A Doctor’s Guide To Keeping Your Heart In Shape

Even if you’re young, active and healthy, experts still agree there are small changes that can make a big difference to your heart health. From why your bedtime matters to the benefits of a plant-based diet, here’s what they had to say…

Gentle Exercise Is Better Than Nothing

On days and weeks when you’re super busy, it can be challenging to fit in a workout, but countless studies show you don’t need to go all out to reap the benefits. “Regular exercise, whether it be intensive or gentle, will decrease your risk of heart attack and disease,” Dr Oliver Segal, consultant cardiologist at The Harley Street Clinic, tells us. “It doesn’t need to be intense or strenuous, and can include swimming, brisk walking and gentle at-home exercise. Exercising little and often is better than nothing.” You should be aiming for 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise (MIT) per week, adds Dr Deborah Lee of Dr Fox Online Pharmacy. MIT is as any form of exercise that makes your pulse rate quicken and leaves you slightly sweaty and breathless. “If 150 minutes feels like too much, you can also do 75 minutes of high-intensity exercise twice a week – think sprinting, circuit training and certain forms of weight training. You also don’t need to do your MIT exercise in one go. You could do three ten-minute walks, instead of one half-hour walk.” Whatever way you choose to work your heart, the benefits of staying active are undeniable. “When you challenge your heart and lungs, you improve their ability to take up oxygen, which is called your VO2 max. For each unit of increased VO2 max, you reduce your mortality risk by 12%.”

Running A Marathon Isn’t The Goal

“There’s no denying exercise is protective for health – but only up to a point,” says Deborah. “If you do too much exercise, the benefits are lost, and mortality increases.” Oliver adds that if you’re into endurance exercise, and particularly endurance running, this can also increase your risk of atrial fibrillation, a type of abnormal heart rhythm. “Exercise can also precipitate other abnormal heart rhythms if you are prone to them, but exercise doesn’t cause these events, it just increases the risk of them happening at the time. Nevertheless, for the average person, this won’t be an issue. Not exercising at all is far worse for your heart, and overall health, than overdoing it.” Plus, the benefits of exercising level out at a certain point, says Deborah. “Jogging for 50 minutes per week prolongs life expectancy, but increasing this to running five or six miles twice a week only causes this effect to plateau. In fact, running 30 miles a week lowers life expectancy in comparison to those who do more moderate amounts of exercise,” she adds. 

Stress Affects Heart Health

Stress, whether emotional or physical, can temporarily raise blood pressure, trigger certain conditions such as arrhythmias and make you more likely to indulge in bad habits. “Emotional stress often causes frequent extra beats of the heart to occur, called ectopic beats, and in severe cases, high levels of stress can cause a rare condition called takotsubo cardiomyopathy, which can present very similar symptoms to a heart attack,” Oliver tells us. Chronic stress provides a similar picture. “Blood pressure was shown to rise in Russians who lived through terrible starvation during the siege of Leningrad,” says Deborah. “Even 50 years later, those who had lived through this had higher blood pressure, and an increased mortality, than those who lived away from the city.” So, what’s the most effective way to deal with stress? Cardiac patients who undergo treatments with psychotherapy, medication, mindfulness, meditation, and/or exercise have been shown to have improved blood flow and improved heart function, she adds. 

Jogging for 50 minutes per week prolongs life expectancy, but increasing this to running six miles twice a week causes this to plateau.

Sleep Is So Important

Good sleep is one of the key pillars of health. “Known to improve brain performance, mood and immunity, sleep can even help ward off heart disease, too,” says Oliver. “In fact, long-term sleep deprivation is associated with increased heart rate, an increase in blood pressure and higher levels of certain chemicals linked with inflammation, all of which can put additional strain on the heart and increase your risk of developing heart disease.” A recent study also suggests that when you fall asleep also matters. According to the study, heart-friendly bedtime is around 10pm. Researchers looked at over 10,000 subjects and found those who fell asleep between 10pm and 10:59pm had the lowest incidences of cardiovascular disease.

