Healthy heart habits

Do one little thing for your heart today

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Keeping yourself at the right weight is a key way to ensure good heart health - and it turns out it’s the little decisions that can make a big difference.

While a one-off special occasion like a wedding or birthday, shouldn’t have a significant impact on your health and waistline, the little, daily choices you make definitely will.

Statistics indicate that someone who is obese is significantly more likely to have heart problems and 30 per cent more like to suffer from a cancer.

The good news is that maintaining a healthy weight doesn’t necessarily require drastic lifestyle changes. It’s actually about the small decisions you make every day - and how these can add up over time.

Even smaller, yet sustained, calorie excess builds up – 100 calories extra a day over 10 days adds up to a significant 1000 calories that haven’t been burned off and can be stored as fat.

"The calorific load in food today is mind-blowing and it’s easy in a short amount of time to consume 2-3 times the amount of calories you should be in a day", Dr Amit Sethi

The trick is not to think about the 1000, but to think about the 100. Make the small changes, and the bigger ones can look after themselves. In this way, you can come to think of maintaining a healthy weight as a series of simple, daily decisions - rather than big life-altering changes which can be difficult to sustain long-term.

What's the link between weight and heart disease?

While you can see or feel the affects of weight gain on your body - trousers feeling tight or the need to shift to another belt notch - the effect of excess weight on your heart can be quietly cumulative. You might not know about it until you have a serious problem.

Sustained high blood pressure (which can damage the lining of the coronary arteries) and raised cholesterol levels are both common signs of excess weight.

And both can contribute to damage done to the cardiovascular system through plaque - a combination of cholesterol, calcium and fat in the blood (triglycerides). Plaque can build up inside arteries, hardening and narrowing them, reducing blood flow to the heart and even causing a blockage, which can lead to a heart attack.

Is cholesterol the big baddie?

Cholesterol is actually produced naturally by your liver and vital for the formation of cell membranes, vitamin D and certain hormones. “Good” cholesterol is called HDL (high density lipoprotein). This component of cholesterol is actually protective to the heart and is found in, for example, root vegetables and other healthy foods.

For some people, high cholesterol levels are genetic, and treatable by drugs. For others though they are a result of LDL cholesterol (low density lipoprotein) and triglycerides (“bad cholesterol”) caused by eating too much high-calorie or high saturated fat content food.

High cholesterol levels produce no outward symptoms, so if you have concerns talk to your family physician and see if they feel a cholesterol check is necessary.

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What are the measures that really matter?

"The rate of obesity around the world is spiralling, but there’s also an increasing awareness of the importance of weight and body fat composition. Weight as a number doesn’t necessarily mean we need to lose weight. A Body Mass Index (BMI) is useful but it is increasingly questionable how much we should be guided by this.", says Dr Sethi.

BMI doesn’t distinguish between fat and muscle, which weighs more than fat, so muscular people may be wrongly classed by their BMI as overweight or obese. Conversely, people with normal BMIs could still carry a lot of fat around their waists, which may indicate an increased heart health risk.

Some research now suggests that the ratio of waist circumference to height may be a better gauge for cardiovascular risk – the healthiest measure being a waist circumference less than half your height.

Key ways to help maintain a healthy weight:

  • Eat plenty of unprocessed food - particularly fruit and vegetables, legumes, whole grains and nuts
  • Limit red meat in your diet, and eat more fish and chicken, both of which are lower in saturated fats
  • Reduce the salt in your diet - read the backs of packets to be aware of the "hidden" salt in processed foods
  • Engage in regular physical activity.

"Stopping problems 20 years before they manifest is much easier. If we eat good food, keep our triglyceride levels low and exercise regularly to create muscle mass that can help burn off excess calories we can maintain a healthy weight and heart now - and into the future."

It truly is those small decisions, made daily, that can add up through the years.


1. LDL and HDL Cholesterol: What's bad and what's good? American Heart Association 2 July 2009.

2. http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs311/en/

3. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10832771

Dr Amit Sethi MRCGP Medical Director, Bupa Global

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