Heart and circulatory diseases are responsible for more than a quarter of all deaths in the UK. That’s equivalent to more than 160,000 deaths a year, and one death every three minutes. As a result, the importance of looking after our heart health cannot be underestimated.
We all know that eating a healthy balanced diet and exercising regularly are important for keeping our hearts healthy. But what does this really mean when it comes down to it? And what else can we do to look after our heart health?
Maintaining a healthy weight, giving up smoking, and keeping track of our blood pressure and cholesterol levels, are just a few of the things that can contribute to a healthy heart. Below, we’ll cover these tips and more.
1. Reduce your salt intake
Eating too much salt can lead to high blood pressure, which can increase the strain on your heart, and put you at higher risk of developing heart disease. According to NHS guidelines, adults shouldn’t eat more than six grams of salt per day, which is about equal to one teaspoon.
Some foods are higher in salt because of the way they’re produced. Examples of these include bacon, gravy granules, anchovies, ham, cheese, and olives. Therefore, if you’re trying to eat less salt, it can be helpful to moderate your intake of these types of food. The NHS offers a list of other high salt foods to watch out for on their website.
It’s also worth making a conscious effort to check labels on pre-packaged foods. If the label only gives information about the amount of sodium, you can work out the amount of salt by multiplying the amount of sodium by 2.5. For example, 2g of sodium per 100g is equal to 5g of salt per 100g.
Other useful ways of moderating your salt intake include seasoning your food with pepper, herbs and garlic rather than salt, keeping an eye out for hidden salt in products such as cooking sauces, and swapping salty snacks such as crisps and salted nuts with fruit and other low-salt options. This Change4Life guide from the NHS offers some great advice on high-salt foods to look out for and avoid, as well as ideas for healthy food swaps. You also could try some of these low-salt dinner recipes, including Moroccan chicken one pot, healthier chicken balti, and Jamaican grilled fish, from BBC Good Food.
For more help and guidance on how to moderate your salt intake, consider having a read of this Taking control of salt leaflet provided by the British Heart Foundation.
2. Understand your cholesterol and blood pressure numbers
Having high cholesterol and/or high blood pressure can put your heart health at risk and increase your chance of having a heart attack or stroke. So, knowing and understanding the numbers is key when looking after your heart health.
There isn’t always an explanation for high blood pressure and high cholesterol, and sometimes it can be the result of genetics. However, a lot of people develop it as a result of their lifestyle or medical condition, and often, making some small changes to their daily routine can help. You can read about some of these lifestyle changes such as being more active and eating a healthy diet in this article about reducing blood pressure by the British Heart Foundation, and in our article; 5 tips to help lower cholesterol.
Unfortunately, high blood pressure and cholesterol rarely cause symptoms, so it’s important to get your blood pressure checked regularly. You can get your blood pressure and cholesterol levels checked at your GP surgery, some pharmacies, and as part of an NHS Health Check.
What is a normal blood pressure reading?
Blood pressure relates to the pressure of blood in your arteries. High blood pressure is medically known as hypertension, and can cause issues because it means the pressure of the blood in your arteries is too high, and your heart has to work harder to pump blood around the body.
Blood pressure results will show up as two numbers; the first measures the highest pressure (systolic pressure), and the second the lowest (diastolic pressure). For example, your results could be something like 130/80 mmHg, or you’ll be told something like ‘130 over 80’.
Ideally, your blood pressure should be under 140/90 mmHG. Below is a table showing the different blood pressure categories from low to high, as advised by the British Heart Foundation.
|Systolic pressure (mmHg)||Diastolic pressure (mmHg)|
|Low blood pressure||Lower than 90||Lower than 60|
|Normal blood pressure||Lower than 140||Lower than 90|
|Potential hypertension||Between 140 and 180||Lower than 110|
|Severe hypertension||Higher than 180||Higher than 110|
What is a healthy cholesterol level?
Cholesterol is a fatty substance that travels around the body in our blood. If we have too much cholesterol, it can begin to clog up arteries and put us at greater risk of developing heart disease.
There are two main types of cholesterol; high-density lipoprotein (HDL) which is known as ‘good cholesterol’, and low-density lipoprotein (LDL), known as ‘bad cholesterol’.
A cholesterol check usually involves a simple blood test and levels are measured in millimoles per litre (mmol/L) in the UK. Below is a general guide for healthy cholesterol levels, as advised by the NHS.
|Total cholesterol||5 or below|
|HDL (good cholesterol)||1 or above|
|LDL (bad cholesterol)||3 or below|
|Non-HDL (bad cholesterol||4 or below|
|Triglycerides||2.3 or below|
3. Choose your fats wisely
Fats have long had a bad press because they’ve been associated with bad health or weight gain. But we all need a small amount of fat in our diet to stay healthy. However, eating too much fat – especially saturated fats – can raise your cholesterol levels, and in turn, increase your risk of heart disease.
