We talk of broken hearts often, but how much do you think about your heart's health? Coronary heart disease (CHD) is the UK’s single biggest killer and the leading cause of death worldwide according to the British Heart Foundation . However, CHD is just one of the illnesses that falls under the umbrella of cardiovascular disease, with others including stroke, heart failure, cardiomyopathy and atrial fibrillation collectively accounting for a quarter of all deaths in the UK – that’s one every three minutes.
“Small changes in lifestyle can really improve people’s heart health such as diet, exercise and alcohol intake,” says Lucy Wilkinson, Senior Cardiac Nurse at the British Heart Foundation. “We often take our heart health for granted in our younger years but if we better control these factors now, we can reduce the risk of developing heart disease when we’re older.”
From a heart healthy diet to heart disease prevention fitness facts, here’s how to eat, exercise and test your way to better heart health both this National Heart Month and beyond.
How to eat your way to a healthier heart
“There are 5 main points in terms of eating to help protect your heart,” explains Lucy. They are:
1. Eat a diet that is low in saturated fat, choosing healthier fats instead, e.g. unsaturated fats such as olive oil, almonds, unsalted cashews, walnuts and sunflower seeds would be healthier choices.
2. Aim to eat fish at least twice a week, with one portion being a serving of oily fish such as sardines, herrings or anchovies.
3. Eat at least 5 portions of fruit and vegetables a day.
4. Aim to keep salt intake to below 6g a day. Salt is directly linked to an increase in blood pressure which in turn, can increase your chance of developing heart disease. Check the food labelling on processed and packaged foods and avoid adding extra salt when cooking. Spices and herbs are fine to use, but just make sure that if they’re the bottled kind that they don’t contain added salt. Anything fresh though is fine.
5. Make sure to stick to the recommended limits of alcohol - 14 units per week for both women and men. This amounts to about 6 medium glasses of wine.
How to test your heart health
1. Get your blood pressure checked by your GP
Monitoring your vital health stats via your GP, (especially if you have a family history of cardiovascular disease), will ensure that you’re better informed of any increased risk of developing heart problems later on. “Your blood pressure represents the force of the heart as it pumps blood around the body. If it is too high it could be a sign that the heart is under strain,” explains GP Dr Anita Sturnham. “The higher your blood pressure, the shorter your life expectancy. People with high blood pressure run a higher risk of having a stroke or a heart attack.
“The problem is high blood pressure has no symptoms. 1 in 5 of the adult population have it and don’t realise, so really this needs to be checked yearly.”
2. Get your cholesterol levels checked
“Cholesterol is produced by the liver from the saturated fats – the bad fats in our diet. High levels can lead to fatty deposits in your arteries that increase your risk of coronary heart disease, stroke, and diseases that affect the circulation,” cautions Dr Sturnham. “You can help lower your cholesterol level by exercising and eating high-fibre foods such as porridge, beans, pulses, lentils, nuts, fruits and vegetables and foods rich in omega 3 fatty acids; essential fats that can lower bad cholesterol and increase good cholesterol.”
How to exercise your way to a healthier heart
Thanks to our increasingly sedentary lifestyles, our collective activity as a nation has understandably, nosedived. However, being tied to our desks could be doing our long-term heart health a massive disservice when it comes to managing our weight and blood sugar and cholesterol levels.
“Regular exercise can help control weight, reduce blood pressure and improve overall health,” explains Lucy. “Aim to be active every day to help protect your heart. At the British Heart Foundation, we recommend 150 minutes moderate intensity exercise a week which can be split up into smaller sessions if needed.
“Everyday activities count which can be particularly useful for those who lead busy lives - just simple things like using the stairs instead of the lift or escalator and walking to the shop instead of taking the bus or driving your car. www.bhf.org.uk also has some useful 10 minute exercise challenges too for those who are particularly busy.”
To keep a track of your daily activity and ensure you don’t fall short, check out our edit of the best wearable technology and fitness apps around in order to take control of your fitness and take your workout to the next level.
“Exercise also helps you to sleep better and relieves stress too,” says Lucy. The vital element that ties a healthy diet and exercise together, master a good night’s sleep and your heart will thank you for years to come. “If you’re feeling lethargic, you’re less likely to exercise and then you’re more likely to get stressed which encourages unhealthy behaviour,” explains Lucy. “It’s about looking at the risk factors it affects and seeing the bigger picture. For example, the tendency to eat more food that’s higher in sugar when we’re tired. Sleep also allows time to recharge your batteries and give your heart a chance to rest.”
“Remove anything in your bedroom that will keep you up at night,” recommends Lucy. “ Switch your phone off or put it on silent and remove any LED lights etc. or anything that might disturb your sleep. Make it as relaxing an environment as possible.”
And finally... quit smoking
“Quitting smoking is the single most important thing a person can do to live longer,” says Dr Sturnham. “If you are a smoker, you are twice as likely to have a heart attack than a non-smoker. The chemicals in cigarettes can damage your arteries and smoking can also increase your blood pressure. But from the moment you stop smoking, the risk of heart attack starts to reduce, and will reduce by 50% in just 1 year of stopping.”
If that’s not a reason to stub that cigarette out for good, we don’t know what is.