Cardiovascular disease (CVD) poses a significant health burden globally, causing an estimated third of all deaths.
Many of the factors that increase our risk of heart problems can be modified through healthy lifestyle habits. It is never too late to start taking steps towards improving your heart health and studies show that an overall healthy lifestyle results in a significantly lower risk of cardiovascular disease.
A 2021 review of 142 studies found that those with the healthiest lifestyles had a 55-71% lower risk of cardiovascular diseases such as strokes, high blood pressure, atrial fibrillation, peripheral artery disease, coronary heart disease and heart failure.
What can I do to improve my heart health?
Regular exercise contributes to a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease in many ways. By helping us lose weight or maintain a healthy weight, exercise reduces our risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes, both of which contribute to an increased risk of developing CVD.
A healthy diet and exercise help with weight management, reduced abdominal fat, improved circulation, healthy blood glucose and cholesterol levels and blood pressure. For example, if you have high blood pressure, regularly exercising for 30 minutes of a day can reduce your reading by 5 to 8 mmHg.
- Aim for 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise a day – the level of intensity should be enough to make you breathless. You can break this into to shorter intervals if this is easier to work into your schedule.
- Aim to include strength training exercises for at least two days a week, which can include using your own body weight (e.g., squats, lunges, tricep dips, yoga or pilates) or using weights either at home or at the gym.
- If you are not a regular exerciser, it is never too late to start. You may wish to join a gym or get a personal trainer, or exercise with a friend so that you can encourage each other to keep it up. Why not try an activity app, or invest in a Fitbit to monitor your steps and set fitness goals?
If you have a pre-existing heart condition, we recommend that you consult your health practitioner before starting a new exercise regime.
Eating a healthy diet and avoiding foods known to contribute to cardiovascular disease can help manage your weight, reduce your risk of diabetes, high blood pressure and coronary heart disease.
Eating a diet high in fruits, legumes, non-starchy vegetables, and wholegrains are recommended, whilst avoiding or limiting your intake of trans-fats, saturated fats, red meat, refined carbohydrates, sodium, and sugary drinks. One of the most researched diets for cardiovascular health is the Mediterranean diet – studies show that this diet reduces the incidence of cardiovascular diseases and risk factors, such as obesity, high blood pressure, metabolic syndrome, and high LDL cholesterol levels.
- Increase fruit and vegetable intake - Consuming 10 portions a day was associated with a 24% reduced risk of heart disease, a 33% lower risk of stroke and a 28% reduced risk of cardiovascular disease.
- Reduce your sodium intake – even a modest decrease can be beneficial to heart health, reducing blood pressure by about 5 to 6 mm Hg if you have high blood pressure:
- Avoid or reduce your intake of processed foods as sodium tends to be added to these products.
- Use herbs or spices to flavour your food instead of adding salt.
- Eat potassium rich foods (e.g., avocados, kumara, spinach, beans, legumes) to reduce the effects of sodium on the blood pressure4.
- Review your caffeine intake – to see whether caffeine affects your blood pressure, try measuring your blood pressure before and after drinking a cup. If your blood pressure increases, then you may want to reduce your intake4.
- Reduce your alcohol intake – limit your alcohol to 1-2 glasses and consider drinking red wine, which contains polyphenols.
Maintaining a healthy weight can reduce your risk of high LDL cholesterol, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and sleep disorders – all these factors increase your risk of developing cardiovascular disease.
Carrying extra weight around your waistline increases your risk and a waist measurement over 40 inches (102 cm) puts men at risk and a waistline over 35 inches (89 cm) puts women at risk4.
- Eat a healthy wholefood diet – see above for recommendations.
- Exercise regularly - see above for recommendations.
- Consider intermittent fasting – a recent clinical trial found that time restricted eating (e.g., eating within a 4–10-hour window and fasting for the remainder of the day) can help reduce body fat mass, blood pressure and oxidative stress.
Maintain oral health
Oral health issues include cavities, periodontal disease, and tooth loss increases your risk for cardiovascular disease. For example, plaque build-up can cause gingivitis, which can lead to periodontal disease. This leads to inflammation and bacteria not only in the mouth, but potentially through the bloodstream causing damage to blood vessels and the heart.
- Regular dental checks.
- Brush your teeth twice a day and keep up the flossing.
- Cut down on sugar and processed foods.
- Give up smoking.
Smoking increases your risk of cardiovascular disease, particularly in current and recent smokers.
- Get support – giving up smoking can be difficult and frustrating, so the best advice is to get some support. This could be found through your family or friends but is also worth considering professional support – speak to your health practitioner, community pharmacist, or contact Quitline free on 0800 778 778.
- Have a plan – identify your triggers and habits. For example, having a smoke on the way to work, socialising with friends who smoke, having a drink, or having a stressful day. Once you know when you are most likely to smoke, you can produce strategies to reduce your urge to smoke. You could call a friend, go for a walk, run, go to the gym, or chew gum.
- Consider nicotine replacements – speak to your health practitioner, there are pharmaceutical and natural aids to help curb the cravings.
Stress can contribute to cardiovascular disease in many ways. It is one of the key triggers for poor health decisions, such as eating processed foods, reaching for a cigarette, or a glass of wine. It also plays a role in blood pressure, LDL cholesterol levels, blood sugar levels, obesity, inflammation, and cellular damage.
Everyone experiences stress and stress can be a good thing in the short term but finding ways to better manage your stress levels can have a beneficial impact on your cardiovascular health.
BBA (Hons)., BNat., mNMHNZ
Registered Naturopath & Medical Herbalist
 Cardiovascular diseases. (2019, June 11). WHO | World Health Organization. https://www.who.int/health-topics/cardiovascular-diseases#tab=tab_1
 Zhang Y, Pan X, Chen J, et al (2021). Combined lifestyle factors, all-cause mortality and cardiovascular disease: a systematic review and meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies. J Epidemiol Community Health 2021; 75:92-99. doi: 10.1136/jech-2020-214050
 10 drug-free ways to control high blood pressure. (2021, February 24). Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/high-blood-pressure/in-depth/high-blood-pressure/art-20046974
 Pallazola, V. A., Davis, D. M., Whelton, S. P., Cardoso, R., Latina, J. M., Michos, E. D., Sarkar, S., Blumenthal, R. S., Arnett, D. K., Stone, N. J., & Welty, F. K. (2019). A clinician's guide to healthy eating for cardiovascular disease prevention. Mayo Clinic Proceedings: Innovations, Quality & Outcomes, 3(3), 251-267. doi: 10.1016/j.mayocpiqo.2019.05.001
 Fruit and vegetable consumption and mortality from all causes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer: Systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies. (2014). BMJ, 349(sep03 18), g5472-g5472. doi: /10.1136/bmj. g5472
 Gabel, K., Cienfuegos, S., Kalam, F., Ezpeleta, M., & Varady, K. A. (2021). Time-restricted eating to improve cardiovascular health. Current Atherosclerosis Reports, 23(5). doi: 10.1007/s11883-021-00922-7
 Banks, E., Joshy, G., Korda, R. J., Stavreski, B., Soga, K., Egger, S., Day, C., Clarke, N. E., Lewington, S., & Lopez, A. D. (2019). Tobacco smoking and risk of 36 cardiovascular disease subtypes: Fatal and non-fatal outcomes in a large prospective Australian study. BMC Medicine, 17(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12916-019-1351-4