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It’s never too late or too early to change to a heart-healthy lifestyle and reduce the risk of heart disease.

The average person’s heart beats 70 times a minute, about 4 200 times in an hour and 100 800 times in a day. A heart that isn’t as healthy can beat 80 times a minute. That’s about 14 000 more beats a day, putting  extra strain on your heart and increasing your chance of developing heart disease. Adopting a heart-healthy lifestyle will help you reduce that risk.

There are risk factors for cardiovascular disease that can’t be changed, including family history, age, gender and ethnicity, says the Heart and Stroke Foundation South Africa (HSFSA). But some risk factors can be managed, such as high blood pressure and cholesterol, lack of exercise, smoking and stress. “Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is a chronic disease of lifestyle,” says the HSFSA, and an increasingly westernised lifestyle means that we are eating more junk food and exercising less. “Forty-five percent of men and 70 percent of women in South Africa are overweight or obese,” adds the HSFSA. Losing weight, following a balanced diet and exercising are good ways to decrease the risk of CVD.

Eat right

Kerri Brinkman, a Joburg-based dietician, suggests keeping an eye on how much fat you eat. Saturated fats, such as those in meat or full-cream dairy, and trans fats can push up cholesterol levels. Unsaturated fats, including olive oil, vegetable oils, nuts and avocado lower total blood cholesterol, but moderation is still advised. Omega-3 fats, usually found in oily fish, help to protect your heart, so aim to have at least one portion a week.

A heart-healthy diet should include at least five portions of fruit and vegetables every day. You should also choose low-GI, high-fibre starches, fat-free or low-fat dairy products and lean meats or meat alternatives. Some of the items that should be avoided are fried foods, butter and refined, sugary drinks and foods. Try using salt in moderation or use salt substitutes. If you drink alcohol, stick to one glass a day for women and two for men.

Find out more about intelligent eating for a healthy lifestyle.

Work out

Exercise improves circulation, lowers high blood pressure and cholesterol, and reduces stress. The HSFSA recommends at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise at least five days a week. Brinkman says, “The best exercise for your heart is aerobic activity.” So try swimming, brisk walking, running, cycling, dancing or even gardening. You can also divide the 30 minutes into more manageable slots, so take the stairs instead of escalators.

“For exercise to be effective it needs to raise your heart beat,” says Brinkman. But avoid straining your heart; warm up for each session and cool down afterwards. And don’t over exercise as this could also damage your heart. If you are at risk of heart disease, the HSFSA recommends that you speak to your doctor before starting an exercise programme.

Read our article on the essential health checks parents should have.

Healthy changes

It may seem challenging to change your lifestyle, but a few small tweaks, one at a time, could help decrease your risk.

  • Know your numbers, including your blood pressure, cholesterol, Body Mass Index (BMI) and waist circumference.
  • Control your portion size and eat slowly. Avoid snacking out of boredom or eating on the run.
  • Create daily menus and use a shopping list.
  • Have the occasional treat, but don’t give up on your eating plan. As Brinkman says, “What’s important is that you eat healthy foods most of the time.”

Tamlyn Vincent