It’s a long-term project: eight ways to look after your heart

While there are lots of ways we can put our heart health at risk, the good news is there are many ways to help protect it too

by Andrzej Łukowski

At the, uh, heart of the circulatory system is the muscle of the same name, the life-giving pump that keeps blood flowing to all parts of your body. You presumably knew that, and you probably also know that a buildup of fatty tissue inside the arteries that feed your heart can cause major health problems. But do you know how to keep your heart healthy on a day-to-day basis? Here are your heart care essentials.

Once you hit your 30s, you need to start looking out for your heart

Although we’re talking about your 30s, obviously you shouldn’t recklessly endanger your heart in your teens or 20s. Looking after your heart is a long-term project, and while earlier is better when it comes to paying attention to getting and staying fit, it’s never too late in life to start. “Specific to our 30s is the importance of avoiding obesity, excess alcohol, having a sedentary lifestyle, and carrying a high stress burden,” says Dr Helen Hartley, associate medical director at Aviva Health. “These jeopardise our chances of staying healthy and can impair our ability to enjoy the benefits of good health.”

The absolute number one easiest way to look after your heart is …

Don’t smoke. This isn’t to say that you’re in the clear no matter what if you’re a non-smoker. But it’s important to grasp the fact that smoking is bad for your heart: there are many ways in which this is the case, but first and foremost it makes the walls of your arteries “sticky”, increasing the chances of a blockage. Vaping can be a helpful way to give up cigarettes … but it’s definitely not good for you – the British Heart Foundation advises against taking it up if you’re a non-smoker.

Sorry, you do need to exercise

While you may have considered running for buses, trains or the tube as exercise in your 20s, once you’re in your 30s and beyond, stuff needs to get a bit more serious. “A sedentary lifestyle risks weight gain, obesity, heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes,” says Hartley. The NHS recommends all adults under the age of 64 to take 150 minutes a week of moderate activity, which may sound challenging, but is actually quite achievable. Two-and-half hours a week in the gym is the most literal way of going about it. But it could be a couple of kickarounds in the park, or simply cycling into work. Basic “walking” isn’t enough effort, but great news: “brisk walking” absolutely cuts the exercise mustard.

Illustration of heart

De-stress yourself

Stress isn’t just an abstract concept. In Hartley’s words, “stress is the body’s reaction to feeling threatened or under pressure, especially when we feel situations are beyond our control.” It’s a specific condition, which results in the release of the hormones adrenaline and cortisol into our bodies. While short periods of stress – for example before giving a presentation – can improve our performance, prolonged stress can increase your blood pressure, alter your metabolism, and put you at risk of cardiovascular disease. There are many ways to reduce stress, and while some stressful aspects of your life may seem out of your hands, easily achievable lifestyle changes – healthy diet, proper sleep, cutting cigarettes – can reduce the amount of time your body is in a physical state of stress, regardless of what else may be going on with you.

Get an idea of your BMI

Body mass index (BMI) is something you’ve probably heard of, and is used as a way of quickly diagnosing obesity by cross-referencing your height and weight (the calculating tool is easily available online). “I wouldn’t say that BMI is an indicator of health,” stresses Hartley. “It is more that unhealthy BMI can be a cause for concern in relation to the risks of obesity and associated diseases.” BMI greater than 30 for adults, or 27.5 for those from Asian, Chinese, Middle Eastern, Black African and African-Caribbean backgrounds* is considered obese. Use it as a guide to whether you need to think about losing weight, but don’t fixate on it, especially if you’re very muscular, as muscle is much more dense than fat, giving you a higher BMI.

You might not realise you have heart problems

Hopefully you don’t have issues with your heart. But it’s worth bearing in mind that it’s not always obvious that you’re at risk of heart disease. “Some people don’t realise this until they have a heart attack or stroke,” says Hartley. “But others start to notice symptoms of angina (intermittent central chest pain caused by reduced blood flow to the heart muscle), heart rhythm disturbance causing palpitations (due to arrhythmias such as atrial fibrillation), or heart failure, where the heart pumps less effectively, so fluid accumulates on the lungs, causing breathing problems or around the ankles, causing swelling.” Needless to say, don’t suffer in silence: go and see your doctor if you’re suffering from any of the above. It could save your life.

You can still have nice things

With the obvious exception of stuff that’s clearly actively dangerous (eg cigarettes), there’s nothing you have to totally cut from your life. “It depends on your willpower,” says Hartley. “Some people find they can exert effective portion control and still enjoy small amounts of their favourite treats. Others find that they can’t stop at two small squares of dark chocolate, so realise they need to avoid keeping high-fat, processed, sugary snacks in their home.” It’s also time to start thinking about weekly units of alcohol: the NHS recommends no more than 14 a week on a regular basis, which is basically the equivalent of six pints of beer or six medium glasses of wine: hardly going teetotal, but your bender days should really be behind you.

Your heart will go on

Although the earlier in life you’re living a healthy lifestyle the better, it’s important to remember that there’s no time like the present to make a positive change. Any improvements you make will help. And in the worst-case scenario, Hartley says recovery is possible even if you do have a heart attack: “With graded exercise activity (establishing a baseline and making incremental increases), education and emotional support, many people make a good recovery.” Don’t abuse your heart – but it’s never too late to start treating it right.

*Because of ethnic differences in propensity to some health conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease, lower thresholds need to be used in diagnosing obesity in some ethnicities.

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