Are you heart-healthy? Five tips for National Heart Month

Melissa Eide

eart health is something that you should be taking seriously.

Problems can arise at any point, for anyone, and can be caused by lifestyle or factors outside of our control, including family history, age, and ethnicity.

But do you know how to look after your heart?

Tips for a healthy heart

There are steps you can take now – no matter how young or old – that can make a giant difference to your risk of developing heart-related diseases.

February is National Heart Health Month – which runs from February 1 to 28 – and we spoke to Nuffield Health Cardiac Rehabilitation lead Helen Alexander, who has given us the top five ways to keep yourself heart healthy:

Get moving

The obvious, but one that is often overlooked. The heart is a muscle, explains Alexander, and it needs to be worked to stay as fit as it can.

“Being physically active can keep your heart healthy by controlling your blood pressure and improving your cholesterol profile,” she adds.

“Both high-blood pressure and high-cholesterol levels can damage the inside of the artery walls, making it more likely for plaque to build up which can result in blockages.”

TOP TIP: New to exercise? You don’t need to be daunted, nor should you book a marathon straight off the bat. Alexander suggests starting slowly by gradually building in more activity day-by-day.

“This could mean using the stairs rather than the lift, using the car less, or parking further away than normal,” Alexander says.

Watch that plate

Your diet is a massively important part of staying heart healthy, but that doesn’t mean you have to bin the cake all in one go.

Again, this is all about making gradual and sustainable changes for a long-term heart-healthy way of life.

You should be aiming to lower your intake of saturated fats (yep, cake comes under this, we are afraid), and replacing them with healthy – read, unsaturated – fats (think oily fish, nuts, and seeds.)

Carbs should be included as they are great for energy and contain important nutrients and fibre, essential for a healthy heart.

TOP TIP: Alexander says: “Taking the time to make meals from scratch is a great way of limiting the amount of processed food in your diet, and will often naturally reduce the amount of salt, sugar, and fat in your meals.”

Mind games

Looking after your mental health is just as important as the physical side, and this is the same for heart health, says Alexander.

“We all have some day-to-day stress but, if it is getting beyond what you can cope with, it can affect you physically.”

Ongoing stress can raise blood pressure, damage your artery walls, and affect your ability to make good choices with exercise and food.

TOP TIP: Think ahead. Being able to recognise your triggers – situations or activities which heighten your stress levels – is the first step.

Alexander says: “Think about which activities make you feel calm and content and make some time for them – it might be going for a walk, being out in nature, or reading a book.”

Bin the cigs

Smoking is bad for you for a number of reasons, and the heart is no exception. Smoking increases the risk of heart disease as there are chemicals that cause the blood to thicken and can, in turn, affect your arteries.

Alexander says: “It is not easy giving up, but help is available – you are four times more likely to give up if you get professional help.”

TOP TIP: Once you have set a quit date, be sure to shout about it.

“Tell your family, friends, and colleagues, so they can support you through all of the feelings and emotions you may experience and remember – it will be worth it,” Alexander adds.

Lose weight

Carrying too much body fat, especially around the waist area, can put your health and heart at risk.

Excess weight can lead to a build-up of fatty materials in our arteries, increasing the risk of heart attacks and strokes.

Alexander says: “Carrying weight around your middle can make it harder for your body to use a hormone called insulin, which controls your blood-glucose (sugar) levels, and can lead to type 2 diabetes.”

TOP TIP: Find something that you enjoy doing and stick to it.

Alexander explains: Don’t feel disheartened if your weight loss is slow or you hit a plateau. Maintaining even a small weight loss is beneficial for your health in the long term and something to be proud of.”

For more information, visit the Heart Month 2023 site.

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