Science-backed ways to lift and look after your heart health

    Science-backed ways to look after your heart health
    Published: 17 February 2022. Written by:  Christina Quaine.

    Looking after your heart health is crucial to your overall health and wellbeing. We explore the ways in which you can ensure it’s in optimal health – some may just surprise you…

    Heart health is only something to worry about once you’re older, right? Not so. All of us, whatever our age, need to take steps to keep this vital organ in good working order. ‘Although the risk of heart disease increases as you get older, it is important to establish healthy habits early in life to avoid developing problems later on,’ says Dr Roshane Mohidin, Vitality GP and Healthcare Pathways and Behavioural Change. ‘Keeping physically active, having a healthy diet, maintaining a healthy weight, stopping smoking and reducing alcohol intake for heart health are all just as relevant to young people as to older people.’ 

    Hang out with loved ones

    Supportive relationships, whether romantic or with your mates, are associated with protecting heart health. A 2017 study from the Journal of the American Heart Association found that unmarried people with heart disease were 52% more likely to have a heart attack or die from a cardiovascular problem after four years compared with patients who were married. Friendships are good for your heart, too. In a 2015 study from Concordia University in Canada, 60 international students took part shortly after arriving in Canada. None of them had social ties in the area – no friends, no family, no partner. The students’ heart rates were measured at intervals over five months and those who had mixed less with other people were found to have lower heart rate variability – this has been shown to pose greater risk for cardiac disease. Sounds like a good reason to get in touch with loved ones. 

    Keep blood pressure in a healthy range

    Even if you seem fit and healthy, it’s important to know your blood pressure because high blood pressure (or hypertension) often has no symptoms. ‘Raised blood pressure puts additional strain on blood vessels, the heart and other organs. A persistently raised blood pressure increases your risk of heart disease, heart attacks, stroke and heart failure,’ says Dr Mohidin. Many pharmacies offer blood pressure checks, or you can buy a home blood pressure monitor from around £20. ‘There are lifestyle changes which help prevent high blood pressure, such as having a healthy diet, staying physically active, losing weight if you’re carrying excess weight, stopping smoking, reducing alcohol and caffeine intake,’ adds Dr Mohidin.  

    More on your diet…

    Nutrition and exercise look after your heart

    First up, look at your salt intake. ‘Too much salt is linked to high blood pressure,’ says Dr Mohidin. The average UK adult is eating 8.1g of salt a day but official guidance says adults should be consuming no more than 6g of salt a day – that’s around a teaspoon. Check your fats, too. ‘A small amount of fat is good for you. However, too much can increase your risk of heart and circulatory diseases,’ says Dr Mohidin. ‘Mono and polyunsaturated fats are considered “healthy” fats as they maintain healthy levels of cholesterol in the body. Saturated and trans fats are “unhealthy” fats as they increase the “bad” cholesterol levels in your blood,’ he adds. Find mono and polyunsaturated fats in foods including avocados, almonds, sunflower oil, trout, mackerel and salmon. Foods such as sausages, biscuits, cakes and cheeses such as cheddar are high in saturated fats, so go easy. 

    Get moving

    ‘Regular exercise helps to reduce your risk of coronary heart disease and it also burns calories, which helps maintain a healthy weight,’ says Dr Mohidin. That’s good news because being overweight or obese can increase your risk for heart-related problems such as cardiovascular disease and hypertension. ‘Having excess weight results in a build-up of a fatty substance in your arteries, resulting in narrowing of these vessels and difficulty in delivering enough blood to the brain and heart. Exercise can also help to maintain normal cholesterol levels, regulate blood sugar and lower blood pressure,’ says Dr Mohidin.

    How often? 

    Make time for some kind of physical activity every day. ‘Do at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity activity a week,’ says Dr Mohidin. Moderate activity includes brisk walking, dancing and riding a bike. As for vigorous? Stuff like running, swimming and playing a sport like football or rugby. ‘Aim to spread your activity over four to five days a week. Also do strengthening activities twice a week, focussing on your major muscle groups, like legs, back, chest and arms.’  


    Being kind can help heart health

    Did you know that being nice to others can benefit your heart health? When we’re kind to others, it releases the hormone oxytocin which, in turn, releases a chemical into your blood vessels that helps to reduce blood pressure. Clever. Be inspired with Random Acts of Kindness Day on 17 February. Meanwhile, giving blood is one of the most selfless things you can do, and 14 February was National Organ Donor Day, so why not consider saving a life by giving blood, or by signing up to become a bone marrow, tissue or organ donor?

    Have you thought about how you can improve your healthspan? Here we explain exactly what healthspan is and how you can improve yours with 4 habit changes.

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