Keeping your heart healthy

There are lots of ways you can keep your heart healthy. These include:

  • Eating well – a balanced diet usually includes lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, some carbohydrates , some protein, some dairy foods and a small amount of foods high in fat.
  • Avoiding foods and drinks that affect your heart – such as too much red meat, fatty foods, salt, sugary drinks and too much alcohol.
  • Keeping to a healthy weight – try to keep your weight and waist measurement within normal ranges.
  • Keeping physically active – walking, gardening or housework are all ways of keeping active.
  • Stopping smoking – talk to your doctor to find out about support to help you stop.
  • Reporting symptoms of heart problems – tell your doctor if you have any symptoms, such as chest discomfort, breathlessness, or feeling dizzy or more tired than usual.
  • Controlling stress and anxiety – talk to someone close to you or your healthcare team. They can help you find ways to manage stress.

Keeping your heart healthy

There are several ways you can keep your heart healthy. Remember that keeping your heart healthy is important not only during cancer treatments, but throughout your life too.

Eat well

Eating a balanced diet can help prevent heart disease. For most people, a daily balanced diet includes the following:

  • Lots of fresh fruit and vegetables (at least five portions a day).
  • Some starchy (carbohydrate) foods such as bread, cereal, rice, pasta, noodles, couscous and potatoes. Choose wholegrain varieties of bread and cereals.
  • Some protein-rich foods such as meat, poultry, fish, nuts, eggs and pulses (beans and lentils).
  • Some milk and dairy foods such as cheese, yoghurts and cream.
  • Just a small amount of food high in fat (see below), salt and sugar.
  • Drinks should mainly be water, fruit juice, tea and coffee (without added sugar) or sugar-free squashes.

‘I stopped adding salt to my food and tried to stop eating food with a high salt content. I have continued on the low salt diet, and my (blood pressure) readings are now perfectly normal again.'

Be careful about how much fat you are eating and make sure you are eating the right sort of fats (see table below). Cut down on saturated fats such as butter, lard, ghee, palm oil, coconut oil and replace these fats with small amounts of mono- and polyunsaturated fats. Try to increase your intake of Omega-3 fats. These help to protect the heart. Try to have at least two portions of fish a week, including one portion of oily fish.

Type of healthy fatExamples
Monounsaturated fatsOlive oil, almonds, unsalted cashews, rapeseed oil and spreads that are made from these oils.
Polyunsaturated fatsSoya, vegetable and sunflower oil, as well as spreads made from these oils and Omega-3 fats.
Omega-3 fatsThese are found in oily fish, such as fresh tinned salmon, sardines and mackerel.

Avoid foods and drinks that affect your heart

Avoid too much red meat, fatty foods (chips, crisps and fried food) and too much pasta, bread, pizza or rice. These can cause you to put on weight. And don’t eat too much salt as this can raise your blood pressure (see our information on risk factors and your heart). Being overweight or having high blood pressure can increase your risk of heart disease.

Sweet and sugary drinks aren’t good for your heart. Try to avoid these, including fizzy drinks such as colas, lemonade or orangeade.

It’s also important to avoid drinking too much alcohol and binge drinking. This can harm the heart muscle and affect the heartbeat. It’s best to limit alcohol intake and include one or two alcohol-free days each week. NHS guidelines suggest that both men and women should:

  • not regularly drink more than 14 units of alcohol in a week
  • spread the alcohol units they drink in a week over three or more days
  • try to have several alcohol-free days every week.

A unit of alcohol is half a pint of ordinary strength beer, lager or cider, one small glass (125ml) of wine, or a single measure (25ml) of spirits.

There is more information about alcohol and drinking guidelines at

Keep to a healthy weight

Taking in more calories than you burn off can make you overweight or increase your waist size. This can lead to heart disease, high blood pressure or diabetes. Many people in the UK are heavier than the recommended weight for their height. And unfortunately, some cancer treatments, such as hormonal therapies or steroids, can cause weight gain. Losing weight can be difficult but keeping a healthy body weight reduces your risk of developing a heart problem.

Try to keep your weight and waist measurement within the normal range for your height. Your GP can advise you on your ideal weight. If you’re overweight, get in touch with your GP or a dietitian for advice and support.

It’s important to be patient with yourself. Losing weight is a gradual process. It’s important to eat a balanced diet to make sure you get all the nutrients you need to keep your body healthy. It’s reasonable to lose about 0.5–1kg (1–2lbs) a week.

Only eat as much food as you need according to how active you are. You may need to discuss your calorie needs with a dietitian.

‘It was always the wrong foods I would enjoy, like a massive plate of chips, whereas now it’s the right types of food. I’ve got a diet plate and it tells you exactly what amount of foods to have. It’s great for portion sizes.’

You can see pictures of eatwell and diet plates on the British Heart Foundation website. The eatwell plate will help you learn about the different food groups. The diet plate will help you manage your portion sizes.

We have more information on weight management after cancer treatment, which you may find helpful.

Keep physically active

Keeping physically active helps to:

  • strengthen your heart muscle, lower your blood pressure and helps with weight control, so that your heart doesn’t have to pump so hard
  • improve your circulation and help your body use oxygen better
  • improve heart failure symptoms
  • reduce body fat so that you can reach a healthy weight.

