How many of us are really aware of one of our body’s most important – and hard working – organs? Most of us only give our heart a thought when we become aware of it beating quickly – perhaps with fear or excitement! Yet, every day our hearts pump nearly 2000 gallons of blood around our bodies and the heart is literally our force for life. So how do we keep our hearts strong? We can’t see our heart and mostly we don’t even know whether our heart is healthy or not…
Some scary statistics
We might have heard some statistics around cardiovascular disease but let’s look again at the facts. Cardiovascular disease (CVD) causes more than a quarter (27%) of UK deaths – that’s an average of 425 people a day or a death every 3 minutes. Around 41,000 people under the age of 75 die from CVD every year. Today, in the UK, 7 million men and women are living with CVD so whilst death statistics are concerning, equally concerning is that fact that so many people are daily making lifestyle adjustments, with some having dramatically reduced quality of life. A further conundrum is regional health inequality – compare Glasgow city centre – 575 deaths under the age of 75 with West Dunbartonshire – only 100 deaths for the same cause and in the same age group. This is another subject altogether but when poverty and social demographics are put into the mix; the incidence of heart disease becomes a matter of social and health equality.
So what can we do about reducing our risk as individuals?
Eat a healthy balanced diet
A healthy diet can help reduce risks – we have probably all heard the ‘5 a day’ portions of fruit and veg mantra! But a healthy diet has other knock on benefits – reduced weight gain for instance which in turn reduces the risk of diabetes and high blood pressure.
The key to diet is balance and variety – a picture of what a healthy breakdown of our dinner plate looks like is perhaps not something we can achieve every day but aim for.
We don’t need to avoid starch – so no need to go ‘no carb’ unless medically advised to do so. Perhaps fad diets are the cause of so many people shunning bread, rice, potatoes and pasta; but if we choose wholegrain varieties they are a great source of fibre and extra vitamins and minerals. We have found a great source of dietary advice here https://www.bhf.org.uk/heart-health/preventing-heart-disease/healthy-eating.
Because our hearts are essentially muscle, they need exercise to stay in shape just like our biceps! More blood pumping around the body means operating at optimal efficiency with little strain. This will likely help it to stay healthy longer. 150 minutes of exercise per week is recommended but if this sounds like a lot you can start by breaking it down into 10 minute sessions – try this 10 minute living room workout: https://youtu.be/O5YX5xg8Seg. No need to sign up for the gym – all daily activities count e.g. housework, walking to the bus stop, gardening, switching the lift for the stairs – the list is endless.
Should employers be concerned about CVD?
A definite ‘yes’ to this question. Living with CVD can reduce health and fitness and increase sickness absence and prevention is always better than cure. Our clinical teams in COPE work with clients to address the impact of chronic health issues. We strongly recommend that employers encourage health awareness through their occupational health teams and actively engage with staff about the benefits of a healthy lifestyle.
Diet alone is not enough
If we consider other risk factors such as smoking, exercise and alcohol consumption in addition to diet there’s lots that employers can do to play their part in supporting and encouraging staff to adopt healthier lifestyles and reduce their personal risk of CVD. Why not arrange for an enthusiastic colleague to organise 20 to 30 minute walks at lunch time? This will increase afternoon productivity and break down the culture that ‘taking a break’ is a waste of time.
Employers can support ‘quit smoking’ programmes too. Smokers are almost twice as likely to have a heart attack as someone who has never smoked. It’s increasingly rare to find workplaces which provide the same number of convenient places for a ‘ciggy break’ as they did 15 years ago – which means those who can no longer access these places easily could be distracted by withdrawal symptoms rather than focusing on the task in hand. There’s some great advice in the BHF stop smoking booklet here https://www.bhf.org.uk/publications/smoking/stop-smoking.
We are perhaps all aware of the government’s guidelines on alcohol but these recently changed. The limits used to be daily with three to four alcoholic units for men and two to three for women. The new guidance moves to weekly limits to get away from the idea that drinking every day is fine. There’s some great information here https://www.drinkaware.co.uk/alcohol-facts/alcoholic-drinks-units/alcohol-limits-unit-guidelines/.
Tips for employers
Whether you want to look at health awareness in terms of weight, diet, exercise, smoking or alcohol consumption (or all of them!) there are some great ways employers can plan to effectively support life-enhancing changes of habit – which ultimately reduce the risk of CVD:
- Start planning – as part of an overall strategy
- Break it down and tackle one thing at a time to avoid information overload
- Find champions in peer groups
- Don’t preach – make it fun and interesting with easily understood information
- Use the power of the team – peer group encouragement is a good way to sustain interest