30 Minutes a Day to a Healthy Heart
6 numbers can save your life
Want to maintain a healthy heart? Keep track of these six health measurements that can warn you of trouble ahead Want to maintain a healthy heart?
Six measurements can tell where you stand in your battle against the heart’s attackers. Three you can check yourself – all you need is a pencil, tape measure and a watch with a second hand. The others you can get from your doctor. Write these numbers down and keep track of them over time, and they will speak volumes about the health of your heart.
1. Daily kilojoule needs
How much food do you actually eat? In a perfect world, you’d eat just enough to provide fuel for your body. In reality, many of us eat between 420 and 4200 kilojoules more than we need most days of the week. An extra slice of cheese here, an extra helping of meat there, a bag of chips – “just this once” – all add up to weight gain, and becoming overweight is among the worse things you can do for your heart.
Few people know exactly how many kilojoules they need each day, but you can work that out by multiplying the number of kilograms you weigh by 120 to 140 depending on how active you are. Most women need just under 8400 kilojoules a day for good health, men generally about 10,700. That roughly equates to 1260 to 1680 kilojoules for breakfast, 2100 to 2520 for lunch, 2520 to 2940 for dinner, and two or three snacks of roughly 420 to 840 kilojoules each.
But picky kilojoule-counting is not the best way to match your food consumption to your body’s energy needs. It is far better to change the type of food you eat. It’s almost impossible to consume too many kilojoules if you focus on eating fruit and vegetables. And having a diet rich in these means you get plenty of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and other nutrients essential for heart health.
The important message is that all adults should be aware of how much food they need to eat each day for optimal health, energy and weight.
2. Waist size
Of all the ways to measure whether your weight is affecting the health of your heart, waist size is one of the best. An even more accurate measure is your waist-to-hip ratio (calculated by dividing your waist circumference at its narrowest point by your hip circumference at its widest point): A ratio of more than 0.90 in men or 0.85 in women shows central obesity and may indicate metabolic syndrome, a group of risk factors that can accompany heart disease.
Fat cells are not just storage vessels for extra kilojoules your body can’t burn off. When body fat is packed into your abdomen – in and around your internal organs – the fat cells release inflammatory chemicals and out-of-kilter levels of appetite-controlling proteins. The result is that your risk of heart attack soars as inflammation speeds up atherosclerosis.
In addition, your risk of insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome rises as inflammatory substances interfere with the way muscle and liver cells function.
Meanwhile, your natural appetite-suppressing system is disrupted, leading to more overeating and more abdominal fat.
To check your waistline, wrap a tape measure around your abdomen, at or near your belly button. Keep it snug but not tight – and don’t pull your tummy in. For women, health risk begins to rise with a waist size of more than 80cm (31in). For men, risk increases with a measurement of more than 95cm (37in). Check every two weeks.
3. Cholesterol counts
It is important to know not just your total cholesterol reading but also your levels of bad LDL cholesterol and good HDL cholesterol. When you see your doctor for blood-test results, the lab report may have itemised these two types and perhaps also given a ratio of your total cholesterol to HDL (TC:HDL). If so, ask for the readings for both forms of cholesterol and the ratio figure and jot them in your diary.
Aim for total cholesterol below 5mmol/L (millimoles per litre of blood), and LDL-cholesterol levels below 3.5mmol/L. A healthy HDL level is 1mmol/L or above. You have to fast for 8-12 hours before most blood tests. If your total cholesterol is consistently higher than 6 to 6.5mmol/L, your doctor will suggest lifestyle measures and may offer you treatment and recommend regular check-ups.
4. Blood pressure
Blood pressure (BP) – the force of blood against the walls of your arteries – rises and falls naturally during the day. When it remains elevated, you have hypertension (high blood pressure), and this carries a higher risk of heart disease and stroke.
A blood pressure reading of 140/90mmHg (millimetres of mercury) or more is considered high. If the reading is 120/80 to 139/89mmHg, you may still be at risk and should take steps to prevent hypertension.
Have your doctor check your blood pressure at every visit and ask him how often it should be measured. Regular blood pressure checks will help spot a potential problem early. You can also buy a home blood pressure monitor, but home monitoring should never replace the regular checks by your doctor or registered nurse.
Triglycerides are made from the fats and carbohydrates you eat, which are converted into a form that can be stored in fat cells. Triglycerides are also released from fat tissue when the body needs extra energy between meals. It’s normal to have some triglycerides in your bloodstream, but high levels are linked to coronary artery disease – especially in women.
When you have high triglycerides paired with low HDLs, your risk of insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome may be increased. A normal triglyceride reading is less than 1.5mmol/L. A triglyceride check is usually done from the same blood sample you give for a fasting cholesterol test. Your GP will advise how often you should have your triglycerides checked.
6. Pulse rate
Your pulse is the number of times your heart beats in one minute. Regular monitoring of your resting pulse, first thing in the morning, will help you see if your exercise regimen is strengthening your heart. For example, a normal resting pulse rate is 60 to 90 beats per minute. People who are fit tend to have lower resting pulse rates because their heart muscles are in good shape. But if you don’t exercise regularly and your heart rate is lower than the normal range, tell your doctor – it could be a sign of heart disease.
You’ll need a watch or clock with a second hand to check. The pulse is best measured at the wrist or neck, where an artery runs close to the surface of the skin. Place your index and middle fingers on the underside of the opposite wrist. Press firmly with the flat of your fingers until you feel the pulse. Find a neck pulse on either side of your Adam’s apple – just press your fingers into the hollows on either side of your windpipe. Once you’ve found your pulse, count the beats for 15 seconds and multiply by four. This will give the rate in beats per minute.
Once a month, take your pulse in the morning before you get out of bed. To check if your exercise programme is working, assess your maximum pulse just after exercise and note how long it takes to return to its normal resting rate. The time interval should reduce as you get fitter. You’ll know your regimen is strengthening your heart if your pulse rate gradually falls within the healthy range.
This year, an estimated 12,500 Australians will have a heart attack. The good news is that most heart disease is preventable by a shift in lifestyle, and a new Reader’s Digest book, 30 Minutes a Day to a Healthy Heart, will help you achieve that. This proven 320-page guide by leading heart experts is packed with vital tips on how to prevent heart disease.