Your heart is the powerhouse that keeps you alive and is responsible for pumping blood to all the other organs in your body. So how can you keep it in tip top condition?1
Five simple steps to a healthy heart1-3:
- Eat well - cut down on saturated fat, increase your fruit and vegetable intake.
- Get active - make sure you are doing at least two and a half hours of moderate activity over the week.
- Don't smoke - cut out the cigarettes, or if you can't, try at least to cut down.
- Limit your alcohol intake.
- Relax - stress can raise your blood pressure and have detrimental effects on your body.
This is all easy to say, but does it really make a difference? What happens if you don't follow these guidelines?
Heart disease - what is it?
One of the most common heart problems is coronary heart disease.3
As well as pumping blood to your body, the heart muscle needs blood to be supplied to it to enable it to work. Blood arrives at the heart muscle via blood vessels called the coronary arteries. These are quite narrow and can quite easily become 'furred' up. Fatty deposits – called plaques - can build up in the arteries (a process called atherosclerosis) restricting blood flow to the heart. If these plaques break up they can cause blood clots which may block the artery and stop blood flowing to the heart. This can cause a heart attack.1,3 This narrowing of your arteries in the heart is called coronary heart disease (CHD). This process can also happen in other arteries in the body, for example in the arteries supplying your brain, which can lead to a stroke. The British Heart Foundation estimates that in the UK there are 2.3 million people living with CHD.4
There are a number of lifestyle factors that have a strong link to CHD and having a healthy lifestyle puts you at significantly less risk for developing CHD.1,3
Step by step guide to a healthy heart
- Eating well. Following a healthy eating plan can dramatically reduce your risk of developing CHD and can improve your condition if you already have it. There are lots of ways you can make improvements to your diet:
- Different fats in the diet affect the levels of fat in the blood in different ways. Saturated fat raises cholesterol levels and high cholesterol is linked to heart disease. Saturated fat is found in butter and dairy products, lard, dripping and animal fat, coconut oil and palm oil. Cutting back on these products in your diet will help reduce the risk of CHD.5
- Also avoid hydrogenated, or trans-fat, which have linked to increased cholesterol levels.6
- Not all fat in the diet is bad, some fats have a beneficial effect in the blood and can help reduce the risk of CHD. Include oily fish (sardines, mackerel, herring, fresh tuna, trout, salmon) and other sources of omega-3 fatty acids (pumpkin seeds, flaxseed, walnuts) in your diet.5
- Eating at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day will help to reduce the risk of CHD.7 They are also high in fibre and are low in calories which will help fill you up.7 This is especially good if you are trying to control your weight. Being overweight puts extra strain on your heart and can put you at greater risk of developing diabetes which is also a risk factor for CHD.3
- Reduce the amount of salt you eat. Most salt you eat is hidden in foods such as bread, cereals and pre-packaged meals. A high salt intake can cause high blood pressure (another risk factor for CHD). Check food labels and try to limit your salt intake to a maximum of 6g a day.5
- Get active. Recent figures revealed that 27% of people are getting less than 30 minutes of activity a week and were classed as inactive.8Regular activity has a number of benefits for your heart including1,2:
- Helping your heart and circulation work more efficiently
- Maintaining a healthy weight
- Helping to lower blood pressure
- Increasing oxygen supply to muscles
- Boosting levels of 'good' fats in the blood
- Reducing the chances of blood clots forming
Make time for some activity every day. Start slowly and choose an activity you enjoy that is of moderate intensity such as brisk walking, dancing or cycling.
- Don't smoke. Smoking reduces the amount of oxygen that travels to your heart and the nicotine increases the speed at which your heart beats, making it work harder. Smoking is also thought to cause the blood to thicken making it more likely to clot, and it constricts the arteries going to the heart, so reducing the blood flow to the heart.9 Each year in the UK, smoking is responsible for up to 20,000 deaths from heart and circulatory diseases.4,9 If quitting altogether feels too difficult, think about initially trying to reduce the number of cigarettes you smoke.
- Limit your alcohol intake. Keep within a moderate alcohol intake which is considered to be 1-2 alcoholic drinks a day for women, 2-3 for men. Persistently drinking above these levels increases the chance of developing high blood pressure and in turn CHD.5,10 Alcohol also has no nutritional value and is full of empty calories so can also make you put on weight.10
- Relax. Research is growing that indicates stress is a risk factor for CHD.11
When you feel under pressure your heart starts to beat faster and hormones are released into the body that increase blood pressure. Stress can also mean you drink or smoke more. Taking time to practise exercises such as deep breathing can help you feel calmer.11 Make sure you take some time for yourself each day to gather your thoughts and clear your head.
- Cardiovascular Disease. British Heart Foundation. https://www.bhf.org.uk/informationsupport/conditions/cardiovascular-disease. Visited 9 January 2020.
- UK Chief Medical Officers' Physical Activity Guidelines. Department of Health. Published 7 September 2019.
- Coronary Heart Disease.British Heart Foundation. https://www.bhf.org.uk/informationsupport/conditions/coronary-heart-disease. Visited 9 January 2020.
- BHF Statistics Factsheet UK – December 2019. British Heart Foundation. https://www.bhf.org.uk/what-we-do/our-research/heart-statistics. Visited 9 January 2020.
- Prevention – Coronary heart disease. NHS. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/coronary-heart-disease/prevention. Updated 7 April 2017. Visited 9 January 2020.
- Fat: the facts. NHS. https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/different-fats-nutrition. Updated 1 May 2017. Visited 9 January 2020.
- Why 5 a day? NHS. https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/why-5-a-day. Updated 8 October 2018. Visited 9 January 2020.
- Health Survey for England 2018. National statistics. Published 3 December 2019.
- Smoking. British Heart Foundation. https://www.bhf.org.uk/informationsupport/risk-factors/smoking. Visited 9 January 2020.
- Alcohol. British Heart Foundation. https://www.bhf.org.uk/informationsupport/support/healthy-living/healthy-eating/alcohol. Visited 9 January 2020.
- Stress and heart health. American Heart Association. https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/stress-and-heart-health. Updated 17 June 2014. Visited 9 January 2020.