The Mediterranean Diet Is A Good Option

“Nutrition is vital for health – and that includes heart health,” stresses Deborah. “You can’t go wrong with the Mediterranean diet. Interest first developed in this diet in the 1950s, when it was noted that those who lived around the Mediterranean Sea had lower risks of heart disease. The Mediterranean diet comprises small amounts of lean red meat, poultry and fish, along with large quantities of fresh fruit and vegetables, healthy unsaturated fats like olive oil, and unrefined grains, nuts and seeds. Fruit and vegetables, especially those with bright colours such as beetroot, spinach and strawberries, also contain high levels of antioxidants, which can help counteract oxidative stress, a dangerous process that takes place every day which underpins the development of many chronic diseases, including heart disease.” Aim to eat to two three portions of oily fish – such as salmon, mackerel or sardines – every week, which can also help lower triglycerides, and increase your intake of dietary fibre, which can help lower cholesterol absorption.

Carbs Are Part Of A Healthy Diet

Obesity remains a major risk factor for heart disease. “Losing weight so you are in the normal BMI range of 21-25 is one of the best things you can do for your heart, but how you lose weight matters,” says Deborah. While many weight-loss specialists would agree a low-carb diet has advantages for rapid weight loss in the short term, a low-carb diet is also a high-fat diet, which isn’t the best for long-term health. “One study, which followed nearly 500,000 people for over 15 years found a low-carb diet was associated with an increase in cardiovascular-related deaths, most likely from an increased intake of red meat. On a low-carb diet, there is also a reduction in fruit and vegetable intake, which results in less fibre, which we know is also connected to a healthy heart.”

When you fall asleep matters. One study showed those who fell asleep between 10pm and 10:59pm had the lowest incidences of heart disease.

Eating The Right Type Of Protein Also Counts

As one of the three macronutrients, protein plays a central part in the diet, but studies show plant-based protein may be particularly beneficial, particularly protein derived from beans, lentils, chickpeas and tofu. Furthermore, recent research shows that eating a plant-based dinner can significantly lower your risk of heart disease, compared to eating a dinner of refined carbs and red meat. “Another lesser well-known tip for lowering blood pressure is to incorporate whey protein into your daily diet. While many of us associate protein shakes with building muscle, it also plays an important role in vascular function,” adds Dr Crystal Wyllie, from Asda Online Doctor by Zava.

Slashing Your Salt Intake Could Make A Difference

If you reduce the amount of salt you eat by 3g per day, you’ll reduce your risk of a stroke by 13% and cardiovascular disease by 10%. Slash your salt intake even further and the benefits only increase, says Deborah. “High blood pressure is a major cause of heart disease, and salt taken in from the diet is a common contributory factor in the development of high blood pressure,” she says. To reduce your intake, avoid adding salt to your cooking – use herbs, lemon, garlic and chilli instead, and use stock cubes in moderation. “Buying low sodium salt can also help, and consider cutting back on salted nuts, crisps and chips, or find low-salt alternatives.” 

Not Smoking Is Non-Negotiable

You’ve heard it before, but stopping smoking is imperative for better health and longevity. “Smoking is a poison and bad for you in so many ways,” Oliver stresses. “When you light a cigarette, over 5,000 noxious chemicals are released in cigarette smoke, of which at least 70 are known to cause cancer,” adds Deborah. “When it comes to the heart, chemicals in smoke can accelerate the development of atheroma, the medical term for the fatty plaques that are laid down in the arterial wall as we age. However, in smokers, this process happens faster and occurs at an earlier age. Smoking is also linked to high blood pressure, and high blood pressure is a major risk factor for heart disease.” 

It’s Worth Thinking About Now

Heart health may not be something you’ve given much thought to, but what you do now will put you in good stead for the years to come. “Getting on top of bad habits now is vital,” says Oliver. “Plus, it’s well known that heart rhythm problems are influenced by your period, so if you develop symptoms of palpitations related to your cycle, this should be investigated. At the same time, if you fall pregnant, know that pregnancy adds pressure to the heart and circulatory system. In fact, during pregnancy, blood volume increases by up to 50% to nourish your baby, and the heart increases by up to 25% in size. As a result, your heart pumps more blood every minute. This is usually well tolerated by the heart but can occasionally cause heart rhythm problems and should always be monitored if you have a pre-existing heart condition.” Even if you do feel invincible now, remember it’s never too early to take control. “In your 30s especially, it’s time to get serious about looking after yourself,” Deborah concludes.
 

For more information visit DoctorFox.co.uk, HCAHealthcare.co.uk and OnlineDoctor.Asda.com
 

DISCLAIMER: Features published by SheerLuxe are not intended to treat, diagnose, cure or prevent any disease. Always seek the advice of your GP or another qualified healthcare provider for any questions you have regarding a medical condition, and before undertaking any diet, exercise or other health-related programme.

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