Diet, exercise and lifestyle keep your heart healthy


. The basics of heart health come back to exercise, nutrition and lifestyle

. Quit smoking, avoid stress, minimise alcohol and stay active

. Develop a diet that sources items from the five key food groups

This is an overview of the basics of heart health. The core tenets are exercise, nutrition and lifestyle. I’m sure many of you have heard the basics before but it’s good to remind ourselves from time to time. For a change, we’ll start with lifestyle. It’s paramount to remove stress from your life. While often easier said than done, everything else will flow from the basic philosophy. Control the controllables, enjoy the simplicities and make it a point to spend time with your friends and family. You will be amazed at how much better you feel once you cut out negativity from your life.

Read a book, go for a walk, spend time outdoors and genuinely try and make time each week to unwind. It’s impossible to stay ‘up’ all the time and you need that break mentally which helps you physically. Try and learn new skills and gain new hobbies to keep your mind active and body productive. All of these little things add up in the long run when trying to achieve a healthy balanced lifestyle of mind, body and spirit. An active mind and a stress free life is a great start when looking to preserve your long term health.

Smoking and alcohol

The other major steps you can take are to quit smoking, reduce alcohol and stay active. If you can do some sort of physical activity two to three times a week, cut out smoking completely and take alcohol in moderation you will go a long way to reducing the risk of heart disease. According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) smoking is the most ‘preventable cause of ill health and death in Australia’ but the good news is that the message is getting through. Eleven per cent of people aged 14 and over smoked regularly in 2019 which is down from 24 per cent in 1991.

That’s a positive trend line and one that is certainly good for the long term health of the nation. But alcohol is obviously the other lifestyle choice that needs to be kept in moderation to prevent not just anti-social behaviour but also to prevent any long-term health issues from arising. According to the AIHW one in four people consumes alcohol at a level that places them in harm on a single occasion and one in six people takes alcohol at levels that places their long term health in jeopardy and these are obviously slightly concerning statistics. But the key is moderation and common sense, and if you apply these two principles diligently you should be fine.

Diet is the key to a healthy heart

The next point we will look at is nutrition. The key point with nutrition is balance. You have to develop a balanced diet that gives you sufficient nutrients and energy from all the key food groups. As a general rule, a balanced diet is considered to be one that takes the key elements of the five food groups of fruit, vegetables, grain, dairy and protein sourced through lean meats, poultry, fish and eggs.

If you make it a point to incorporate those five food groups into your diet on a regular basis you will be well on your way to achieving a balanced diet which will go a long way to preserving your long term health. But there is certainly some work to do. According to the AIHW, only one in ten adults in Australia met the recommendations for daily vegetable consumption in 2017-18 and there was also an unhealthy intake of discretionary and counterproductive foods such as salt, fat and sugar. The heart foundation recommends eating ‘at least five serves of vegetables and two serves of fruit every day.’ The fruits that are most highly recommended are berries, tomatoes and avocados and the vegetables that are highly regarded include beans and green vegetables.

And the final point that often gets asked about in regards to diet is whether olive oil should be used. The heart foundation states: Olive oil is a healthy and versatile oil that you can use with a variety of cooking methods. Olive oil is a great option for medium-temperature frying (i.e. stir frying or warming food in a pan).  Oils that are suitable for high-temperature frying (e.g. deep frying) include extra virgin olive oil, high oleic canola oil and high oleic peanut oil, as they are more stable at high temperatures. 

And finally we will look at exercise. This study concluded that a lack of physical activity can be responsible for over 35 chronic diseases and conditions. These include coronary artery disease, Alzheimer’s disease and other high cardiovascular risk factors. The evidence presented suggests that a lack of physical activity increases the decline in skeletal muscle strength and cognition which can lead to ‘both shorter health span and early mortality.’

This is particularly relevant to older Australians. According to the AIHW, 75 per cent of people over the age of 65 were not sufficiently active in 2014/15. Another study suggested that the evidence is there that regular physical activity is safe for older people and that a lot of the high risks ailments such as cardiovascular diseases and cognitive impairments decrease through regular exercise.

