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12 steps to a healthier heart

Reviewed by our expert panel
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Heart disease accounts for around a third of deaths each year, but there are easy ways to reduce your risk of developing it. Dietitian Brooke Delfino shares 12 strategies to care for your ticker.

It’s time for a little heart to heart. Chances are, you or someone you love has been affected by heart disease. It’s a leading cause of death around the world, yet many of the risk factors are lifestyle-related, so largely preventable. They’re the result of everyday choices you make about what to eat, how much to exercise and whether to smoke.

Due to busy lives, most of these decisions are made without much conscious thought. Yet, over time, making unhealthy choices each and every day is what leads to conditions such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and being overweight. The good news is that making small changes can lead to life-changing results for your health — and you can start today

Are you at risk?

There’s no single cause for heart disease, but there are risk factors that increase your chance of developing it. If you check off three or more of the following risk factors, it’s time to talk to your GP.

  • A family member has experienced heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, high cholesterol or diabetes, or is overweight or obese.
  • You’ve been through menopause
  • You’re overweight
  • You have type 2 diabetes or impaired glucose tolerance
  • You have high blood pressure
  • You have high cholesterol levels
  • You eat many foods high in saturated fat
  • You add salt to your food
  • You’re a smoker
  • You exercise for less than 30 minutes a day
  • You often feel stressed, depressed or socially isolated.

The menu for a healthy heart

There’s no denying the confusion surrounding the best (and worst) foods for a healthy heart. Are eggs on or off the menu? What about full-fat milk and butter? Two years ago, the Heart Foundation updated its guidelines to reflect the latest research. Here’s what it found:

1. Full-fat dairy foods are okay

Full-fat dairy foods like yoghurt, milk and cheese are back on the menu as part of a healthy diet. This doesn’t mean reduced-fat products are bad for you, so if you prefer skim or low-fat varieties, you don’t need to make any changes. It also doesn’t mean that full-fat products are ‘healthier’. The latest evidence reveals full-fat dairy foods have a neutral effect on heart disease risk — which means they don’t increase or decrease your risk
for heart disease and stroke.

If you already have heart disease or high cholesterol, it’s still recommended you eat reduced-fat dairy products.

2. Eat less meat and more plant protein

This one isn’t exactly new, as many of us are already reducing our meat intake, but the latest evidence indicates red meat consumption increases the risk of heart disease and stroke, and may lead to weight gain.

The Heart Foundation has introduced a recommendation to limit the amount of unprocessed beef, lamb, pork and veal we eat to 350g a week. That equates to about one to three lean red meat meals a week. Instead, we should aim to eat more heart-healthy plant-protein foods, such as beans, lentils and tofu, as well as fish and seafood.

As for the humble egg, which has copped plenty of criticism over the years, the limit on how many eggs a healthy person can consume in a week has been removed. This means you can enjoy them daily if you wish. If you have diabetes or high cholesterol, it’s recommended you limit your egg intake to no more than seven eggs a week.

10 steps to a healthier heart

1 Get more shut-eye

We all feel better after a good night’s sleep. It’s essential for your body to recuperate, and without sufficient sleep, you could be putting your heart at risk. Sleep deprivation heightens the risk of heart attack, with one study finding that people who sleep less than six hours per night had a 20 per cent higher chance of having a heart attack. Lack of sleep can also trigger overeating and boost your desire for high-fat, high-sugar foods.

2 Up your steps

Walking is perhaps the simplest form of exercise you can do. It can also be the key to losing weight, lowering blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and reducing your risk of heart disease. Plus, it doesn’t cost a cent! Walking for two and a half hours a week — that’s less than 30 minutes a day — can cut your risk of heart disease by 30 to 40 per cent, according to the Heart Foundation. If you can’t find time for a 30-minute walk, try breaking this into three 10-minute sessions, which is just as beneficial. No excuses!

3 Laugh out loud

Laughter really is the best medicine, with studies confirming laughing regularly reduces stress and benefits your heart health. Laughter boosts your heart rate by 10 to 20 per cent, while at the same time lowering your blood pressure. It can also reduce your risk of having a heart attack.

4 Are you familiar with your cholesterol and blood pressure levels? Many of us, aged 45 and over, have not had up-to-date tests for high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels, two leading risk factors for coronary heart disease. High blood pressure and cholesterol levels are often silent or without any symptoms, so see your GP annually for a test and keep tabs on these numbers.

5 Lift weights

Regular exercise has many health benefits for your heart, and the good news is you don’t have to join a gym to lift weights. A 2018 study found lifting anything heavy for less than an hour a week may reduce your risk of heart attack and stroke by 40 to 70 per cent. Use a one-kilo bag of rice or a two-litre water bottle to hold in your hands as you start with basic exercises, such as squats, lunges and bicep curls, in the comfort of your own living room.

6 Trim your waist

Did you know that waist size predicts heart attacks better than BMI, especially in women? This is because fat stored around your belly (as opposed to your hips and thighs) is more metabolically active and strongly associated with the risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes. According to the Heart Foundation, men should keep their waist measurement under 94cm, and women under 80cm.

7 Snack on nuts

Nuts are full of heart-friendly nutrients, including fibre, plant sterols, healthy fats and antioxidants. And eating just a 30g handful a day can reduce your risk of heart disease by 30 to 50 per cent.

So if you want to enjoy a satisfying, healthy snack, swap those salty potato crisps for a handful of unsalted raw nuts instead.

8 Listen to music

Listening to your favourite tunes does more than put you in a good mood. Studies have found music has the ability to alter your brain chemistry, which may produce cardiovascular benefits. Relaxing, slow-beat music, such as classical music, appears to have the greatest effect on lowering heart rate, blood pressure and breathing. A recent study found listening to 30 minutes of music a day reduced anxiety, pain and subsequent heart problems in heart-attack survivors.

9 Manage stress

It’s not the stress in your life, but your reaction to it that can be harmful to your health, including heart health. This is why cardiologists have started prescribing mindfulness to help people manage stress and look after their heart. Studies show meditation reverses some of the effects of stress, such as elevated blood pressure and heart rate. Download a mindfulness podcast, such as Headspace or Mindfully, and start the day with meditation, stretching or yoga.

10 Quit smoking

Compared to non-smokers, smokers are four times more likely to die of heart disease, and their risk of heart attack is twice as high. The good news is that within a day of quitting, your blood pressure drops. Within a year of giving up a pack-a-day habit, you also save more than $14,000. And within two to six years of being cigarette-free, your risk of developing heart disease is similar to non-smokers. For help, call your local Quitline.

First published: Aug 2021

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