How to improve your heart health in five easy ways

 How to improve your heart health in five easy ways

Climbing a flight of stairs at home is just as good as a gym class when it comes to warding off a heart attack, according to scientists.

Professor Maureen MacDonald, from McMaster University in Canada, and her team of researchers found that walking up 18 steps had the same benefits for the heart as a 45-minute aerobic class. “We’ve shown stair-climbing is a safe, efficient and feasible option for cardiac rehabilitation,” says MacDonald in the research published in Science Daily in May 2021.

Studies have found that our increasingly sedentary lifestyles, and soaring rates of obesity and diabetes, have led to an increase in adults under the age of 65 dying of heart disease.

“Heart disease used to be thought of as an old person’s disease, and older men at that,” says Ashleigh Li, a senior cardiac nurse at the BHF. “But… younger people, including women, are at risk.”

“Early on in my career I was taught that to look after your heart is to look after your overall health, and this should start as young as possible.” says Maureen Talbot, another cardiac nurse at the British Heart Foundation.

Here’s how…

Best ways to improve heart health

Get more exercise

Former Health Secretary Matt Hancock said he kept fit by walking up the nine flights of stairs to his Department of Health’s office – and calculated he was climbing around 10,000 steps a month and felt less out of breath as a result.

This was seemingly backed up by a 2021 study that investigated the link between steps per day and “all-cause” mortality. It monitored a cohort of 2,110 men and women, aged 41-65 years, and found that participants who took approximately 7,000 steps per day or more experienced lower mortality rates compared with participants taking fewer than that target.

So, simply taking the stairs a few times a day can protect your body from the risks of a sedentary lifestyle and ensure you live a longer and healthier life.

Book a health check

“Sadly many of the risk factors for heart attacks and strokes don’t have any obvious symptoms,” says Li, “so people only find out there’s a problem when things are already severe. However, when you’re 40 you can book in for a health check with your GP who will check your weight, blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and look for signs of heart, kidney and liver disease, and diabetes, which are all contributing factors of heart disease.

“After 40 you can go every five years. If you’re over 40 and have never had this check, please book one today.”

Eat a healthy diet

Heart-friendly foods include asparagus, legumes (beans, peas, lentils, chickpeas and so on) and flaxseed. Dark red or purple berries are also very heart-protective, because they contain antioxidants that can lower your risk of heart disease.

But it is important to remember that packing your diet with vegetables alone may not be enough to guarantee a healthy heart on its own.

Dark red or purple berries are also very heart-protective

Credit: kcline/Getty Images Contributor

A 2022 study from the University of Oxford challenged previous research that suggested eating more vegetables is linked to a lower risk of cardiovascular disease.

Analysis of almost 400,000 Britons enrolled in the UK Biobank found that although it was true that those who ate lots of greens had better heart health than those who ate less, when researchers delved into the data and accounted for various things like smoking, drinking, wealth and education, the link vanished.

“Our large study did not find evidence for a protective effect of vegetable intake on the occurrence of cardiovascular disease,” said Dr Qi Feng, a researcher at the Nuffield Department of Population Health at the University of Oxford, and the study’s lead author.

“Instead, our analyses show that the seemingly protective effect of vegetable intake against cardiovascular disease risk is very likely to be accounted for by bias from residual confounding factors, related to differences in socioeconomic situation and lifestyle.”

But, according to Talbot, it is still easy to eat a heart-friendly diet. She said: “Studies show a healthy Mediterranean diet is the most heart-protective so focus on mono-unsaturated fats like olive oil, oily fish, fruits, vegetables, wholegrain, a little dairy, a little bit of meat.

“The Japanese have low levels of heart disease and high rates of longevity, which is thought to be a result of, among other things, the amount of oily fish in their diet.”

Call a friend for support

Having solid social support has emerged as one of the biggest protectors of health. “There’s been a lot of evidence in the last decade showing one of the most important factors in health and your risk of dying is having a good network of friends,” says psychologist Professor Robin Dunbar from the University of Oxford.

“One of the most important factors in surviving, along with stopping smoking, was the quality of the patient’s friendships. That’s how important friendships are for our health.”

Don’t over-indulge in alcoholic drinks

Alcohol in moderation thins the blood, which is where the studies suggesting its cardio-protective ability come from,” says Talbot.

“Whereas binge drinking hardens the arteries, raises blood pressure and increases the risk of liver disease. However, we still avoid prescribing or advocating moderate drinking because it’s just not heart-protective in the way that regular exercise is, which we would advocate. However, if you must drink, have no more than two units a night and at least two alcohol-free days a week.”

This article is kept updated with the latest advice.


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