You & your heart: Reducing your risk factors for heart disease

This #HeartMonth, we’ve been talking about your heart and what you can do to keep it healthy. This week, we’re talking about the actions you can take to reduce your personal risk factors for heart disease and stroke.

Did you know that 8 in 10 cases of premature heart disease and stroke cases are preventable through healthy lifestyle behaviours? Living a healthier lifestyle brings many of the risk factors for heart disease and stroke into your control. Explore these heart-healthy tips from the Heart and Stroke Foundation to understand your own risk factors and what you can do to mitigate them.

Healthy eating

According to Heart and Stroke, “eating a healthy, balanced diet is one of the most important things you can do to protect your health.” So, what does a healthy, balanced diet look like?

  • Eating lots of fruit and vegetables. Fruits and veggies are packed with nutrients and help you maintain a healthy weight. Canada’s Food Guide recommends you fill half your plate with fruits and veggies every time you eat.
  • Choosing whole grains. Whole grain foods are prepared using the entire grain and offer vitamins and minerals that help you stay healthy and fuller, longer. Examples of whole grains include whole grain bread and crackers, brown or wild rice, quinoa, oatmeal, or hulled barley. The Food Guide recommends you fill a quarter of your plat with whole grain foods.
  • Consuming protein-rich foods. Protein helps build and maintain bones, muscles and skin, and you should try to incorporate protein into your diet every day. Foods rich in protein include legumes, nuts, seeds, tofu, fish, shellfish, eggs, poultry, lean red meats, lower fat milk, yogurts and kefir, and cheese lower in fat and sodium. The Food Guide recommends eating two servings of fish eat week and encourages you to try plant-based foods more often. You should fill a quarter of your plate with protein foods.
  • Limit processed foods. Highly and ultra-processed foods are foods that are changed from their original food source and have many added ingredients. During processing, many of the healthy nutrients, vitamins and minerals are removed while salt and sugar are added. Examples of these types of foods might be fast food, hot dogs, chips, cookies, frozen pizza, and white rice or bread.
  • Make water your go-to drink. Energy drinks, fruit juice, soft drinks and flavored coffees have lots of sugar and little nutritional value. Water supports health and hydrates you without adding empty calories to your diet.

For more on the basics of healthy eating, click here. Want to get an idea of how healthy your existing eating habits are? Try Heart and Stroke’s healthy eating check-up here.

Staying active

Physical activity has a myriad of benefits for your health, including dramatically lowering your risk of heart disease and stroke, preventing and controlling your personal risk factors, reducing your stress levels, increasing your energy,  and improving your sleep and digestion. You can see the benefits of exercising within days of starting regular activity, and after just three months, you might experience better health, improved posture and balance, stronger muscles and bones, more confidence and even a more positive outlook on life.

Heart and Stroke recommends adults should have at least 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous aerobic activity per week. If 150 minutes feels like more than you can commit to, you can break it down into chunks as small as 10 minutes throughout the day. Check out our article on 7 heart healthy outdoor activities to try this winter for ideas to get your activity started, or learn more about types of activities to try here.

Reducing stress

Nearly 25% of Canadians say they experience high levels of stress, which is linked to heart disease and stroke. Stress can cause physiological effects like making the heart work harder, increasing blood pressure, and increasing sugar and fat levels in the blood. This can increase the risk of clots forming and travelling to the heart or brain, causing a heart attack or stroke. (Heart and Stroke) In addition, feeling stressed can make it harder to maintain your commitment to living a healthy lifestyle.

One of the first steps to managing stress is to understand what’s causing it. Try Heart and Stroke’s Stress Management test here to identify the stressors in your life. Then, consider the three basic types of coping skills to start learning how to manage the stress you experience:

  • Physical/behavioural coping skills involve taking care of your body to keep it as healthy as possible.
  • Thinking (cognitive)/mental coping skills involve using your mind and thoughts to counteract the negative effects of experiencing stress.
  • Personal/social coping skills involve taking time for the things that bring you joy and nurture your soul.

Learn more about coping skills here.

Maintaining a healthy weight

Managing your weight doesn’t mean you have to make dramatic changes to your life. Setting realistic goals and taking small steps to achieve them can help you achieve your goals and keep you focused on working towards them. We’ve already discussed some of the most important components of achieving a healthy weight above – eat healthy, well-balanced meals, drink water, and get 150 minutes of aerobic exercise per week. Check out more resources here.

Quitting smoking

Smoking and other tobacco use are a leading risk for disability and premature death in Canada (Heart and Stroke).  We all know that smoking is harmful for your health, but let’s review the impact that smoking has on your health:

  • Contributes to the buildup of plaque in your arteries
  • Increases your risk of blood clots
  • Reduces the oxygen in your blood
  • Makes your heart work harder

Within 24 hours of quitting smoking, your chances of having a heart attack start to go down. Over the following 15 years, the damage to your heart and lungs can heal, and your risk of heart disease can be similar to a person who’s never smoked at all. If you’re curious about what your life would look like smoke-free, check out the Smoke Free Curious campaign here. The campaign provides tools and resources to help get you started on your journey to quitting smoking, and you can even enter the Quit to Win contest for a chance to win $1,000 by quitting smoking for the first 7 days of the month.