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Top tips for protecting heart health

Unfortunately, heart problems are something that can affect anyone.

But whether they are hereditary or caused by lifestyle choices, there are steps that can be taken to help mitigate the risks and protect the heart as much as possible.

To mark National Heart Health Month, Nuffield Health physiotherapy manager and cardiac rehabilitation lead, Helen Alexander, has offered up some top tips.

Physical activity

Being physically active can help keep your heart healthy by controlling blood pressure and improving your cholesterol profile.

"If you are new to exercise, start by building in more activity during your day - using the stairs rather than the lift, walking more, using the car less, or parking further away than normal. When you are being active, you will get more benefits if you are able to achieve a pace that makes you feel warm and comfortably breathless," she said. "However, if you have had a recent cardiac event or procedure and would like to increase your physical activity, attending a cardiac rehabilitation programme can ensure you return to exercise safely under the guidance of a professional."

Diet

Eating a healthy balanced diet plays an important role in looking after your heart health. Try to keep your intake of saturated fats (normally found in animal products, as well as 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 important nutrients and fibre, which are essential for heart health. Try to look for wholegrain, slower-release options such as oats, wholewheat bread, and pasta to incorporate into your diet," the expert explained. "Fruit and vegetables should be the cornerstone of all heart-healthy diets as these have a huge number of anti-inflammatory properties and high amount of dietary fibre. Always try to eat a 'rainbow' of fruit and vegetables to get lots of variety into your diet."

Mental health

Looking after our mental fitness is just as important as looking after 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.

"Recognising what situations or activities contribute to your stress, and then putting some coping strategies in place is often a 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," noted Helen.

Quit smoking

When it comes to heart health, smoking increases the risk of heart and circulatory disease.

"It is not easy giving up smoking, but help is available - you are four times more likely to give up if you get professional advice. You can seek support from your GP, local pharmacist or local stop smoking team," she continued. "Once you have 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."

Losing weight

Everybody needs some body fat (the ideal amount differs from person to person), but carrying too much, especially around the waist area, can put our 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 hard, and often takes changes to our diet and physical 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 that is undertaken will vary from person to person. Make sure you find something that works for you, and you will be more likely to stick with it," Helen added.