Heart throb: How to love your heart


February is Heart Health Awareness month, so we are uncovering some of the surprising heart-healthy foods and exercises to keep your heart fluttering


Whether or not we bump into our true love this Valentine’s Day, our tickers will ‘beat’ around 100,000 times and pump nearly eight litres of blood around our bodies. 

Day in and day out it’s tasked with the small job of keeping us alive. However, many of us are not looking after this pretty impressive and vital bit of kit. 

Findings from the British Heart Foundation show that 7.6 million Brits are living with a heart or circulatory disease, and it is predicted that more than half of the UK population will be diagnosed with a heart or circulatory condition in their lifetime. 

Vitality data also shows that just over 20% of Life Cover claims were paid out for heart-related claims in 2022, with heart and artery being the cause of 14% claims[1] for Serious Illness Cover.

While the number of heart and circulatory-related deaths have fallen over the last 60 years, early heart disease deaths have been on the rise since 2008, highlighting the importance of keeping our heart in tip-top condition. 

“It’s never too late to make a change to your heart health, even if you’ve had a heart attack,” says Nikita Patel, Vitality’s Medical Director.

“Some things you can’t change. Age, family history and gender all have a part to play in the health of your heart,” she adds.

“But what is in your control is managing your blood pressure and cholesterol, stopping smoking, your diet and physical activity.

And if you’re on medication for your heart, making sure you’re taking it regularly and seeing your doctor if you’re having any issues.”

Let sparks fly

According to research, a loved heart equates to a healthier heart, as social connections with those close to us help to improve heart health – how fitting that the heart is a symbol of love. 

The science behind the theory, you ask?

Hugging a family member or friend, for example, boosts our levels of oxytocin, as known as the ‘love hormone’, which has a similar effect to endorphins and serotonin – and makes us feel more positive.

Releasing oxytocin around the body in fact lowers our blood pressure and slows the heart rate down, which actually reduces our risk of heart disease and heart failure. 

So, don’t be afraid to show your Valentine or those you care for your appreciation for them. It benefits them as well as you.

Love the pump

Of course, all physical activity is good physical activity, but there are more specific ways of getting active that can benefit your heart. 

“Aerobic, or cardiovascular, exercise can help to increase the size and strength of your heart,” says Jonathan Kibble, Vitality’s Head of Exercise and Physical Activity. 

“This leads to an increase in something called ‘stroke volume’, which is essentially the amount of blood your heart forces around your body with each contraction. 

“Essentially, this improves the heart’s efficiency, can lower your resting heart rate and help to improve your physical work capacity on a day-to-day basis.”

If you’d like some exercise inspiration during the winter months visit our blog here: How to exercise during winter | Magazine | Vitality

The gender gap

Research shows that 3.6 million women are living with coronary heart disease, the main cause of a heart attack. 

Yet women are less likely to spot the signs of heart disease and delay in getting help. It makes knowing the symptoms even more important.

Heart disease can cover a number of conditions and symptoms may vary from person to person, some of the commons signs according to Nikita are:

  • Chest and or arm pain
  • Jaw pain
  • Leg pain
  • Feeling sweaty and sick 
  • Shortness of breath
  • Swelling in limbs, such as ankles
  • Palpitations

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, speak to your GP. Or if you believe you are having a heart attack, remain calm and call 999 for an ambulance. 

The British Heart Foundation also recommends chewing a 300mg aspirin if you have it and are not allergic. 

A pear a day?

An apple a day might be known the keep the doctor away, but a pear is actually deemed the champion of the fruits for heart health. 

Due to its high fibre content, pears help to lower blood pressure and cholesterol, contributing to a healthy heart. 

Other ‘super foods’ to help with heart health are lentils, figs and eggs, as well as olive oil. “Eating well can immeasurably improve your heart health,” says Nikita.

“By reducing your weight and cholesterol it helps to keep your blood vessels free of plaque, allowing blood to flow around the body easily and deliver essential nutrients and oxygen to all your organs.”

That being said, a restrictive diet can be hard to maintain. Nikita recommends a “fun and varied” diet in order to keep balance.

In practice, it’s good to aim to hit five different fruit and vegetables a day, eat plenty of wholegrains, fat-free or low-fat dairy products, plus protein-rich foods, including lean meats, nuts, seeds and legumes. 

These will help to maintain the healthy function of your heart.

Keep a finger on the pulse

Nikita recognises, however, that it can be easier for some to adopt healthy habits and harder for others.

Vitality members can get extra help through our Next Best Action programme, which helps members to identify the most vital behaviour change to improve their health.

This could be stopping smoking, improving their diet, or getting more active. 

“If you’re a Vitality member I’d suggest taking advantages of the available discounts and booking in for a Vitality Healthcheck so you have a baseline of where you are and then can understand what you could work on to keep you healthy for as long as possible,” says Nikitaa.

Most importantly, speak to your doctor if you are feeling unwell or experiencing any symptoms of heart disease.

When you complete a Vitality online Health Review you’ll receive personalised recommendations on how to improve your health. 

Whether you’re looking to up your physical activity, eat healthier or stop smoking, we can help. Plus, you’ll receive 100 points per plan year towards improving your status. 

Download the Vitality app or visit Member Zone today to complete yours.

[1] Vitality Life Claims & Benefits Report, 2023

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