World Heart Day: 5 things you can do to strengthen your heart

You might be surprised to learn that heart disease and stroke are South Africa’s biggest killers after HIV and Aids, and every hour, five South Africans suffer from heart attacks. However, the good news is that most of these can be prevented by making lifestyle changes, including cutting back on smoking, alcohol and unhealthy foods.

Florencia Braga, of Herbalife Nutrition, says being aware of cardiovascular disease risk factors is important – having high blood pressure, a high cholesterol level and being overweight may be signs that you need to do more to look after your most precious organ.

A study published by the World Health Organization shows that a 10 percent reduction in your blood cholesterol level alone can minimise the risk of heart disease by 50 percent within five years.

With World Heart Day being observed today (September 29), heart health is in the spotlight.

While we can’t change our age or family history, Braga says, we can take control of the following lifestyle factors to promote better heart health.

Chew the fat

For long-term hearth health, some fats are better than others. Bad fats include industrial-made trans fats, found in processed food – a diet rich in trans fat increases the amount of harmful LDL cholesterol in the bloodstream and reduces the amount of beneficial HDL cholesterol. Saturated fats – those found in red meat, full-cream dairy products, cheese and many commercially prepared baked goods – sit somewhere in the middle.

Good fats, on the other hand, have been shown to aid the absorption of some vitamins and minerals, build cell membranes and promote muscle movement. These include monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, also known as omega-9 and omega-6 and -3.

Omega-9 fats are found in olive oil, almonds and avocados, while you can get omega-6 fats from sunflower oil and seeds, corn and soy oil, pine nuts, pecan nuts and Brazil nuts. Fish-sourced omega-3 fats are also useful for our heart health.

They can be found in fatty fish such as herring, salmon and sardines, and can contribute to the maintenance of normal blood pressure, normal blood triglycerides concentration and the normal functioning of the heart.

(Don’t) spill the salt

Excessive sodium intake is linked to high blood pressure, which can put a strain on your heart. Health-care experts advise that you limit your sodium intake up to 2g per day (or up to 5g of salt per day) – this includes added sodium from food manufacturers, the salt we use when we cook and the salt we sprinkle on our food before we eat it.

Always check food labels for salt content – items containing more than 0.6g of sodium (or 1.5g of salt) per 100g ready-to-eat food can be considered high in sodium.

Be moderately merry

You can still enjoy alcoholic beverages, but don’t go overboard – not more than 10g of alcohol is advised for women and 20g for men per day. As an indication, 10g of alcohol is equivalent to 236ml of beer or 125ml of wine.

Get active

According to the World Health Organization, getting your heart rate up through exercise not only reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease, it also strengthens your bones and improves muscle tone. Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity physical activity a week.

Smoke = fire

Quitting smoking is the single most important step you can take to protect your heart health – the poisonous chemicals found in cigarettes make the walls of your arteries sticky, causing fatty materials to stick to them. In turn, clogged or damaged arteries can lead to heart attacks or strokes.