World Heart Day special: Take care of your heart

A stress-free lifestyle, nutritious diet and adequate exercise help to keep your heart healthy

man cyclingThe best way to prevent heart complications is to modify your lifestyle. Regular exercise, a healthy diet, a tobacco-free life and limiting your alcohol intake and exposure to stress all help prevent heart disease.

Here are some tips to live a heart-healthy life.

Healthy eating

Eating right is the first big step towards a healthy heart, as it helps keep weight, cholesterol levels and blood pressure in check. A healthy diet can even protect you against some cancers and diabetes. Here's what a healthy diet consists of:

Fruits and vegetables

  • Sufficient amount of fruits and vegetables, approximately two cups of fruits and two and a half cups of vegetables per day are recommended. Choose a variety [different types and colours] of fruit and vegetables.
  • Three or more wholegrain products per day.
  • 2 – 3 cups of fat-free or low-fat milk per day.
  • Less saturated fat, salt and sugar and more omega-3 fatty acids [flaxseed, fish] in your diet.
  • A total fat intake between 20 – 35 per cent of calories. The majority of your fat intake should come from sources of polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fatty acids, such as fish, nuts, and vegetable oils.
  • Products low in saturated fats and trans fatty acids.
  • Less than 1,500mg of sodium per day, which is not much when you consider 1/4 teaspoon salt = 600mg sodium. Avoid adding salt to homemade dishes, and select unsalted food options; use spices and herbs instead to enhance the taste of your food.

As many of us spend a significant amount of our time at work, it is important to eat healthy during the day—whether this involves a packed lunch from home, or lunch bought at/near work. It is important to choose the right kind of food when eating out.

Physical activity

Coupled with a healthy diet, exercise helps control weight and reduce blood pressure and cholesterol levels. It also provides long-term benefits for your heart and general health. Many people are put off by the idea of exercise, thinking it implies strenuous workout regimes.

Moderate exercise such as swimming or playing a sport you enjoy can be great activities. However, everyday activities like walking, gardening, and climbing stairs [rather than taking the lift] are also effective ways to keep fit.

Just 30 minutes of physical activity per day can reduce your chances of heart disease. However, if 30 minutes feels too much for you, you can slowly build your stamina by starting with 10 minutes of exercise three times a day, and gradually increase this as you get fitter and enjoy the benefits.

Ideal weight

Eating healthy and exercising regularly should help you maintain a healthy weight. This in turn helps reduce the heart's workload, keeps cholesterol levels low and reduces the risk of developing diabetes.

A good way to assess your weight level is with a Body Mass Index [BMI] calculator. This shows your measure of body fat based on height and weight that applies to adult men and women, and gives you an idea of what your ideal weight range should be.

Alcohol

Drinking more than the recommended amount of alcohol can have a harmful effect on the heart—it can cause high blood pressure and damage the heart muscle. Alcohol is also high in calories and hence can lead to weight gain. The recommended amounts of alcohol differ for men and women.

The American Heart Association recommends that if you drink alcohol, you must do so in moderation. This means an average of one to two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women.

Researchers have found that moderate drinking may offer some protection from coronary heart disease, especially in men over 40 and in women who have been through menopause. There is also some evidence suggesting that red wine in moderation may be especially beneficial—however, this still needs to be substantiated.

Smoking

Smoking increases the risk of dying from heart disease two-or even three-fold. Smoking has a number of harmful effects on the body—it damages the lining of the arteries, reduces the amount of oxygen that the blood can carry to the heart and body, and makes blood more likely to clot.

Non-smokers who live with smokers also have an increased risk of heart disease due to exposure to second-hand smoke.

Stress

The other aspect you need to address for good heart health is your emotional wellbeing. For example, increased stress levels, although not a direct risk factor, are related to smoking, excessive drinking and unhealthy eating, which are risk factors for heart disease.

A balanced diet and regular physical activity help in dealing with stress. Yoga or other relaxation techniques can be of great help here. Also, doing things you enjoy and spending time with loved ones helps cope with stress.

Precautionary measures

If you are living with a heart condition, go for regular health checks and discuss with your doctor anything that might be troubling you. Also avoid cardiovascular risks such as over consumption of alcohol, unhealthy meals or lack of exercise.

In heart health, prevention is better than cure. Eating a healthy diet, being aware of risks such as smoking, drinking, lack of physical activity and high stress levels will go a long way towards giving you a healthy heart. Encourage others around you, including children, to be heart-healthy—it's never too early to look after your heart!

References

  • U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture, Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005
  • American Heart Association, Sodium Recommendations
  • World Heart Federation, How you can live a healthy life
  • British Heart Foundation, Your BMI
  • American Heart Association, Alcohol, Wine and Cardiovascular Disease
  • British Heart Foundation, Alcohol
  • World Heart Organization, The Atlas of Heart Disease and Stroke Overview

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