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Top Tips for a Healthy Heart

Quit smoking. Smokers are twice as likely to have a heart attack as non-smokers, which is why quitting smoking is the single most important thing you can do to live longer, and feel healthier. From the moment you stop smoking, your risk of heart attack starts to reduce.

Exercise and lose weight. Your heart needs exercise to keep fit for its arduous task of pumping blood efficiently round your body for the rest of your life. Aim for 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise a day.

Carrying a lot of extra weight as fat can greatly affect your health, increasing the risk of heart disease. Start by making small, healthy changes to what you eat, and try to become more active.

Eat a balanced diet. Healthy eating helps to reduce the risk of developing heart disease, and can also help increase your chances of survival after a heart attack. Eat plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, oily fish, and starchy foods such as wholegrain bread, pasta and rice. Avoid foods like biscuits, cakes, pastries and dairy products that are high in saturated fats and sugar. Here are some basic guidelines:

  • Use canola or olive oil based margarine, or better still – nothing.
  • Cook with canola, olive or peanut oil – not lard or fat – better still use a griller.
  • Low fat diary – milk or yogurt. Minimize ice-cream and cheese.
  • Eat fish twice a week. Fresh or as canned tuna or salmon. Never deep fried!
  • Eat red meat three times a week. Low fat cuts. Only low fat mince. No sausages. No salami. No bacon. Chicken without the skin – dry roasted or grilled, not fried.
  • Whole grain, multigrain or high fibre bread.
  • Choose low salt (sodium) foods – read the can or packet's table or contents.
  • Plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables. Steam or wok fry the vegies if you need.
  • Snack with nuts, raisins, whole grain bread, and low fat yogurt.
  • Drink plenty of water. At most five cups of tea or coffee a day.
  • Choose smaller size, NEVER up-size when having takeaway – best avoided.
  • At a restaurant - have a side salad with the main course. Skip the bread. Skip dessert. Water alternating with wine, beer or soft drink.
  • Portion size is very important. It's OK not to 'clean your plate' – forget what your mother said.
  • Look for the National Heart foundation 'tick' of approval.
  • Buy a Heart Foundation cook book or use the internet.
  • Ask for a referral to a dietician. Especially if you have special requirements.

Cut your salt intake. Too much salt causes high blood pressure, which increases the risk of developing coronary heart disease. Try to limit your intake of foods such as chips, salted nuts, fast food, pies, and frozen meals. Many breakfast cereals and breads that appear healthy also contain high levels of salt, so it pays to check these too.

Limit your alcohol. Too much alcohol can damage the heart muscle, increase blood pressure and lead to weight gain. Aim to limit your alcohol intake to two drinks per day (for men) and 1 drink per day (for women).

Have your blood pressure and cholesterol levels checked by your GP. People with high blood pressure run a higher risk of having a stroke or a heart attack. High cholesterol levels in the blood lead to fatty deposits in your coronary arteries that increase your risk of coronary heart disease, stroke, and diseases that affect the circulation. You can help lower your cholesterol level by exercising and eating high-fibre foods such as beans, pulses, lentils, nuts, fruits and vegetables.

Recognise the early signs of coronary heart disease. Tightness or discomfort in the chest, neck, arm or stomach when you exert yourself that goes away when you rest may be the first sign of angina, which can lead to a heart attack if left untreated.

After a heart attack or open heart surgery or a stent it's important to ask your cardiologist what you can and can't do. Here are some guidelines.

  • Take it easy for the first 3 days – walking around the house or yard only.
  • No mowing the lawn, digging the garden or lifting more that 10kgs (=2 heavy shopping bags) for 3 weeks. No sex for 3 weeks.
  • From day 3 onwards start with a 10-15minute gentle walk on flat ground.
  • As each week goes by add on 5 minutes and quicken the pace.
  • The target is 30-40 minutes at least 5 days per week.
  • The target is to exercise at a level of intensity which makes you mildly breathless and makes you sweat. You should never be uncomfortable or distressed.
  • STOP if you get chest pain or light headed – see your GP as soon as possible.
  • Even the most elderly can gradually build up a walking program

Some more exercise tips

  • Wear comfortable, loose clothing. Take a water bottle and stay hydrated.
  • Buy proper sports shoes that fit properly – they help minimize injury.
  • Walk, swim or cycle – don't jog, it's usually not necessary and can cause injury.
  • Exercise when its coolest – early morning is best.
  • Make exercise part of your work day routine – just set the alarm clock earlier.
  • Find a partner to exercise with and motivate you to keep going. It's also safer.
  • You don't have to join a gym – but they do offer variety and motivation.
  • Weigh yourself at the same time each day – keep a diary.
  • Learn how to check your heart rate or pulse – then we can set targets.

It really is up to you. The goal is to develop a lifestyle of healthy eating and sustainable exercise – FOR LIFE!

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