The heart is pretty crucial to our existence, but many things we choose to do – smoking, drinking, or eating eye-watering amounts of fatty food – negatively impact how the organ functions.
With heart disease being one of the UK’s biggest killers – heart and circulatory diseases account for more than a quarter of deaths in the UK, almost 170,000 each year – we all need to prioritise our tickers.
While heart issues can be hereditary, our lifestyles play an equally important part. And, unlike genetics, it’s something you have some degree of control over. “Working in the cardiovascular field, you realise you have to look after yourself,” says Dr Mahmoud Barbir, a consultant cardiologist at Bupa Cromwell Hospital. “Genetics play a large role in heart health but you can still take preventative measures for heart disease.”
So, what do experts in the field recommend when it comes to promoting good heart health? Here, they tell HuffPost UK how they (mostly) practise what they preach.
Power walk to work
We all know exercise is good for the heart, but sometimes it can seem impossible to find the time to do it. Vanessa Smith, a British Heart Foundation (BHF) senior cardiac nurse, struggles with this. “That’s why I made a simple change to my daily commute to include a 15-minute fast walk to the office and back,” she says.
“It’s an easy way to get 30 minutes of exercise in every day and building it into my routine made it effortless. I also find it a great way to wake me up and clear my head after work.”
Professor Gershan Davis, professor in cardiovascular medicine at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan), says he started parking a bit further away from work, as well as always taking the stairs.
Grill, don’t fry
“Trying to eat healthily can be challenging to do all the time, especially if you’re too strict,” says Smith. Making small changes to her diet made it easier for her to manage, because they eventually became automatic choices.
She swapped butter and dairy for low-fat versions, and now grills food instead of frying it. “These tiny tweaks, coupled with more walking, helps to maintain a healthy weight – and heart – with little effort.”
Avoid crash diets
Consultant cardiologist Professor Mark O’Neill steers clear of extreme diets and excessive snacking – studies have found crash dieting can have a negative impact on heart function.
“It’s not always the easiest advice to follow, but I try to maintain a balanced diet with regular exercise,” adds Prof O’Neill, from The Heart Rhythm Clinic at HCA and Guy’s and St. Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust.
“It’s also not about a perfect diet as everyone deserves a treat from time to time – and doctors struggle too, as grateful patients often leave tempting treats on the wards.”
Cut meat intake
Dr Barbir avoids meat as much as possible. While there are some benefits to eating meat – it can be a source of protein, iron, and vitamin B12 – studies have found too much of it can impact the heart and circulatory system, as it increases your “bad”, cholesterol.
Generally speaking, we should avoid foods containing saturated fats – so sausages and fatty cuts of meat, butter, ghee, cream, hard cheese, cakes and biscuits – and opt for unsaturated fats instead. These have been shown to increase levels of “good” cholesterol and help reduce blockage in the arteries. Foods high in unsaturated fat include: oily fish; avocados; nuts and seeds; and sunflower, rapeseed, olive and vegetable oils.
If you still want to eat meat, stick to leaner cuts, advises the BHF.
Prof O’Neill is a firm believer in looking after his mental wellbeing, as high levels of stress negatively impact his health. “As with any job, there are unavoidable times of stress in medicine,” he says. His way of dealing with stressful periods is to keep his loved ones around him and value his colleagues, “as family and friends are more important than any job”.
Dr Barbir also believes stress management is key to keeping his heart healthy. He values the importance of getting out in nature (he loves walking in local parks), taking holidays and breaks from work when possible. “Our relationships are also key to our health and stress management – have fun through laughing and joking with friends,” he adds. Twice a week he’ll go swimming, a stress-buster which doubles up as a great form of cardio.
Professor Davis meditates and goes to yoga to reduce his stress levels.
Dr Barbir aims to get between seven and eight hours sleep a night, “as this is good for stress levels and overall heart health”. Sleep deprivation can impact the heart. According to the Sleep Foundation, people who don’t sleep enough are at higher risk for cardiovascular disease and coronary heart disease—regardless of age, weight, smoking and exercise habits.
Be aware of risk factors
It’s also important to know your own risk factors, advises Dr Barbir. He says he’s always aware of what’s going on in his body – his blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar levels and weight – all of which can impact heart health in some way.
If you’re over 40, you’re entitled to a free health MOT through the NHS to check whether you’re at a higher risk of developing heart disease, diabetes, kidney disease or stroke. The check involves being asked questions about your lifestyle and family history. They’ll also measure your height and weight, take your blood pressure and do a blood test.
Dr Carl Shakespeare, consultant cardiologist at The Lister Hospital (part of HCA UK), says the largest contribution to the reduction of heart disease is risk factor modification: with reductions in blood pressure, cholesterol and weight.
Perhaps the greatest interventions we can make, he adds, are to quit smoking, lose weight and move more.