tips to keep your heart healthy is a good start, but if you have any concerns, please speak to your doctor.”
In this blog, we’ve rounded up ten expert tips that will help you to look after your heart. Don’t be daunted by them. Small steps over time can lead to big improvements in your overall health.
- Move your body
Sitting for long hours working at a computer or desk, and then collapsing onto a sofa at the end of the day, is damaging our health. In fact, the British Heart Foundation estimates that one in six deaths in the UK is caused by physical inactivity. It’s clear: to keep our hearts healthy, we need to move our bodies more. The government recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity a week. That’s about 30 minutes a day, five days a week. It could be walking, running, cycling, sport, housework or gardening – anything that gets you moderately out of breath.
It’s worth it. Keeping physically active lowers your blood pressure, stops fatty material building up in your arteries, helps you manage your weight, and reduces your risk of heart disease by up to 35%.
- Focus on daily movement
The best way to increase your physical activity – and crucially, to sustain it over time – is to make it part of your daily routine. Walk or cycle to work if you can. Or take public transport. You’ll be amazed how many steps you notch up walking to and from the station. At lunch, make sure you take a break from your desk, especially if you’re working from home. Get outside, walk around the block or your favourite nearby park. Even 15 minutes walking each lunchtime will make a difference.
- Get your heart racing
Once you’ve banked your daily activity, it’s time to add interest with more intensive exercise (if you have a history of heart problems, then it’s best to check with your doctor first). That means doing something that gets your heart racing and makes it hard to talk without pausing for breath. Aim to do this at least once or twice a week. Join your local parkrun or take the plunge at your local lido, flex it in Zumba, play tennis, box or hit the gym. If you haven’t exercised for a while, your local gym will offer classes tailored for you. Find an activity you enjoy, so that you stick at it.
- Eat a Mediterranean-style diet
Food fads come and go. But for years now, experts have agreed that the Mediterranean diet – plenty of fish, fresh fruit and vegetables, olive oils, grains, pulses and small amounts of meat – is one of the healthiest ways to eat. It’s why people in parts of Greece and Italy live such long and healthy lives. No doubt the sunshine and azure seas help too. Other healthy food cultures are found in Japan, the Nordic countries and West Africa. The ingredients and flavours vary, but these diets are all rich in whole foods, plants and fibre, and low in added sugar, trans fats and processed meats.
- Prepare food healthily
Of course, it’s not just what you eat, it’s how you prepare it. Our brains are evolutionarily hardwired to reward us for energy-rich foods, giving us a welcome dopamine hit after eating them. That’s fine if you spend your day hunting for food or labouring in fields to grow it; you’ll need the energy. It’s not so good if you sit at a desk and only forage in Waitrose. So, when you’re cooking, add less oil and butter, avoid deep frying, and opt for grilling, healthy roasts, boiling, steaming or stewing instead.
- Hold the salt
Sodium in salt is linked to high blood pressure, which increases your chances of heart disease and stroke. While we need a certain amount of salt in our diets – the NHS recommends 6g a day, or about a teaspoon, most of us are eating quite a bit more. That’s because a lot of the foods we buy – cereals, bread, readymade sauces, stock cubes, processed meat and snacks – contain high amounts of salt, as it’s an easy way to add flavour. So, check the nutritional labels on pre-packaged food and look for foods low in salt (coded green). And hold the salt at the table. Your food might taste a little bland at first, but your taste buds will soon adjust. Your heart will thank you for it.
- Drink alcohol in moderation
Like salt, drinking too much alcohol also raises your blood pressure. Many alcoholic drinks, including wine and beer, are high in calories too. This can lead to you putting on weight and developing obesity, another risk factor for cardiovascular disease. So, enjoy drinking within the recommended guidelines – no more than 14 units a week for men and women. That’s about six pints of beer or 10 small glasses of wine. And be sceptical about any stories your read on the health benefits of some alcoholic drinks. You won’t find any doctors or dieticians recommending you take up drinking.
- Get some good-quality sleep
Recently there has been a growing interest in the science of sleep. No wonder. Our busy lives, and the endless glow of our smartphones and tablets, means that many of us aren’t getting enough. The NHS says most of us need between seven and nine hours a night. If you’re getting less, or your sleep is disturbed through the night, you’re more likely to develop high blood pressure. You’re also more likely to use sugary foods and caffeine boosts to get you through the day. This raises your risk for high blood pressure and also developing obesity. So, practice good sleep hygiene and try to get your head down between 10-11pm, as research has shown this is an optimal bedtime for heart health.
- And relax….
Stress in itself doesn’t cause heart problems, any raising of blood pressure is temporary. And it can be very useful, motivating us to overcome problems or hit targets. But chronic stress – that is with you all the time – can lead to unhealthy decisions, like turning to unhealthy comfort food, drinking more, exercising less or smoking. It can also damage your mental health, which will impact on your physical health. So it’s important to find ways to relax. Try meditation or mindfulness, both of which can lower blood pressure. Or listen to music, spend time with friends, exercise or get into nature.
- Make the changes last
Mindset is key. It’s easy to feel, for example, that you don’t have time for exercise or that it’s a hassle. But see it as a vital aspect of life, essential for your physical and mental health, and it will be easier to prioritise. According to psychiatrists at Maudsley Learning, the key to making changes last is to harness the power of habit. Once something becomes part of your routine, you’re much more likely to do it. Eventually, it’ll become part of your identity, and a motivating force. When you think of yourself as “a healthy eater”, for example, you’ll be much more likely to choose healthier foods when you’re doing your weekly shop. And finally, be kind on yourself. Don’t use lapses as an excuse to give up, but as a way to understand yourself better. Then try again.