Heart health is important. In the UK, more than 1.6 million men and 1 million women have coronary heart disease and every seven minutes someone will have a stroke.
The risk of heart disease increases with age. But the good news is that there are lots of ways we can all improve our heart health.
Exercise is great for your heart. Not only does it strengthen the muscles that pump your blood, it also reduces the cholesterol that can cause heart attacks. Plus it lowers blood pressure, meaning arteries are less likely to become clogged up.
Any exercise is good exercise. As the British Heart Foundation says, every ten minutes of activity counts. That could be walking, gardening or even exercises in a chair.
The brisker the exercise the better. Ideally, that means a weekly total of 150 minutes of activity that gets your heart pounding. But the most important thing is to get moving at a pace that’s suitable for you.
A healthy diet is another key to heart health.
The first step is to cut down on saturated fats that the body converts into artery-clogging cholesterol. These fats are found in butter and lard, fatty meats, sausages, cheese, pies and cakes. Look out for the nutrition advice on the food you buy and cut down on those high in fat or consider low-fat alternatives.
Eating less salt is also important as it increases blood pressure, putting more strain on arteries. Ready-made foods are often in high in salt so try not to add any more, and reduce the salt you add if cooking yourself.
Fruit and vegetables are low in salt, fat and calories and so are great for your heart. Try and eat five portions a day, whether fresh, frozen, tinned or dried.
Eating well will also help keep your weight down, reducing the strain on your heart.
Cut down on the drink
Too much alcohol can cause high blood pressure. Over time this extra pressure can damage artery walls and make a heart attack or stroke more likely. Regular heavy drinking can also weaken the heart leading to heart failure.
The British Heart Foundation recommends women not regularly drinking more than 2-3 units a day, with men permitted 3-4 units. Alcohol packaging will show how many units are in the bottle or can, but as a guide there are 1.5 units in a small glass of wine and 2.2 units in a pint of 3.8%ABV beer.
There’s more information and practical advice at Drink Aware.
Deal with stress
Stress can be bad for your heart. And while there is some research suggesting stress can be a direct cause of heart disease, what is definite is that if you’re feeling stressed you’re more likely to do things that are bad for heart health.
If you’ve ever had an extra chocolate biscuit, glass of wine or cigarette because you’re feeling stressed then you’ll understand. Tackle the stress and you’ll reduce the unhealthy behaviours too.
Stress can take many forms. You may have trouble sleeping, feel a knot in your stomach or lose your sense of fun. Stress can make you feel worried, hopeless or alone and make concentration or decision-making difficult.
Exercise, eating well and getting plenty of rest can all help reduce stress. It’s also important to take a step back from whatever is causing you to become stressed. Give yourself time to challenge negative thoughts and see that getting stressed will not improve a situation.
Doing something as simple as taking a deep breath and slowly letting it out can help. Experiment with different breathing, mindfulness and relaxation exercises to see which work for you. There are plenty to choose from on this NHS website.
Smoking almost doubles your chances of heart disease. The chemicals in tobacco smoke can damage the lining of your coronary arteries, leading them to become blocked. They also make the platelets in your blood more sticky and so likely to cause clots that could lead to a stroke or heart attack.
Thankfully, with lots of help available, there’s never been a better time to quit. E-cigarettes have helped some people kick the habit while others have used patches or even mindfulness apps on their phones.
Free face-to-face support is available from the NHS. Call 0800 434 6677 or visit www.smokefree.nhs.uk to find out more.
The British Heart Foundation has masses of guidance on preventing heart disease, including advice for those with high cholesterol, high blood pressure and diabetes.
It’s currently encouraging everyone to take 10 minutes every day to make some of the small changes discussed in this article that will help us all have healthier hearts, whatever our age.