While the percentages are certainly better, younger people also need to be mindful to exercise adequately. A national health survey in 2014/15 indicated that almost one in three 18-64 year olds were not sufficiently active per the recommended 150 minutes per week while just under 15 per cent were completely inactive and did no exercise at all over the course of a week.

This is obviously a recipe for problems down the road and it’s important to get into a rhythm early on and maintain that as you get older to avoid any long term health problems that are bound to arise if you maintain an inactive and sedentary lifestyle. According to the ABS, if ‘Australians did an extra 15 minutes of brisk walking for at least five days each week this would reduce disease burden due to physical inactivity in the population by approximately 13%.’ If this was increased to 30 minutes the burden of disease could be reduced by up to 26%, so the incentive is certainly there to get fit and get healthy.

What type of exercise?

If you fall in that 18-64 age bracket the Australian Heart Foundation recommends doing some form of physical activity five days a week (2.5-5 hours of moderate activity or 1.25-2.5 hours of vigorous activity), which leaves you with quite a bit of flexibility as to how you plan on structuring your fitness diary. The physical activities recommend include walking, swimming, yoga, skipping, cycling and martial arts.

Hopkins Medicine states that you should try and achieve a mix of aerobic exercise, resistance training, stretching, flexibility and balance to create a diverse program that provides holistic health benefit that includes improving blood circulation, weight loss and body preparation which will enable you to fully commit to a thorough fitness schedule. This will in turn help you to lower your heart rate and blood pressure and hopefully put you on the path to being fit and healthy.

Sleep and blood pressure

The final points we will address today relate to sleep and blood pressure. There is a correlation between a good night’s sleep and a healthy heart. Hopkins Medicine states: ‘Without enough sleep, your risk for heart disease and heart attack goes up—no matter what your age, your weight, or how much you exercise or smoke.’ The Heart Foundation adds that sleep deprivation is ‘associated with high blood pressure, a known risk factor associated with heart disease.’

The experts recommend at least seven to eight hours of sleep per night for multiple reasons. It’s a great stress reliever, it’s a lifestyle choice and an acknowledgement that you need rest and recuperation. It affects your mood, your social interactions and poor sleep habits have been previously linked with depression. And finally, it affects your functionality. Without proper sleep you’re not as sharp or mentally alert, so not just for your heart but your overall wellbeing you’re doing yourself a great disservice if you don’t get adequate rest.

The Heart Foundation states that while there is no one cause for high blood pressure, several factors can contribute including: 

  • Family history 
  • Eating patterns (including salty foods) 
  • Alcohol intake 
  • Smoking 
  • Weight 
  • Physical activity and exercise levels. 

It goes on to say that it can be elevated by ‘stress, your emotional state, recent physical activity, caffeine consumption or even talking.’ 

The great news is that you can lower your blood pressure by actioning all of the items we have talked about – Diet, exercise and lifestyle. That’s one of the reasons why we left this until last because if you do all of the above as well as get checked regularly your long-term forecast will naturally improve and hopefully your blood pressure will return to more normal levels if there is any reason for concern.


AIHW Smoking stats: Smoking Overview

AIWH Alcohol stats: Alcohol Overview

AIHW Fruit and Veg stats: Food and Nutrition Overview

Heart Foundation: Fruit, vegetables and heart health

Heart Foundation: 9 food and heart health myths, busted

NCBI: Role of Inactivity in Chronic Diseases: Evolutionary Insight and Pathophysiological Mechanisms

NCBI: Physical activity in older age: perspectives for healthy ageing and frailty

ABS health stats: Research and Statistics

AIHW fitness stats: Australia’s Health 2018

Hopkins Medicine: Do Your Heart a Favor – Get More Sleep

Heart Foundation: How does sleep affect your heart?

Heart Foundation: Blood pressure and your heart

Heart Foundation: Physical activity and your heart health

Physical Activity and Exercise | Heart Foundation

Hopkins Medicine: 3 Kinds of Exercise That Boost Heart Health

3 Kinds of Exercise That Boost Heart Health | Johns Hopkins Medicine