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5 realistic ways to improve your heart health

Keeping fit, well and improving your heart health is important, now more than ever. Working from home, cancelled gym memberships and online drinking sessions have led many of us to change our lifestyles in a less than favourable way. For anyone keen to start making a few realistic alterations to their newly adopted lifestyle, Dr Elaina Taylor, Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Derby, outlines a few achievable suggestions.

By Dr Elaina Taylor - 2 July 2020

Avoid binge drinking

During lockdown, some people have reported drinking more units of alcohol per session. When consuming alcohol at home (for instance when attending virtual online drinks with friends and family) keeping track of how much you are drinking can be difficult. If you regularly consume alcohol, the first step to improving your habits is to try to reduce binge-drinking.

Binge-drinking is associated with ‘holiday-heart syndrome’, a type of irregular heart rhythm, which can develop into more serious illnesses such as atrial fibrillation. This was illustrated by a study conducted with more than 3,000 people at Oktoberfest in Germany (an annual festival celebrating Bavarian culture).

The researchers found that the more alcohol consumed, the greater chance of irregular heart rhythms occurring. National Health Service (NHS) guidelines suggest that if you do regularly consume more than 14 units per week (that’s 7x175ml glasses of (12% ABV) wine or 7xpints of (4% ABV) beer), you should manage your alcohol consumption by spreading out your drinking over a longer period of time (at least 3 days a week).

Move more

Adults aged 19-64 should complete 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week (e.g. walking briskly, pushing a lawn mower) or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise a week (e.g. jogging/running, martial arts, swimming) according to the NHS.

If you’re just starting out, increasing your activity levels can be daunting. You may be interested in diving straight into an online work-out class or fitness programmes such as Couch to 5K.

Then again, you might want to start off with smaller changes. Put on music and dance to your favourite songs each day, perhaps there’s a vegetable plot which needs digging in the garden, or even make the effort to walk or cycle to the shops. In time, these smaller changes can lead to bigger changes. Either way, the most important thing is to move more. Exercise doesn’t have to be tedious and should suit you and your lifestyle.

Take a few minutes out to manage your stress

Research evidences a well-supported link between stress, lowered immune system and the development of various long-term conditions including heart disease and stroke. When we experience stress, our ‘fight or flight’ mode is triggered, which can lead to an increased risk of illness, particularly if the stress becomes chronic. This might include high blood pressure (hypertension) and the accumulation of fatty plaques inside blood vessels (atherosclerosis), which can lead to stroke and heart-attacks. Compounded with this, stress is also associated with unhelpful behaviours, such as smoking, drinking, consumption of unhealthy foods and poor sleep.

Meditation is another way to manage stress. It can be done on the bus, before a meeting, or at bedtime. Meditation has been practiced for thousands of years and with good reason. Focusing your attention helps to filter out racing thoughts, but also helps invoke a relaxation response. You might also want to explore other stress-reduction techniques including mindfulness, tai chi, qigong or yoga. Check out apps such as Headspace, free website-based resources (such as this from UCLA), or local sessions including mediation classes run at the University of Derby.

Prioritise your mental health

Mental health and cardiovascular disease are inherently linked. Research indicates that people with existing depression have an increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease, and vice-versa.

For individuals with existing depression, NHS psychological support services (Improving Access to Psychological Therapies; IAPT) can be explored here. While self-help should not replace recommended services, techniques grounded in Positive Psychology, such as self-compassion, or gratitude journaling have been shown to improve everyday mood and well-being. Here’s one to try:

Three good things: At the end of the day, write down three things that went well. Your list can relate to relatively small occurrences (e.g. I had a good chat with a friend, or I had a great lunch) or larger ones (e.g. I published a paper, or was offered a new job position) and you can give as much or as little detail as you like. This process helps to shift our natural focus from negative occurrences to positive ones. If you’ve written these down in a journal reading through them once in a while can also help to give you a boost.

Connect with others

Loneliness and social isolation are associated with a whole host of negative outcomes including cardiovascular disease. With more people reporting loneliness during lockdown, it is important to find ways to stay in touch with others.

This could include video calls using Zoom or Skype, joining online communities via shared interest groups, or online illness-specific support groups via charities, such as the British Heart Foundation or forums like HealthUnlocked. For those who may not have online access, consider reaching out with a telephone call or by writing a letter. Don’t put off connecting with others.

Hopefully, this post has given you a few ideas on how to help keep your heart ticking along nicely. Small but realistic ways to start improving your heart health could make all the difference.

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About the author

Elaina sitting on a red and blue couch, smiling.

Dr Elaina Taylor
Senior Lecturer in Psychology

Dr Elaina Taylor is a Lecturer and Chartered Psychologist. She is a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, full member of the Division of Health Psychology and Chartered member of the British Psychological Society.

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