5 tips for a healthy heart

This National Heart Health Month, Nuffield Health Physiotherapy Manager and Cardiac Rehabilitation Lead, Helen Alexander, shares five lifestyle changes you can make to help improve your heart health.

Heart health problems can affect anyone, and it can be caused by lifestyle choices or factors beyond our control, such as family history, age and ethnicity. 

There are steps you can take to mitigate the risks and protect your heart as much as possible, making a big difference in your risk of developing heart-related diseases. 

1. Keep physically active 

Exercising can help keep your heart healthy by controlling your blood pressure and improving your cholesterol profile. Both high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels can damage the inside of the artery walls, making it more likely for plaque to build up in these damaged areas which, in turn, can result in blockages. 

Keeping your blood pressure and cholesterol levels within recommended limits (which vary depending on the individual) can reduce the risk of heart and circulatory disease developing. 

Being physically active also helps you to maintain a healthy body weight, which reduces the risk of heart disease. This includes other conditions linked to heart diseases such as high blood pressure and diabetes.

If you're a newbie to exercising, start by building in more activity during your day – using the stairs rather than the lift, walking more and using the car less, or park further away than normal. When being active, you'll get more benefits and enjoyment from exercising if you go at your own pace.

However, if you have had a recent cardiac event or procedure and would like to increase your physical activity, attending our cardiac rehabilitation programme can ensure you return to exercise safely under the guidance of a professional.

Can't make it to the gym? Here are five easy tips to help you become more active within your daily routine.  

2. Consume a balanced diet 

Eating a healthy balanced diet plays an important role in looking after your heart health. Try to keep your intake of saturated fats (found in animal products, including high-fat dairy and sweet treats) low by replacing them with unsaturated fats (good sources include oily fish, olive oil, nuts and seeds).  

Contrary to popular belief, carbohydrates should absolutely form part of a healthy diet – they’re great for energy and contain nutrients and fibre, both essential for a healthy heart. Try to look for wholegrain, slower-release options such as oats, wholewheat bread and pasta to incorporate into your diet.

Fruit and vegetables should be the cornerstone of all heart-healthy diets as these have a vast amount of anti-inflammatory properties and a high amount of dietary fibre. Always try to eat a 'rainbow' of fruit and vegetables to get plenty of variety into your diet. 

Taking the time to make meals from scratch is an excellent way of limiting the amount of processed food in your diet, and will often naturally reduce the amount of salt, sugar and fat in your meals. 

If you struggle with high blood pressure our Senior Physiologist Conor Duncan shares five eating tips to help you lower your blood pressure

3. Use your downtime to reduce stress

Looking after our mental health is just as important as taking care of our physical health. We all have some day-to-day stress, but if your stress levels get beyond what you can cope with, it can affect you physically.

A continuous increase in high-stress levels can contribute to high blood pressure, increasing the risk of heart disease by damaging your artery walls. Being overly stressed may also mean you are less likely to make good choices for your health, such as healthy eating or being active, as many of us often turn to sources of comfort (takeaways, staying in etc.) to deal with this stress. 

Recognising what situations or activities contribute to your stress, and then putting some coping strategies in place can be a helpful first step. Think about which activities make you feel calm and content and make some time for them – it might be going for a walk, being out in nature or reading a book. 

Take some time to consider how you currently manage everyday stress and get help if you feel overwhelmed or think it might be affecting your health. 

Try this 4-minute grounding exercise with Grace – do it daily or whenever you’re feeling anxious, to help you get out of your head and back into the here and now.

4. Quit smoking 

In general, smoking is harmful to our health for several reasons. When it comes to heart health in particular, smoking increases the risk of heart and circulatory disease. Chemicals found in cigarettes can cause blood to thicken which, again, can affect your arteries through potential clogging.

E-cigarettes, or vapes, are less harmful than regular cigarettes and can be used to help you quit smoking. E-cigarettes don't burn tobacco and they don’t produce tar or carbon monoxide, but because they contain nicotine, e-cigarettes can be addictive.  

Giving up smoking is easier said than done, but help is available – you are four times more likely to give up if you get professional help. You can seek support from your GP, local pharmacist or local stop-smoking team. Find out more by contacting the Smoke-Free National helpline.  

Once you've set a quit date, tell your family, friends and colleagues so they can support you through all the feelings and emotions you may experience. And remember – it will be worth it.

5. Lose weight to decrease the risk of a heart attack or stroke

Everybody needs some body fat (the ideal amount differs from person to person), but carrying too much, especially around the waist area, can put your health at risk. Excess weight can lead to a build-up of fatty materials in our arteries, increasing the risk of heart attacks and strokes. 

Carrying weight around your middle can make it harder for your body to use a hormone called insulin, which controls your blood glucose (sugar) levels, and can lead to type-2 diabetes.  

Losing weight can be difficult and often requires changes to our diet and activity levels. Although the main principle of losing weight is simple – the energy you take in (calories) needs to be less than the energy you use – the effectiveness of any diet undertaken will vary from person to person. Find something that works for you, as you are more likely to stick with it.  

To see a lasting impact on your weight, you need to make changes for good, so these changes must be realistic and sustainable. An ‘ideal’ weight can take a while to achieve and may seem unattainable at times. 

Don’t feel disheartened if your weight loss is slow or you hit a plateau. Maintaining even a small weight loss is beneficial for your health in the long term and something to be proud of!

We have a wealth of services which can help protect your heart health, from Personal Training and Physiotherapy sessions to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Speaking to an expert can set you on the right path and help make your heart health process more effective.

Last updated Tuesday 2 January 2024

First published on Thursday 2 February 2023