The key to including fats as part of a healthy diet is knowing the difference between ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ fats. Saturated fats are found in various foods, but mostly in animal products including meat and dairy products, as well as some plant foods like coconut and palm oil. Unsaturated fats on the other hand, are mostly found in plant oils like olive and sunflower oil, fish such as salmon and cod, as well as in nuts and seeds – for example, almonds, hazelnuts, and sesame seeds.
Identifying unhealthy fats
Generally speaking, as part of a healthy diet, you should try and limit your intake of foods that are high in saturated and trans fats, and opt for unsaturated fats instead. Saturated and trans fats are proven to increase cholesterol, which can clog up a person’s arteries, and increase the risk of heart disease or stroke during their lifetime.
This has to do with the fact that saturated and trans fats hold more hydrogen atoms than unsaturated fats and are solid rather than liquid at room temperature, meaning they’re more prone to cause blockages. Trans fats are especially problematic because they’re formed when manufacturers turn liquid oils into solid fats through a process known as hydrogenation. Trans fats are often found in packaged confectionery foods such as biscuits and cookies, in margarine, and in fast fried food (to add flavour and texture).
It’s useful to look out for ‘partially hydrogenated oils’ when checking out the ingredients of a product, as this is often what trans fats are listed as. Most UK supermarkets have now removed partially hydrogenated vegetable oil from their own-brand products, but it’s still best to check.
Which fats can I enjoy as part of a healthy diet?
In terms of looking after your heart health, a small amount of unsaturated fats can be enjoyed as part of a healthy balanced diet. Unlike saturated and trans fats which tend to be sourced from animal products and are solid at room temperature, unsaturated come from plant sources and are liquid at room temperature. This means they’re less likely to clog up your arteries and cause heart problems.
Unsaturated fats also contain essential fatty acids including Omega-3, which our bodies are unable to produce themselves. You can read more about the benefits of Omega-3 fatty acids including how they help reduce the risk of heart disease in our article Omega-3: What is it and why do we need it?
4. Spend quality time with friends and family
As humans, we tend to function better as part of a community. Connecting with other people is important for our mental wellbeing because, among other things, it helps to build our sense of belonging and self-worth, and can help to ward off depression. What’s more, staying socially connected is important not only for our mental health, but for our physical health too.
Research has shown that loneliness is linked to the hardening of our arteries, which can lead to high blood pressure and an increased risk of developing heart disease. Loneliness has also been shown to increase cortisol (the stress hormone) levels, which can negatively impact circulation and mean the heart has to work harder.
If you’ve been feeling lonely lately or would like to start socialising more, you could consider finding ways to increase your connections with friends and family members. Alternatively, you could take up a new hobby, or join a club or community as a way to connect with new people. If you’re feeling unsure about where to start, you might find some useful ideas about how to find new friends in our article How to meet people in the current climate. And in the meantime, you might find out article 7 ways to help tackle feelings of loneliness useful.
5. Take good care of your oral health
The condition of your teeth affects your overall health, and gum disease has been linked to various health problems in other areas of the body, including your heart.
Gum disease occurs when bacteria (usually caused by a build-up of plaque) infects gum tissue, causing inflammation, soreness, bleeding, and if left untreated, tooth decay. Intense gum inflammation can affect the bloodstream and gradually damage blood vessels in the heart and brain over time. Over time, this could lead to coronary heart disease.
Luckily, by brushing your teeth properly, taking care of your gums, and visiting the dentist regularly, you can prevent and treat gum disease. And having healthy teeth and gums can improve your overall health, and reduce your risk of health problems such as heart disease. You can find more information on how to prevent oral health problems and take good care of your teeth on the NHS website.
The video below from the British Heart Foundation gives some further explanation about the link between oral health and heart disease:
6. Say no to smoking and avoid secondhand smoke as much as possible
According to the British Heart Foundation smoking is one of the leading risk factors of heart and circulatory diseases, with nearly 20,000 circulatory disease deaths attributed to it each year. This is because the chemicals that are inhaled through cigarettes leave a sticky residue in the arteries, which fatty materials can then stick to. In just one cigarette, there’s around 4,000 chemicals, including carbon monoxide, nicotine, and tar.
If the arteries that supply blood to your heart get damaged or clogged up, this can lead to a heart attack, and if the arteries that carry blood to your brain get clogged up, this can increase your risk of having a stroke. Therefore, not smoking is one of the best things you can do for your heart health.
