Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death worldwide. According to the British Heart Foundation, 7 million people across the UK are affected by the condition, with it causing 26% of all deaths across the country. The good news, however, is that most cases of cardiovascular disease – conditions affecting the heart and circulatory system – are preventable, and leading a healthy lifestyle can not only lead to a healthy heart, but numerous other benefits too. It’s not just your heart which can be affected, but other organs, and even your bones! Your entire body can benefit in different ways from making simple lifestyle changes. Dr Taher Mahmud explains what you can do in your daily life to help improve your heart health and protect your bones at the same time.
1. Quit smoking
These days it almost goes without saying, but smoking is linked to all manner of conditions, including respiratory disease, cancer, osteoporosis, and heart disease. Smoking is one of the main causes of coronary heart disease, but even after one year of quitting, the risk of having a heart attack drops to being half that of a smoker’s.
39% of adults in the UK do not meet official recommendations for physical activity, which translate to about 30 minutes of moderate to intense activity 5 days a week, or 75 minutes of intense activity spread across the week. Even walking at a brisker pace can contribute to meeting these recommendations, or carrying the groceries back from the supermarket! Try to break up periods of being sedentary by taking breaks, reducing the time you spend watching TV or on the computer, and substituting part of your everyday journeys through walking or cycling some of the way.
If exercise were a pill, it would be prescribed by every doctor. Just meeting the recommended guidelines can reduce your risk of stroke, heart disease, osteoporosis, and even cancer.
3. Know your limits
Keeping to your alcohol limits can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, protect your bones, and ensure the health of vital organs in the body such as the liver. The UK government puts the low risk alcohol guidelines at 14 units a week for both men and women, which translates to six 175ml glasses of wine a week, six pints of lager, or fourteen 25ml glasses of 40% spirits. You can calculate the units you’re drinking at Drinkaware, and keep track of exactly what you’re consuming using their free app.
4. Manage your weight
You don’t have to be in and out of the gym, or restrict your diet forever, but managing your weight with a healthy balanced diet combined with regular physical activity should be one of your goals. You should be aiming for a healthy weight, which varies from person to person.
5. Lower your cholesterol
Cholesterol is a fatty substance found in the blood, which in healthy doses is necessary, but in excess can lead to heart disease or stroke. Visit your GP to get your cholesterol levels measured every five years or so, and if you have high cholesterol, talk to your doctor about ways you can work towards reducing it.
6. Lower your blood pressure
You may not know if you have high blood pressure, but it can lead to cardiovascular problems and increase the risk of stroke. It can also cause kidney disease, and has been linked to certain forms of dementia. Many of the heart-friendly measures listed here can help you to lower your blood pressure, and you can keep an eye on it with the help of your healthcare provider.
7. Eat less salt
75% of our everyday food contains salt, so think twice before reaching for the shaker. Try to cut down on the amount which you add to food, and check the salt content in your food to become aware of what you are consuming. Even things you might think of as being healthy, like soup and cereal can often have high salt content. Foods which often have a high salt content are smoked foods such as bacon or other types of meat, cheese, olives, pickles and salted nuts. There’s nothing wrong with eating these foods, but try to make sure that you eat them less frequently or cut back on your portion size.
8. Eat your five a day
Plenty of fruit and veg is good for you, and good for the heart. Find more ways to work fruits and vegetables into your diet – it’s not as difficult as it might seem. Even frozen vegetables count towards your five a day, and keeping frozen fruit in the freezer means it’s always on hand for a quick smoothie. Add lentils or pulses to soups – these count as a portion of your five a day – and have a salad or some vegetables as a side along with your meal. Add extra vegetables to your sauces, such as carrots in bolognese, or mushrooms in a stir fry. Mix fruit into yoghurt for a healthy, tasty breakfast.
9. Increase your fibre intake
Switch up your white loaf for a wholegrain one, or substitute regular pasta for the wholewheat variety. Fibre can lower your risk of cardiovascular disease, and recommendations put the ideal intake at at least 30g a day. Don’t cut the skin off your jacket potatoes, try eating porridge for breakfast, and snack on dried fruit and (unsalted) nuts. Baked beans contain fibre, but all beans are good sources of it, and adding beans to your salad or using kidney beans in chilli can help to up your intake.
Looking after your mental health is important for your heart health, too. In those who are stressed, or depressed, the risk of cardiovascular disease increases. In day-to-day life, try to find activities that help you to relax and escape, and try to find a hobby that lets you divert your energy into something you enjoy. Try to find the balance between work life and social life, and build your social support network. Find ways to manage your stress and rethink the way you look at situations. Even changing your outlook can be one small way that helps with how you handle stress.