I start the day with a two-mile run. Living in Devon, I have the luxury of beautiful countryside right on my doorstep. I enjoy running over Dartmoor and cycling along the river Exe – anything that increases my heart rate and allows me to maintain it. Working at 50-70% of your maximum heart rate (220) minus your age offers cardiovascular benefits. Regular exercise lowers blood pressure and increase levels of good cholesterol.
The heart is a muscle. Like all muscles, it requires regular exercise. I aim for 150 minutes a week of moderate intensity aerobic exercise, which I spread over five days with two recovery days. As well as the physical benefits, exercise is also how I unwind. It reduces levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, which is linked to cardiovascular risk.
I keep an eye on my HRV. Heart rate variability (HRV) is the difference in time between the beats of your heart. A higher HRV is associated with a healthier heart, with one study suggesting a low HRT is associated with a 45% increased risk of a heart attack or stroke. Meditation keeps my HRV stable – it forces me to take a moment to breathe, clear my mind and settle stress levels.
A low-sugar diet is best. Sugar spikes can damage your arteries over time, and surges of insulin can lead to weight gain and type 2 diabetes, which is a risk factor for heart disease. I eat a Mediterranean-style diet and limit refined carbs, processed food and salt. I look for high protein and slow-release energy food to start the day – either a bowl of porridge with protein powder, or scrambled eggs with avocado.
I eat most things in moderation. I avoid sugar and high-salt foods, but eat a small amount of red meat, and cook with lots of fresh vegetables and olive oil. I avoid processed food and never cook with salt, nor do I have it on the table. High salt intake is a significant contributor to high blood pressure, a condition one in four adults in the UK struggles with.
Excessive alcohol intake can lead to high blood pressure. Alcohol is not only high in calories but toxic to the heart when taken in high quantities. I see many patients with heart failure due to high alcohol intake. I don’t drink more than 14 units a week.
I don’t take supplements. A food-first approach to your health is far more important – we shouldn’t be relying on supplements. Omega-3 is the exception, especially if you don’t like or eat a lot of oily fish. Studies suggest a diet low in omega-3 fatty acids is associated with a reduced life expectancy, similar to the impact of smoking.
Sleep is good for your heart. Over time, poor sleep can increase blood pressure, the leading risk factor for strokes. A lack of sleep can also lead to unhealthy habits that can hurt your heart, including higher stress levels, less motivation to be active and poor food choices. Don’t underestimate the power of a solid sleep routine. Since optimising my bedroom environment and bedtime habits, I sleep much better. I avoid caffeine after midday, avoid using phones and laptops in the bedroom and keep my room calm, quiet and dark.