Keeping your heart healthy

You can improve your heart health at any age, even if you already have a heart problem. These changes can help your heart before, during or after cancer treatment.

Eat well

A healthy diet includes:

  • fruit and vegetables
  • meals based on starchy foods
  • some protein and dairy
  • small amounts of unsaturated oils and spreads
  • plenty of fluids which are lower sugar or sugar free.

Keep active

Even small changes can help. You could:

  • go for a walk once or twice a day
  • do some gardening
  • go cycling.

Stop smoking

If you smoke, giving up is the best thing you can do for your heart. Ask your doctor for advice and support.

Cope with stress 

Find healthy ways of coping, such as:

  • talking about how you feel.
  • getting support if you have questions or worries.
  • finding ways to manage things that make you feel worse.
  • finding ways to relax such as music, exercise or complementary therapies.

If you need more advice or support about keeping your heart healthy, talk to your doctor or nurse.

Ways to keep your heart healthy

You can improve your heart health at any age, even if you already have a heart problem. Making changes such as eating well or stopping smoking can help before, during or after cancer treatment.

Even small changes can make a difference. Keeping your heart healthy is important throughout your life, not just during cancer treatments. If you need more advice or support about keeping your heart healthy, talk to your doctor or nurse.

My lifestyle hasn’t changed a lot, but I’m more conscious now that I know about my heart condition. I do try to take care of myself.

Judith


Eat well

A healthy diet can help prevent some heart problems. It can also help with weight control, high blood pressure, cholesterol levels or diabetes.

A healthy diet includes:

  • at least five portions of fruit and vegetables – try to have a variety
  • meals based on starchy foods, such as bread, cereal, rice, pasta, noodles, couscous and potatoes – choose wholegrain where possible
  • some beans, pulses, fish, egg, meat and other proteins
  • some dairy (for example, milk, cheese or yoghurt) or dairy alternatives – choose lower fat and lower sugar where possible
  • small amounts of unsaturated oils and spreads 
  • small amounts of food and drinks that are high in fat, salt or sugar, and having them less often
  • plenty of fluids which are lower sugar or sugar free – water, tea, coffee and lower-fat milk all count.

To keep your heart healthy, choose foods that contain healthy fats instead of saturated fats. See the table below for examples of healthy fats. Saturated fats are found in butter, lard, ghee, palm oil, coconut oil, cakes, biscuits, cream and fatty meat.

 

Healthy fatsExamples
Monounsaturated
  • Olive or rapeseed oil. 
  • Some nuts and seeds, including almonds and cashews. 
  • Spreads that are made from these oils.
Polyunsaturated
  • Soya, vegetable or sunflower oil. 
  • Some nuts and seeds, including walnuts and sesame seeds. 
  • Spreads that are made from these oils.
Long-chain Omega-3 fats

This is a type of polyunsaturated fat found in oily fish, such as:

  • mackerel
  • salmon
  • sardines
  • trout
  • kippers
  • pilchards
  • herring.


It is also important to avoid drinking too much alcohol or binge drinking. This can increase the risk of arrhythmias and high blood pressure, and can damage the heart muscle.

The British Heart Foundation has information about healthy eating for your heart.


Keep to a healthy weight

If you are overweight, losing weight will help to protect your heart. If you want and need to lose weight, the British Heart Foundation has more information.

Cancer and cancer treatment can cause problems that may make keeping to a healthy weight more complicated. Macmillan has more information about cancer, healthy eating and eating problems.

If you are finding it hard to keep to a healthy weight, talk to your doctor or nurse. They can give you advice and may arrange for you to see a dietitian for more support.


Keeping active

Regular physical activity helps to keep your heart healthy. It can also help control risk factors for coronary heart disease, such as:

  • high blood pressure
  • high cholesterol
  • being overweight
  • diabetes.

You may find it hard to think about being active when you are coping with cancer and possible side effects of treatment. But even making small changes can help. You could:

  • go for a walk once or twice a day
  • do some gardening
  • go cycling
  • do some housework, such as vacuuming
  • wash the car
  • 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.

As well as helping your heart, there are lots of other benefits to being active. It can:

  • improve your mood and quality of life
  • help reduce tiredness and some other side effects of cancer treatment
  • help strengthen your muscles, joints and bones.

If you are having cancer treatment or are worried about getting more active for any reason, talk to your doctor. They can give advice and may be able to arrange more support for you. We have more information about ways to keep active.

If you are ready to become more active, Macmillan has a pack called Move More that may help. Order it online or call 0808 808 00 00 to order a free copy.

Instead of getting the bus to work, I got a bike and cycled. At first it was difficult but after two or three weeks it gets easier.

Dave


Stop smoking

If you smoke, giving up is the best thing you can do for your heart. After you stop smoking, your risk of developing coronary heart disease or having a heart attack dramatically reduces.

If you are thinking about quitting, there are organisations that can help:

  • In England, visit the NHS website or call the free Smokefree National Helpline on 0300 123 1044 (Monday to Friday, 9am to 8pm, and Saturday and Sunday, 11am to 4pm).
  • In Scotland, visit NHS inform or call the free Smokeline on 0800 84 84 84 (Daily, 8am to 10pm).
  • In Wales, visit Help Me Quit or call the free Stop Smoking Wales Helpline on 0800 085 2219 (Monday to Thursday, 8am to 8pm, Friday, 8am to 5pm, and Saturday, 9am to 4pm).
  • In Northern Ireland, visit Want 2 Stop.

You could also speak to your doctor for advice and to find out about more support in your local area.

Macmillan has more information on giving up smoking here and the British Heart Foundation also have information about stopping smoking.


Coping with stress

Cancer can be stressful for lots of reasons. You may be dealing with some difficult emotions, worrying about the future, and coping with treatment and side effects.

Stress can raise your blood pressure and put more strain on your heart than usual. Smoking, drinking alcohol or over-eating to cope with stress can also increase the risks to your heart.

If you already have a heart problem, feeling extremely stressed or anxious can sometimes cause symptoms such as angina. It is important to find healthy ways of coping with stress. You could try some of these ideas:

  • Talk about it. This is not always easy, but it can often help you feel better. You may want to talk to someone you know well such as family or friends. Or you may decide to talk to your GP or nurse specialist, or a religious leader.
  • Ask for more support. If you have questions about your treatment or other worries, ask your doctor or nurse. And if you feel you need more help to cope, let them know.
  • Work out what makes it worse. Once you know what makes you stressed, avoid these things or get help so you can cope with them.
  • Find ways to relax. You could try listening to relaxing music or doing some physical ac-tivity, such as walking, swimming or yoga. Some people find that complementary therapies help, such as a massage.

The British Heart Foundation has information about heart health and coping with stress. If you want to talk about how you are feeling, call the Macmillan Support Line on 0808 808 00 00.

British Heart Foundation logo.

Back to Looking after your heart

Heart problems

Different types of heart problem can develop if part of the heart is not working properly.

Warning signs of heart problems

If you have any warning signs of heart problems, tell your doctor straight away. Early treatment can prevent further damage.