It’s an unfortunate truth that most of us put our cardiovascular health on the back burner until it's almost always too late. So, this World Heart Day (29th September, it's okay if you are reading this on a later date, you still have a heart), we want to give you a critical and timely reminder to take care of the organ that is quite literally, your lifeblood.
Here’s the good part though - keeping your heart in tip-top shape is a lot easier than you might think. Small changes to your diet and lifestyle can go a long way. The key, however, is staying consistent.
But first - how do you know if you have a healthy (or an unhealthy) heart?
Here’s how you know your heart is in great shape
So, you’re putting in the work - you’ve altered your diet, and you’re exercising regularly…here are the signs that it’s working for you:
Your blood pressure is ideal
Measure your blood pressure regularly either when you get your health check-ups or with an at-home monitor. The ideal number should be around or below 120/80 mm Hg. The top number is the maximum pressure the heart exerts while beating (systolic pressure).The bottom number is the amount of pressure in the arteries between beats (diastolic pressure).
Your cholesterol levels are healthy
A blood test will reveal your cholesterol levels. For adults, total cholesterol levels under 200 mg/dl are considered healthy. Of this, your ‘good cholesterol’ levels should be above sixty, and ‘bad cholesterol’ levels should be below 100.
You can breathe well
This is fairly easy to gauge. If you can perform moderately intense activities (such as brisk walking) without difficulty breathing or tightness in your chest, it means your heart is supplying your body with enough oxygen.
Your heart rate is optimal
The resting heart rate for adults should range from 60-100 beats per minute. A lower heart rate at rest implies more efficient cardiovascular functioning and a good fitness level.
Before we jump into the kinds of workouts that are the best for your heart, here’s a quick primer on the kinds of food you need to incorporate in your diet for optimal cardiovascular performance. You’ll be happy to find that most of these are pantry staples!
Your go-to list of heart-friendly foods
Pulses and legumes
Chickpeas, moong dal, toor dal, and even good ol’ rajma are packed with nutrients and boast a low glycemic index. Eating these reduces the levels of bad cholesterol (low-density lipoprotein) in your body, bringing down risk of heart disease. They also include protein, fibre, and antioxidants that boost your overall well-being.
Fish are high in unsaturated fats called omega 3 fatty acids. These form a protective layer over your heart and help increase your good cholesterol in your blood. However, too much fish can have unwelcome side effects due to its mercury levels. The American Heart Association Recommends eating a 3-ounce serving of fatty fish twice a week for best results.
Studies have shown that the consumption of leafy green vegetables such as kale, spinach and lettuce reduces risk of cardiovascular ailments. They are also rich in vitamin K, which keeps your arteries healthy and promotes proper blood clotting.
All kinds of berries - strawberries, blueberries, blackberries are rich in antioxidants which help in reducing the risk of heart diseases. Some berries are also known to control blood pressure and blood clotting.
Garlic has been used as a natural remedy to treat many ailments for centuries now. In recent years, medical research has cofirmed that garlic has medicinal properties and found that garlic can even help improve heart health.
This is due to presence of allicin, which is believed to have a multitude of therapeutic effects. Garlic also helps in reducing blood pressure and reduce cholesterol levels. Make sure to consume garlic raw, or crush it and let it sit for a few minutes before cooking. This allows for the formation of allicin, maximizing its potential health benefits.
These are just a few foods that will improve your overall health and wellbeing. As a general rule for good heart health, eat a fresh, unprocessed diet rich in fruit and vegetables, and make sure to avoid fried and junk food items.
We also know that you love to have fried food every now and then - as a general rule, try to use oils with monounsaturated fats (plant based). Research has shown that olive oil is the most effective in reducing the risk of heart diseases.
Don’t forget to supplement your diet with exercise - your workout plan should include a healthy mix of cardio, strength, and stretching.
Exercises for peak cardiovascular health
Walking at a moderate pace for just 30 minutes a day improves heart and brain health. It also helps you lose weight and lower cholesterol levels. The great part is that anyone can do it. What’s important is making a start - whether it be in your neighbourhood park or even a few brisk rounds of your living room!
This is a particularly effective option for those who may be recovering from an injury or suffering chronic pain. It’s gentle on the joints while burning some serious calories, improving blood circulation, lowering blood pressure, and boosting cardiac efficiency.
Research has found that for less than an hour a week can reduce risk of heart attack and stroke by 40-70%. However, if you have never done this before, make sure you consult a qualified trainer who can show you the right form and develop a weightlifting plan in accordance with your current fitness levels.
Alternating between bursts of intense activity and short periods of rest forces your heart to alternate between working hard and then resting. This improves overall cardiac performance and efficiency. Pro tip - don’t jump right into interval training when you’re beginning your fitness journey. Consult a qualified professional and ease into it.
There are different formats and poses that can have a positive effect on your heart health. The mind-body connection that is crucial to yoga can help lower blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood glucose levels, thereby improving cardiovascular health. It is also especially effective for those recovering from a heart ailment, improving their overall quality of life.
Here is a beginners guide to yoga which can help you get started.
Small changes to your diet and regular physical activity can go a long way in improving your heart health and preventing ailments later in life. And in addition to boosting your physical health, a nutritious diet and exercise can do wonders for your energy levels and mental health. Remember, it’s never too late to start prioritizing yourself!