5 top tips to maintain a healthy heart whilst living in a pollution-filled city

February is National Heart Month; an annual event set up by the British Heart Foundation to raise awareness of heart disease prevention and encourage everyone to make small changes towards a healthier lifestyle.

It was only very recently that London was officially placed on ‘very high’ alert for air pollution. Government advice wanted us to stay in bed: warnings and signs were placed at bus stops, tube stations and roadsides, advising the elderly to stay indoors, and the fit and healthy to avoid exercising outside and to take precautions to avoid the outside air.

So we have been speaking to Professor Charles Knight, Consultant Cardiologist at BMI Healthcare about living in London, the influence of exposure to toxic city pollution on the health of our hearts, and what his 5 top tips are to maintain a healthy heart whilst living alongside the toxicity.

“Studies have shown that increasing concentrations of air pollutants alters heart rate variability (HRV) – a marker of heart health,” Professor Knight comments. “Short-term exposure to air pollution may increase the risk of heart attack and stroke in susceptible people with pre-existing heart conditions.  In the longer term, exposure may promote atherosclerosis – hardening of the arteries – and may raise blood pressure. So for those people with heart disease should try and limit their exposure to pollution as much as is practical. Avoid outdoor exercise when pollution levels are high and avoid busy roads if possible.”

Here are Professor Knight’s 5 top tips to manage pollution and maintain a healthy heart in London:

1. Firstly, don’t bother with face masks. There’s little hard evidence that face masks help reduce the chance of heart problems from pollution. Certainly soft surgical masks do not fit snugly enough and are not designed to filter small particles.

2. Look at your lifestyle. Lifestyle modification can reduce any cardiac problem. Most importantly, take regular exercise. This includes aerobic exercise a few times a week to put your heart at a 70-85 percent of its maximum. It’s easy to find an online calculator to assess what your maximum percent is if you’re not sure. The risk of living alongside and breathing in polluted air will be far reduced with a corresponding healthy diet and lifestyle.

3. Learn about your food. Start asking questions, learn about nutrition, or at least read the back of food labels. The best diet is “Mediterranean” with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables. A good diet will help to keep your heart strong and healthy.

4. Don’t smoke. The most important avoidable type of air pollution is self-administered cigarette smoke! It’s important to recognise that the effects of air pollution are less significant than other established risks for heart disease, and the most important of these is cigarette smoking.

5. Make sure your blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar are measured and well controlled. If you aren’t sure where you lie on the scale, go to your GP to talk it through. It’s important to stay up to date on your own health measures.

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