As National Heart Month (February) approaches, the British Heart Foundation gives top tips on how to keep your heart healthy.
By Lisa Salmon
If you're among the 80% of people whose healthy New Year resolution has failed by the end of January, don't despair - National Heart Month is the ideal opportunity to get back on track.
Heart disease is the biggest killer in the UK, and accounts for more than 80,000 deaths each year. Yet an estimated 42,000 deaths from cardiovascular disease (CVD), which includes heart disease and strokes, could be prevented annually by lifestyle changes which will benefit general health as well as the heart.
So if your healthy New Year intentions crumbled in the face of a chocolate bar or a sneaky cigarette, use February's National Heart Month to make at least one small change that could make a big difference.
Ellen Mason, a senior cardiac nurse at the British Heart Foundation (BHF), says: "By now, most New Year resolutions have gone out of the window, so on February 1 just think of doing one thing that could reduce your risk of heart disease and improve your mood - it's not just about your heart, you can look and feel so much better as well.
"If you tell people to start going to the gym, completely change their diet, watch their salt etc, it can seem like a mountain to climb and people just give up.
"But a small change is achievable, and doing something like going for a lunchtime walk regularly, for example, will make you feel better and improve your heart health."
Mason says 80% of heart disease is caused by lifestyle factors, so making small changes really can make a huge difference.
The starting point for those small changes could be the first day of National Heart Month, February 1, when the BHF wants as many people as possible to Rock Up in Red to raise awareness of heart disease, and raise money for the charity.
The idea of the initiative, which is supported by Mollie King of the Saturdays, is for people to wear something red for the day, from clothing to nail varnish, and give £2 to the BHF.
And while wearing red, they might also introduce a small change to their lifestyle to improve their heart health.
The BHF's tips are: Get moving!
Inactive people are more likely to have a heart attack than active people, and it's never too late to start - being physically active in middle age can increase your life expectancy by two years, the same benefit as giving up smoking, says the BHF.
Staying or getting active helps control weight, reduce blood pressure and cholesterol and improves mental health, as well as being beneficial for improving many other health problems.
While exercise like playing a sport or swimming is great, regularly doing everyday things like walking, gardening and climbing stairs is also good for your heart health.
Moderate intensity aerobic activity helps your heart most - that's repetitive rhythmic exercise which makes you feel warmer, breathe harder and makes your heart beat faster.
The aim is to build up to a total of 150 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic activity a week - that might be 30 minutes five days a week.
Mason points out: "Something as simple as regularly taking a brisk walk, doing some gardening or cycling, for 30 minutes five days a week, can halve your risk of heart disease.
"You don't have to pay for gym membership or do a marathon - it's that simple."
The BHF suggests setting realistic, specific goals, like walking for 30 minutes every day, and planning a time to do physical activity that fits in with your routine.
Look for opportunities to be active during the day, such as using the stairs instead of the lift, or walking to the shops instead of driving.
But always stop exercising if you feel any pain or discomfort.
Eat for your heart A healthy diet can help reduce the risk of developing coronary heart disease and stop weight gain, thus reducing your risk of diabetes and high blood pressure. It can also help lower cholesterol levels.
As well as the usual messages of eating plenty of fruit and vegetables, starchy foods, dairy and non-dairy protein and foods that are lower in fat, salt and sugar, the BHF advises that it is much easier to take small dietary steps rather than completely change your diet overnight.
Mason suggests: "Initially you might just want to eat leaner cuts of meat and cut out the bacon butties. A small change is better than nothing, and you can gradually introduce more changes."
Go smoke-free Smokers are almost twice as likely to have a heart attack compared with people who've never smoked, and quitting is the single best thing you can do for your heart health.
Smoking damages the artery lining, leading to a fatty build-up which narrows the artery. This can cause angina, a heart attack or stroke.
In addition, blood is more likely to clot, increasing the risk of heart attack or stroke.
However, the risk to your heart decreases significantly soon after you stop.
Many smokers will have tried to quit as their New Year's resolution, and many may already have failed.
But they should try again - and start small, says Mason.
"Try using nicotine replacement products like e-cigarettes to gradually reduce the number of cigarettes you smoke, until you're really prepared to give up completely," she suggests.
"You've probably got a better chance with nicotine replacement than you have going cold turkey."
She also advises seeking help from NHS Stop Smoking services.
Sensible drinking Drinking more than the recommended alcohol limits can have a harmful effect on the heart, causing abnormal heart rhythms, high blood pressure, damage to the heart muscle and other diseases such as stroke.
To keep your whole body including your heart healthy, stick to drinking guidelines, advises the BHF. Men shouldn't regularly drink more than three to four units of alcohol a day, and women shouldn't regularly drink more than two to three units a day. A unit is a small glass of wine, or half a pint of beer.
And if you drink too much, try reducing slowly to make keeping within the guidelines more achievable eventually, says Mason.
Don't keep it in the family A family history of cardiovascular disease means you have an increased risk of developing the condition.
As well as genes, the BHF points out that lifestyle habits, such as smoking or poor diet passed down the generations, can also increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.
While there's nothing you can do about your family history, you can make sure your lifestyle doesn't further increase your heart disease risk, and tell your doctor you have family history of cardiovascular disease, as he/she may check your blood pressure and cholesterol.
If you're over the age of 40, you can also ask your doctor for a heart health check to find out your risk of getting cardiovascular disease.
"It's the connection between the environment and genes that seems to cause disease a lot of the time," explains Mason.
"That's why it's so important if you have a family history of heart disease to reduce the lifestyle risk factors."
Get advice As part of National Heart Month, Lloydspharmacy is starting a heart health assessment service offering a free consultation with a heart health specialist who will give advice about small lifestyle changes that could help keep your heart healthy.
Alison Freemantle, heart health expert at Lloydspharmacy, says: "Many people will have started the New Year with good intentions to eat more healthily and improve their fitness, but unfortunately motivation tends to dwindle by the end of January.
"National Heart Month is a great opportunity to reignite those resolutions and adopt at least one small change to help improve and maintain your heart health, and you could kick-start your new healthier lifestyle by using our heart health assessment service."
:: For more information about heart health or to order a Rock Up in Red fundraising pack, visit www.bhf.org.uk, or call 0300 330 0645 for the pack :: The Lloydspharmacy heart health assessment service will be available in all branches of Lloydspharmacy from February