Did you know the heart beats about 2.5 billion times over the average lifetime? So it’s no wonder given its heavy workload it can at times fail, contributed to by a poor diet, lack of exercise and other factors. So what can we do to help our heart and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease? Let’s first look at why the heart is so important…..
What does the heart do for you and how does it work?
The tissues of the body need a constant supply of nutrition, including oxygen in order to be active. The heart is responsible for pumping oxygen-rich blood from the lungs through the body while simultaneously carrying away carbon monoxide rich blood to the lungs for exhalation. The heart also maintains blood pressure. It’s the engine that keeps our body running, the pump that maintains life.
Factors contributing to heart health
Raised cholesterol levels: Cholesterol is an essential component in the structure of cell membranes, it provides the structural backbone for all steroid hormones, as well as the myelin sheaths of nerves and bile salts which emulsify fats. 60-80% of it are produced in the body, the rest is diet-derived. Though actually not directly involved in heart disease, raised cholesterol levels indicate events that lead to heart disease.
Obesity is a major risk factor for heart disease. Many factors in obesity contribute to this risk: the added pressure on the heart, generally high cholesterol levels, metabolic syndrome or Type 2 Diabetes. In Ireland, roughly 6 in 10 adults ( 60%) are either overweight or obese.
How can I discover more about the status of my heart health?
The first step you can take to find out your heart health status is to book a simple blood test with your GP. Then it’s time to examine your lifestyle and see where you can make healthier choices. Regular exercise can help reduce your risk of heart disease and the risk factors for heart disease including high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
And believe it or not, even a single bout of exercise starts to protect your heart right away. Sound too good to be true? Well according to the JAMA Cardiology review, this process is called ischemic preconditioning. And a single exercise session may protect the cardiovascular system to two to three hours.
How can I influence my heart health in the long term?
1. Eat well
As part of a healthy diet, eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, fibre-rich whole grains and fish (preferably oily fish-at least twice per week). Also, nuts, legumes, seeds and try eating some meals without meat. Select lower fat dairy products and poultry (skinless). Limit sugar-sweetened beverages and red meat.
One of the most popular fruits, bananas are a great source of potassium, a mineral linked to lower rates of high blood pressure. Fatty fish such as salmon and mackerel are good sources of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), which may help with heart health.
Sugar can affect the heart by increasing the likelihood of developing type 2 diabetes, which in turn increases the risk of heart disease and stroke.
2. Cardio exercise
Aerobic exercise, also known as “cardio” gets your heart beating faster and is the most beneficial type of exercise for your cardiovascular system (your heart and blood vessels). Regular cardio can strengthen your heart and blood vessels. Brisk walking, jogging, running, cycling and dancing are all great ways to work up a sweat.
The recommendation from cardiovascular specialists is to do moderate-intense exercise 2-3 days a week for at least 30 minutes. Compound exercises, which involve multiple joints and more than one muscle group is the best way to work your whole cardiovascular system. Another way to achieve this is with a HIIT (high-intensity interval training) or via a circuit training sequence.
Some exercises to get your heart rate up include:
- High knees
- Rope jumps
- Squat jumps
- Kettlebell swings
- Single-arm kettlebell push press
- Bear plank shoulder tap
3. Strength Training
Resistance or strength training has been proven to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, independent of other aerobic activity. One study showed lifting weights for less than an hour a week may reduce your risk for a heart attack or stroke by 40 to 70 per cent. Spending more than an hour in the weight room did not yield any additional benefit, the researchers found.
There are lots of ways to integrate strength training into your weekly workout. You can start with bodyweight exercises and lighter weights and gradually increase the weight over time. You can purchase some basic equipment to use at home, such as dumbells and kettlebells. Ideally, you’ll have three sets: a light, moderate and heavy (5 pounds, 12 pounds and 20 pounds for example).
4. Reduce Stress
Take time for yourself. Work on reducing stress in your life by allowing yourself more breaks, taking time out to do something you enjoy, start a new hobby, take time to cook a nice meal, sit down to read a book or talk to a friend you haven’t contacted in a while. Reducing caffeine in your diet can also help reduce stress.
Meditation may improve factors linked to cardiovascular health. It may lower the heart rate and blood pressure. Similarly, tai chi, yoga, knitting or even swimming can help you focus on your breathing and slow down the breathing rate.
Find out more about how Gym Plus can help you design a personalised health and nutrition plan at www.gymplus.ie.