Heart disease is one of the leading causes of death in South Africa. Traditionally thought of as more of a male problem, women under the age of 40 now have a one-in-four chance of having a cardiac event, such as a stroke or heart attack. This statistic changes to one-in-three for women over the age of 40, essentially putting women in the same risk category as men. So, what can you as an athlete do to ensure heart health?
Over the past few decades, numerous scientific studies have examined the relationship between physical activity, physical fitness and cardiovascular health. These have reinforced scientific evidence that links regular physical activity to various measures of cardiovascular health. The prevailing view in these reports is that more active or fit individuals tend to be less prone to coronary heart disease (CHD) than their sedentary counterparts.
An inactive lifestyle is one of the five major risk factors for cardiovascular disease (along with high blood pressure, abnormal values for cholesterol, smoking and obesity), as outlined by the American Heart Association. If CHD develops in active or fit individuals, it occurs at a later age and tends to be less severe.
BENEFITS OF EXERCISE FOR YOUR HEART
- It’s great for stress management. Regular exercise helps prevent excess stress, anxiety and depression, so it’s crucial for mental wellbeing and optimal heart health.
- It reduces your heart rate. As a muscle, your heart gets ’fitter‘ the more you exercise, and it is then better able to pump more blood through your body with each beat. And as less effort is required, your resting heart rate slows down.
- It regulates your blood pressure. Sedentary people are 35% more likely to develop high blood pressure than active people. According to the Heart Foundation, a session of moderate exercise helps to lower your blood pressure for up to three hours afterwards, while a few months of regular exercise can drop your blood pressure by up to 10%.
- It improves your ratio of good to bad cholesterol. Regular exercise helps to lower bad cholesterol levels. Plus it improves good cholesterol levels, even more so than medication, especially if combined with healthy changes in diet. It helps you achieve and maintain a healthy weight. Exercise helps burn excess calories, boosts metabolism, decreases fat and increases lean muscle mass, which is essential if you’re carrying extra weight – especially abdominal weight, which puts you at even greater risk.
- It reduces your risk of developing diabetes. People who have type-two diabetes and have a greater risk of developing heart disease as a result. Weight-loss and exercise help to increase insulin sensitivity, which makes you less likely to develop type-two diabetes.
We all realise the enormous advantages that running or walking can have on heart health, but good nutrition is an essential element to ensuring your heart stays healthy. A well-balanced diet is crucial in preserving heart health and just like exercise, it helps to protect the heart in many different ways:
- It’s fantastic for managing stress. Certain foods and drinks such as alcohol and caffeine act as powerful stimulants to the body and hence, are a direct cause of stress. This stimulation, although quite pleasurable in the short term, may be quite harmful in the long run. Eating an antioxidant-rich diet, full of fruit, vegetables and whole grains, can help to combat the nasty by-products (free radicals) that stress produces in your body. Aim to eat three to five servings of fruit and at least five servings of different-coloured vegetables per day. Also, Omega 3 essential fatty acids from oily fish, such as salmon, fresh tuna and sardines, have anti-inflammatory properties which help to combat the negative effects of stress and should be eaten two to three times a week.
Your diet affects your blood sugar and insulin levels. Fluctuations of blood sugar levels put serious pressure on your pancreas to produce insulin. This excess insulin can be damaging to the body, especially the heart, as it can increase cholesterol levels, harden blood vessels and damage the pancreas even further, increasing the possibility of diabetes. Be aware of the type and the amount of carbohydrates you eat, especially excess sugar in different forms like white bread,
sweets and cold drinks. Keep your blood sugar constant. Do not use sugar as a ‘pick me up’.
What you eat affects your cholesterol levels. The total fat and particularly the type of fat you consume have a direct effect on your cholesterol levels. Avoid consuming foods rich in saturated fat, such as fatty animal products (butter, red meat, chicken skin) and processed trans fats (deep fried foods and some commercially-made confectionaries like biscuits, cakes and crackers). Also eat foods high in fibre (such as high fibre cereals, fruit, vegetables and whole grains). Fibre helps
‘trap’ cholesterol, rendering it unavailable for absorption into the body.
- Your diet can influence your blood pressure. Salt, for example, increases the blood pressure, whereas dairy, fruit and vegetables help decrease it. Use salt sparingly; avoid foods high in salt such as bacon, ham, pickles, sausage, etc. Eat at least five to ten servings of fruit and vegetables and two low-fat portions per day.