Some research suggests that exercising between doses of chemotherapy may protect the heart muscle from the possible toxic effects of the chemotherapy.

The type and amount of activity you do will depend on a number of different things. For example, how your cancer and your treatment affect your energy levels, how strong you are, how fit you are and what you want to achieve. If you already have a heart condition, this will also affect what you can do.

There are lots of different ways to exercise. It’s best to try to find an activity that you enjoy so you’ll carry on with it and not get bored. If you haven’t exercised much before, you’ll need to start slowly. Try to set goals that can be achieved at your own pace.

Current guidelines recommend doing 150 minutes of moderate activity a week. For example, you could choose to do 30 minutes of activity five times a week. You should also do strengthening activities (such as exercising with weights or carrying or moving heavy things such as groceries) and reduce the amount of time you spend sitting down. Remember that just doing an activity for 10 minutes can help. Listen to your body and be careful not to do too much.

If you have any concerns about moving more discuss these with your GP or the hospital doctor or a cardiac rehabilitation exercise professional.

There are lots of day-to-day activities that count towards your daily physical activity. Here are some things you can do to build your physical activity up each day:

  • Go for a walk once or twice a day.
  • Do some gardening.
  • Go cycling.
  • Do some housework, such as vacuuming.
  • Wash the car.
  • Play with your children or grandchildren.
  • Dance.
  • Park your car some distance from work or the shops and walk the rest of the way.
  • Get off the bus one or two stops early and walk the rest of the way.
  • Use the stairs instead of the lift or escalator.

If you’re ready to become more active, we have a pack called Move More that can help you get started. You can order a free copy.

I’ve started an exercise regime, which I fit in by walking three miles after I’ve taken my daughter to school.

Sarah, affected by cancer

Know and report symptoms of heart problems

It’s important to know what heart symptoms to look out for. Here are some symptoms you should always tell your doctor about straight away:

  • Chest discomfort/tightness.
  • Difficulty breathing, especially when exerting yourself or lying flat.
  • Rapid or irregular heartbeat.
  • Swelling of the feet and lower legs.
  • Feeling weak, dizzy or having blackouts.
  • Feeling more tired than usual.

Sometimes, the symptoms of heart problems are similar to the symptoms of other health problems. If you have concerns about any aspects of your health, it’s always best to get them checked by your doctor.

Control stress and anxiety

There are many reasons why you may feel stressed or anxious. It may be that you’re concerned about your cancer and whether the treatment will cure it. You may find all the hospital visits for treatment tiring and this may add to your stress. You may also have other concerns about the effects of cancer on your relationships, job or finances.

If you feel stressed or anxious, there are several things you can do to help:

  • If you need to, change your lifestyle to keep yourself and your heart healthy.
  • Talk to your partner or someone close to you. It will help them to know how you are feeling so they can support you. Don’t try to hide your emotions, as this may put extra strain on you both and will add to your stress levels.
  • If you have questions about your treatment or other worries, ask your health or social care professionals. And if you feel you need more help to make decisions or cope with your emotions, let them know. Some people find it helpful to speak with a counsellor who is trained in helping people find ways to explore their feelings and cope with them. Your hospital team or your GP can refer you for counselling.
  • Try to identify what situations make you feel stressed or anxious, either at home or work. If you can, avoid them or get help from others so that you can cope with them better.
  • Use relaxation techniques such as meditation and visualistion to help reduce your stress and anxiety levels. Almost anyone can use relaxation techniques. You can learn them as part of a group or at home using a CD. Remember that you’ll get better at relaxation the more you practice it. Your hospital team may be able to give you a relaxation CD. The British Heart Foundation and Macmillan Cancer Support can send you more information about relaxation.

Share your experience

Your experience may be helpful to other people with cancer who are about to start treatment. They may find it useful to hear how you’ve coped and how you’ve managed if you had heart problems before or as a result of treatment. There are many ways you can share your experience. You can:

  • join a patient or support group – you can find support groups near you on our website
  • volunteer with a cancer or heart disease charity – you can often find out more about the opportunities available on the charity’s website
  • take part in research and/or fill in a satisfaction questionnaire – ask your healthcare team for more information about this or let them know what you think about the care you’ve received.

If you want to get more actively involved, most hospitals have Patient and Public Involvement Departments or Patient Participation Groups. There, you can get more information about the different opportunities available.

Working together to create information for you

We worked with British Heart Foundation to write our content on heart health.

Thank you to all of the people affected by cancer who reviewed what you're reading and have helped our information to develop.

You could help us too when you join our Cancer Voices Network.

Back to Looking after your heart

The heart

The heart is a large muscle. It pumps blood around your body to deliver oxygen and nutrients.

Heart disease

Different parts of the heart can become diseased or damaged. Each condition will cause different symptoms.

Risk factors and your heart

Some factors can increase your risk of developing heart problems. Improving your lifestyle can lower your risk.

Top ten tips for heart health

Try following these 10 tips to keep your heart healthy. You can try these before, during and after cancer treatment.