Heart Health

Updated 01 August 2014

7 ways to love your heart

One in three men and one in four women in South Africa will develop heart disease before they turn 60. Here's how you can avoid becoming another statistic.

Heart disease is the number one killer in the world. In South Africa, one in three men and one in four women will have a heart condition before the age of 60. Fortunately there is much you can do to reduce your chances of getting heart disease in the first place. Follow these steps to keep your heart strong and healthy:

Quit smoking

If you smoke, quitting is the single most important thing you can do to reduce your risk of heart disease. It has been found that smokers have a two to four time greater risk of developing heart disease, compared to non-smokers.

Smoking increases blood pressure and decreases HDL (good) cholesterol; it increases the build-up of fatty substances in the arteries (atherosclerosis) and it decreases oxygen to the heart. The good news, though, is that after only one year, your risk of heart disease is half of what it was when you smoked.

Read: 5 ways to quit smoking

Check your family history

Find out if there is a history of heart disease in your family. If you have a relative, such as a parent, grandparent or sibling, who suffered a heart attack before the age of 60, you are at greater risk of developing heart disease. However, you can still protect yourself by taking good care of your heart health, as the development of heart disease involves more than just your family history.

Know your numbers

The Heart and Stroke Foundation South Africa recommends getting your blood pressure, cholesterol and blood glucose tested at least once a year and more often if you have a family history of hypertension, high cholesterol, heart disease, stroke or diabetes. Adults with diabetes are two to four times more likely to have heart disease or suffer a stroke than people without diabetes.

Eat more heart-smart foods

Eat a healthy, balanced diet which includes at least five servings of fruit and vegetables a day; choose lean meats and poultry and cut off all visible fats; eat fish at least twice a week – oily fish such as salmon, tuna and sardines is high in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids; and choose low-fat dairy products and foods high in fibre such as wholegrains, legumes, nuts and seeds. Shake your salt habit by flavouring food with herbs and spices instead; and cut your fat intake by avoiding fried foods and rather opting for the grilled, steamed or baked version.

Read: Top 10 heart-smart foods

Maintain a healthy weight

Being overweight can increase your blood pressure and cholesterol levels, leading to an increased risk of heart disease. One way to see if your weight is healthy; is to calculate your body mass index (BMI). You can do this by dividing your body weight (in kg) by the square of your height (in metres). If your BMI is higher than 25, you are classified as overweight. (There are some exceptions, such as heavily-muscled athletes, who may have a higher BMI but still be healthy).

You can also measure your waist to check for abdominal fat. If you have a waist measurement of more than 80cm (for women) or 94cm (for men), you are at an increased risk of developing chronic diseases such as heart disease, the World Health Organisation says.

Exercise daily

Do at least 30 minutes of physical activity every day. Just 30 minutes a day can help to reduce your risk of high blood pressure and heart disease. Even small changes can make all the difference: park your car two blocks from the office or the shop; or take the stairs instead of the lift. If you haven’t exercised for a while, walking is the best form of exercise in the first few weeks. You can also divide your 30 minutes into two chunks and go for a 15 minute walks over lunchtime and after work. Increase your fitness levels gradually: pushing your body too hard too soon can result in high blood pressure and put your heart under too much strain.

Read: Overcoming exercise excuses

Get enough sleep

People who sleep less than six hours per night are about twice as likely to have a heart attack as people who get six to eight hours of sleep; and about 70% more likely to have heart failure, researchers from Chicago Medical School have found. There is evidence that too little sleep triggers the "fight or flight" response to stress, releasing hormones that speed up your heart rate and blood pressure.


(Photo of girl hugging heart from Shutterstock)

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