5 heart healthy habits you need to start today
Looking after your heart is one of the most important things you can do for your overall health.
According to the British Heart Foundation, heart and circulatory diseases cause around a quarter of all UK deaths - that’s an average of 460 deaths every day.
With World Heart Day just around the corner, we’ve compiled a list of healthy habits you and your family can adopt today to make sure you’re doing everything you can to look after your heart.
Eat a heart healthy diet
Eating a healthy, balanced diet is crucial for preventing coronary heart disease.
The best diet to follow is a low-fat, high fibre diet including plenty of fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
Saturated fats are the ones you’ll want to cut down on, as these will increase the levels of bad cholesterol in your blood.
Here are some examples of foods high in saturated fat:
- Hard cheese
- Cakes and biscuits
- Foods containing coconut or palm oil
- Sausages and fatty cuts of meat
Unsaturated fats are much better for your health and have actually been shown to increase levels of good cholesterol.
Foods that contain unsaturated fat include oily fish, avocados, nuts, seeds and sunflower, rapeseed olive and vegetable oils.
You also need to avoid eating more than 6 grams of salt each day - that’s about 1 teaspoon - to avoid increasing your blood pressure.
Read our guide about healthy eating to find out some more top tips for getting the most out of your diet.
Smoking is really bad for your lungs, of course, but did you know it also increases the risk of coronary heart disease?
It’s also a major risk factor for developing atherosclerosis, a serious condition where the arteries become clogged with fatty substances.
On top of that, smoking is also responsible for most cases of coronary thrombosis in people under 50.
Quitting smoking can have a beneficial effect on your heart rate and blood pressure in as little as 20 minutes.
Then, just 1 year after quitting smoking, your risk of having a heart attack is half that of a smoker.
Quitting smoking isn’t easy, but there are plenty of smoking cessation treatments available to relieve your cravings and help you quit for good.
Drink less alcohol
Like smoking, drinking a lot of alcohol can also increase your risk of developing heart disease.
This is because drinking excessive amounts of alcohol can raise your blood pressure, increasing the chance of you having a heart attack or stroke.
Heavy drinking also weakens the heart muscle, which can lead to cardiomyopathy (diseases of the heart muscle).
To cut down your risk, start by eliminating binge drinking as this is known to increase your risk of a heart attack.
Make sure you aren’t drinking more than 14 units of alcohol a week and try to spread the drinking over 3 days or more.
Not sure if you’re drinking too much? Use the Drinkaware self-assessment tool to understand more about the impact of your personal drinking habits on your health.
Watch your weight
Carrying extra weight can negatively affect our health in a lot of different ways.
One of the most serious risks that come with obesity is the increased risk of heart disease.
This is because being overweight can lead to fatty material building up in the arteries that carry blood to the heart, making it more likely for them to become damaged or clogged and lead to a heart attack.
If the arteries that carry blood to your brain become clogged or damaged, this could even lead to a stroke or vascular dementia.
Carrying extra fat, particularly around your middle, also increases the risk of high cholesterol, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes, all of which are closely linked to heart and circulatory diseases.
The best way to check whether you’re overweight or obese is by calculating your BMI and measuring your waist.
You may be overweight if your BMI is higher than 24.9 and possibly obese if it’s over 30.
The recommended waist measurements are 37 inches (94cm) or below for men and 31.5 (80cm) inches or below for women.
That’s referring to the point halfway between the bottom of your ribs and the top of your hips - this won’t be the same measurement as your jeans size.
Knowing your waist size will help you know if you’re carrying extra fat around your middle - this is more important than excess fat in other places as it’s more likely to affect internal organs like your heart.
Losing excess weight can be really tough, but the benefits for your overall health - both physically and mentally - will make it well worth the effort.
There are even treatments available, such as weight-loss injections and medicines, that can help you to reach your goals.
Your heart is a muscle, and just like all the other muscles in your body, it needs regular exercise to keep it working the way it should.
According to the British Heart Foundation, one in every five cases of coronary heart disease is caused by physical inactivity.
Physical activity can help to improve high blood pressure and high cholesterol as well as reduce your overall risk of coronary heart disease.
Even if you’ve already got coronary heart disease, regular exercise can help to protect your heart and reduce the risk of further problems.
The most heart healthy type of exercise is aerobic activity - that’s any physical activity that increases your heart rate and your body’s use of oxygen.
That could be brisk walking, cycling, an aerobic exercise class, dancing, or even something as simple as gardening or climbing the stairs.
Even if you don’t have the time to go to the gym or work out at home, try to incorporate extra activity into your life.
That might include walking to the shops, using the stairs instead of the elevator, or getting off the bus one stop earlier to walk the rest of the way.
Feeling stressed? Your heart might be feeling the strain too.
Whilst stress alone doesn't cause heart disease, it may make you more likely to pick up some unhealthy habits like overeating, drinking too much alcohol, smoking or not exercising enough, and these things can definitely increase your risk.
That’s because these unhealthy habits can lead to high cholesterol, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes, all of which put extra strain on your heart.
Extreme instances of emotional or physical stress can even cause something called takotsubo cardiomyopathy, sometimes referred to as broken heart syndrome.
Whilst this isn’t fully understood yet, research is underway to find out more about what exactly happens to the heart in these situations.
The extreme stressful triggers may include bereavement, abuse or assault, financial worries, severe illness or being involved in a disaster.
Whilst most of these triggers are unavoidable, learning to control stress is a great step towards keeping your heart healthy.
Practising mindfulness, meditation or yoga are effective and increasingly popular ways to manage day-to-day stress.
Talking to your friends and family can help too, or participating in any stress-free hobbies that you really enjoy.
Get enough sleep
Getting proper sleep is vital for your health, and that includes your heart too.
Research has suggested that there’s a strong link between getting a good night’s sleep and a reduced risk of coronary heart disease.
This is possibly because insomnia can trigger your body’s stress response, which in turn may weaken your heart over time.
You should be aiming to get between 6 and 8 hours per night according to a study reported on by the British Heart Foundation.
There are plenty of things you can do to help you fall asleep if you’ve been struggling, such as trying a sleep aid or following some of these tips from the NHS.
We hope this guide has inspired you to try out a few new habits to protect your heart health.
Heart disease is one of the biggest killers in the UK, so it’s time we all take action and do everything we can possibly do to look after our hearts.
For more information on heart disease, visit the British Heart Foundation or the NHS website.