Even if you’ve smoked for decades, quitting will still reduce your risk of heart and circulatory problems. As the British Heart Foundation says it’s never too late to quit, and you’ll begin to reap the benefits remarkably soon after you stop smoking. For example, just 20 minutes after you’ve finished a cigarette, a person’s heart rate and blood pressure will return to normal; after 2-12 weeks, exercise will become easier and breathing will improve; and after a year of not smoking, their risk of having a heart attack will be halved.
It’s also worth considering whether you’re at risk of passive smoking, caused by breathing in secondhand smoke). This can also increase your risk of heart and circulatory diseases, as well as some cancers and breathing issues. You can read more about secondhand smoking and steps you can take to try and avoid it on the NHS website.
If you want to quit smoking and feel you’d benefit from some help and support, often the first step is to make an appointment with your GP. They’ll be able to advise you on your options for giving up smoking, such as enrolling you in stop smoking clinics, and/or providing guidance on nicotine replacement therapy. Stop smoking programmes will also be available at some pharmacies.
Remember, even if you’ve tried and failed before, it’s never too late to quit smoking. For further tips on how to stop smoking, have a read of this article from The British Heart Foundation.
7. Explore ways to manage your stress levels
Stress is one way that our bodies respond to high pressure or challenging situations. It’s completely normal to feel stressed sometimes, and a certain amount can actually be healthy. However, if you’re often feeling stressed and for long periods of time, you might find it beneficial to make some changes that will help you cope.
Stress can cause a range of emotional, physical, and behavioural symptoms including feeling scared, anxious, and irritable, experiencing a faster heartbeat (palpitations), and engaging in nervous behaviours such as nail-biting. However, these are just a few examples out of many, and it’s important to remember that stress will affect everyone differently.
High or constant stress could increase your risk of heart problems. For example, research from Harvard University has suggested that stress could be as important a risk factor for heart disease as high blood pressure or smoking, because it can cause the arteries to become inflamed. Similarly, stress can also be linked with unhealthy habits that can have a bearing on heart health. For example, when you’re stressed you might be more inclined to smoke, to over-indulge in comfort foods, binge drink, or avoid physical activity. While these things may temporarily ease your stress, over time they can lead to high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes, all of which can affect your heart health.
Stress can be caused by a variety of factors, and recognising the source is a great first step to take in reducing it. For some people, it might be caused by work, relationships, financial issues, change, or a combination of different things.
If you’ve been feeling stressed or anxious recently, then it’s worth taking a look at our article; 7 tips for coping with stress and anxiety, for some suggestions on how to cope. If the thought of life returning to normal post-lockdown is also affecting your stress levels, then consider having a read of our article; Managing social anxiety as we ease out of lockdown for some useful ideas on how to manage social situations.
8. Try to maintain a healthy weight
Achieving and maintaining a healthy weight is important for heart health. We all need some body fat to remain healthy, but having too much body fat – particularly around your mid-section – can raise cholesterol and blood pressure, and increase your risk of type 2 diabetes; putting your heart health at risk.
Nowadays, with the ready availability of high-fat and sugary foods and easy transportation, obesity has increased in the UK, and many people are finding it more difficult to lose weight. According to Public Health England, 13% of men and 16% of women were obese in 1993, which jumped to 27% and 29% respectively in 2019.
Losing weight can seem like a large feat, but making some simple adjustments to your lifestyle can have a significant impact. For example, you could gradually increase your activity levels by trying some of these fun fitness ideas, and swap out high-fat and sugary foods for healthier alternatives. As the ideas in the following articles hopefully show, making healthier food choices doesn’t mean that you need to compromise on taste Why not check out 12 healthy recipe ideas, 8 tasty and filling low carb ideas, and 14 quick and healthy snack ideas?
If you’re unsure about whether you need to lose weight, a good place to start is by measuring your BMI (body mass index). Working out your BMI will place you in one of four categories: underweight, healthy weight, overweight, or obese. You can work out your BMI at home using the NHS BMI Calculator, or it can be calculated by your GP if you’d prefer.
9. Moderate or limit your alcohol intake
Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, meaning it slows down your brain’s ability to control your body. Even drinking small amounts can impact movement and speech – and drinking significant amounts at one time can slow down your breathing and heart rate to a dangerously low level.
Studies have shown that there’s a definitive link between regularly drinking large amounts of alcohol and having high blood pressure. Over time, having high blood pressure (hypertension) can add strain to the heart muscle. This can lead to an increased risk of developing heart disease, and having a heart attack or stroke.
