This World Heart Day, health journalist Sarah Graham looks at nine simple, everyday changes you can make to boost the health of your heart.
With World Heart Day around the corner, what easy health tips can you follow to keep your heart beating strongly and stave off heart disease – especially as living a healthy lifestyle can also improve your life insurance premiums? Sarah Graham (@SarahGraham7) finds out what hinders heart health, and what improves it.
1. Talk through stress
Stress is a risk factor for heart disease, so learning to manage it is vital to keeping one of your five vital organs in tip-top, tick-tocking condition.
‘When you first begin to encounter pressure in your life, open up to a trusted friend, family member or therapist to stop problems from building up,’ says integrative health therapist David James Lees (@wuweiwisdom).
Meditation, breathing and relaxation exercises can all help your mindfulness and, in turn, reduce your stress.
‘Mindfulness is a simple technique to help maintain harmony between your mind and body,’ says David. ‘The aim is to take control of your mind so you become calmer and more balanced.’
Mindfulness is all about focusing on the present moment, by putting aside time to meditate or practicing breathing exercises.
‘The British Heart Foundation (BHF) recommends a Mediterranean-style diet, with lots of fruits and vegetables, whole grains and pulses – and not too much fat, sugar and salt,’ explains Julie Ward, senior cardiac nurse at the BHF (@TheBHF).
You should also try to avoid processed meats, butter and lard, which are typically high in saturated fat, swapping them for fresh ingredients, healthier vegetable oils and spreads, lean meat, oily fish, and, everybody’s Instagram favourite, avocado.
Family tree research isn’t just for celebrities on BBC television programmes; knowing your family history can help you understand your risk of heart disease, too.
Whoever is in your gene pool, you should keep a closer eye on your weight and Body Mass Index (BMI) – and get your cholesterol and blood pressure checked regularly.
‘If you're carrying excess weight, or if your cholesterol level or blood pressure is elevated, you are significantly more at risk of coronary heart disease,’ Julie explains. An NHS health check, available free from your GP if you're over 40, will measure these indicators.
Although there have been plenty of headlines about the benefits of certain alcoholic drinks to your health, all doctors agree on one thing: you should regulate your alcohol intake.
‘Regular or high alcohol intake can lead to heart disease called cardiomyopathy,’ explains Your Doctor founder Dr Riccardo Di Cuffa.
Binge drinking is particularly bad, as it ‘can cause irregular heart rhythms called arrhythmias,’ he warns. ‘Alcohol also contains a lot of calories that can have a big impact on how you manage your weight.’
Limiting your caffeine intake to 1-2 cups of coffee a day may also be helpful.
If you're a smoker, giving up is the best thing you can do for your heart, says Linda Main, dietetic adviser at charity Heart UK (@HeartUKcharity).
‘Smoking cigarettes can reduce your good cholesterol, and make your bad cholesterol more likely to stick to the inside of your arteries,’ says Dr Jerome Ment, of BMI Healthcare (@BMIHealthcare). With Stoptober just around the corner, now could be the perfect time to quit.
BMI The Priory Hospital in Birmingham, meanwhile, recommends ‘removing temptations by throwing away cigarettes and telling your friends you are quitting.’
Smoking can increase your life insurance premiums [link to smoking article], another reason to consider quitting. You can also contact the Stop Smoking Hotline on 0300 123 1044 for advice.
‘30 minutes of exercise each day can reduce your blood pressure and help you to lose weight,’ says Dr William Smith of BMI The Park Hospital in Nottingham.
‘Smart swaps, like walking instead of driving, getting off the bus a few stops earlier, and using the stairs instead of the lift can all help to increase the amount of movement, without impacting too much on other daily routines,’ he adds.
Sex also counts towards the recommended 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise a week, providing you get your heart rate up while you do it, and can help bust stress.
‘Eating excess salt gives you high blood pressure, so you really need to cut back on it,’ says Julie. ‘You don't even need to have any salt in the house. We consume enough salt every day in the food that we eat, so there's no need to add it to your cooking.’
If getting rid of salt entirely would be too much of a challenge, try an alternative like low sodium salts.
One 2013 study suggested that joining a choir could have heart health benefits. While there are conflicting reports about this study, and not enough evidence to prove that it is accurate, there is a good point to take away: that building time for yourself into each day is important.
‘Have routines in your life that help you to relax, reduce stress and get a good work-life balance,’ suggests Linda.
Joining a dance or aerobics class could have the added benefit of getting your heart rate up, while relaxing exercises like yoga and t'ai chi can be great for leaving the stresses of work behind.