Maintaining a healthy lifestyle is the best way to go about looking after your heart. Do this by focusing on four key areas:
• exercise and weight
• eating healthily
• drinking and smoking and drinking
Exercise and weightTry to get at least half an hour’s exercise daily. Walking, swimming, cycling and dancing are all great workouts for the heart, but don’t worry if you can’t manage half an hour a day of this type of strenuous activity at first. Start with sessions of 10 or 15 minutes, and build up gradually. Do enough so that you are slightly out of breath. Even less obvious exercise, like housework and gardening, is good for you. When you are out and about, try walking up stairs rather than taking the escalator or lift, or getting off the bus earlier and walking the rest of the way home. Try something new, like tennis or golf. If, however, you experience any pain during this exercise, stop it and check out the pain with your GP.
As for your weight, the important thing is to keep to a healthy weight. If you are overweight you begin to put a strain on the heart. Work out a good weight for you with your practice nurse, using the Body Mass Index (BMI) formula: this is your weight in kilograms divided by your height in metres squared. A BMI of between 20 and 25 is the ideal weight.
Eat healthilyA healthy diet is crucial in helping the heart with its daily work. Five portions of fruit and vegetables are a basic – and try to vary your selection daily and make it as colourful as possible. Eat fish and poultry rather than red meat, as the latter is high in saturated fat and can thus increase your blood cholesterol levels, which increase the risk of heart disease and stroke. Watch out for cholesterol – it is a good idea to get your blood levels checked from about the age of 50 onwards. There are two types of cholesterol – low density (LDL) and high density lipoprotein (HD L) – and it is the LDL you need to keep low. You can do this by eating a fibre-rich diet – beans, rice, lentils, porridge, and nuts – as well, of course, as plenty of fruit and vegetables. Certain brands of margarines, spreads and yogurts contain ‘plant sterols’, substances which are also known to reduce cholesterol levels. These are very useful for people who cannot seem to reduce their LDL even when they have made changes to their diet. They may also be helpful for people who cannot take statins, the cholesterol-lowering drugs. Oily fish like sardines and mackerel are a great source of Omega 3, which also reduces your cholesterol. Try to eat at least two portions a week. Last but not least, make sure you do not use too much salt in your diet, as this can cause high blood pressure, which in turn causes the arteries to fur up and can lead to stroke.
Smoking and drinking a small amount of alcohol daily – particularly red wine – is no bad thing for the heart if you keep to the recommended levels of 2/3 units a day for women and 3/4 units for men. However, too much alcohol damages the heart muscle and raises blood pressure, leading to increased risk of heart attack and stroke. And there is no safe dose of tobacco. Smoking causes the arteries to fur up and makes the blood more likely to clot, giving increased risk of heart attacks and strokes. Give it up!
StressIf you feel you are suffering from stress, seek some professional guidance on how to conquer this. See if your GP practice will provide some practical counselling, even if only for a limited period. Try a different type of exercise like yoga or golf, and take time out each day to sit down and listen to music and concentrate on your breathing.