Drinking too much alcohol can also cause weight gain and impact mental health – usually in the form of feeling depressed, anxious, or stressed. When we’re struggling with our mental health, we’re less likely to feel motivated to do things that do us good and protect our hearts; for example spending time outside with nature, exercising regularly, and eating a healthy balanced diet.
If you’re a regular drinker and feel alcohol doesn’t affect you as much as it used to, then this could be due to the fact that you’ve developed a certain tolerance to some of the effects. This doesn’t, however, change the impact that it can have on your health. The NHS advises that adults should drink no more than 14 units of alcohol per week, and should spread alcohol over three days or more if regularly drinking up to 14 units a week. You can read more about alcohol unit guidelines and advice here on the NHS website.
10. Take simple steps towards a more active lifestyle
Regular physical activity has numerous benefits and is one of the most important things that you can do for your health. Not only can regular exercise help to reduce blood pressure and cholesterol, it also aids weight management and improves brain health. One study showed that adults who sat sedentary watching TV more than four hours of television a day had an 80% higher risk of suffering from cardiovascular disease.
Research has also shown that the amount of lean muscle a healthy person has in middle age can affect their chances of developing heart disease. The study showed that people with more muscle volume were less likely to be at risk of heart disease, irrespective of other factors such as diet. Building and maintaining muscle tissue through strength training and balance exercises therefore, can be an effective way of improving heart health.
However, this doesn’t mean that you have to suddenly increase your activity level from 0 to 100 and play sports everyday in order to improve your heart health. In fact, it’s often more sustainable to start small and think about ways that you could naturally increase your daily activity levels.
For example, why not put some music on and dance your way through the chores? Or perhaps there are times in your day where you could take the stairs instead of lifts and escalators? You could also consider increasing your step count by parking further away from the shops, or getting off the bus a stop early. You can find more ideas of how to increase your everyday activity levels in our articles; 17 creative ways to increase your step count and 10 rewarding activities to do while walking. Alternatively, if you’d like to add some variation to your walking style, our article 10 different types of walk to enjoy might spark your interest.
If you’re looking to increase your activity level by trying a new sport or fitness idea, then why not consider taking up running, cycling, pilates, yoga, Tai Chi, or maybe even pickleball? If none of those sound right for you, then you might find something else more suitable in our article 8 different fitness ideas for lockdown and beyond. How you choose to increase your activity levels is up to you, but the trick is to do something you enjoy, so that you’ll feel more motivated to keep it up.
11. Consider getting a dog
Dogs don’t just fill our hearts and make us feel happy; they can actually make us healthier too. And there’s growing evidence to suggest that having a dog can help to improve heart health in various ways.
Several studies have shown that owning a dog is linked to lower blood pressure, reduced cholesterol, and reduced triglyceride (fat) levels; all of which have a positive impact on our heart health. Not only do pets have a calming effect, but they also tend to make us more active as a result. Research has shown that even stroking a dog can instantly lower blood pressure.
Similarly, there’s evidence to suggest that the calming effect that dogs have on us by simply being closeby, can help people to handle stress better. For example, a person’s heart rate and blood pressure may increase less and return to normal more quickly when there’s a dog present, reducing the effects of stress on the body.
If you’re considering getting a dog, the potential benefits for your heart health are an added bonus. However, it’s important to remember that pets, especially dogs, come with great responsibility, so it’s worth considering whether you have the time and energy for a dog before you make any decisions.
If you’re unable to commit to the responsibility of owning a dog yourself, you could consider spending time with them in other ways. For example, you could become a dog walker. Most dog walkers work on a self-employed basis and will gradually build up a list of clients. You could offer to walk your family, friends, or neighbour’s dog to begin with, or could sign up to pet care websites such as Tailster which allow you to connect with dog owners in your area and offer your services. You can read about other benefits of interacting with animals in our article 10 benefits of owning a pet.
Heart disease affects more than 160,000 people in the UK every year, so it’s never been more important to consider how we can do our best to keep our hearts healthy. And while some people are genetically more predisposed to developing heart problems, the good news is that everyone can take steps towards having a healthier heart by making some simple lifestyle changes.
Since many of these simple changes are interlinked, it’s often the case that the first step will have a domino effect. For example, if a person starts exercising more, and feels less stressed as a result, they might find it easier to moderate their alcohol intake, or give up smoking.
Remember, it’s never too late to start making healthier lifestyle choices, and not only will you be taking care of your heart, but chances are, you’ll likely feel happier and healthier too.
What things do you do to look after your heart health? Are there any other tips you’d like to add that we haven’t mentioned? We’d love to hear from you. Join the discussion on the health section of the Rest Less community forum, or leave a comment below.