The Goods

A 5-step healthy heart makeover straight from a doctor

Dr. Fariha Khan breaks down everything you need to know to keep your ticker in tip-top condition.

Dr. Fariha Khan breaks down everything you need to know to keep your ticker in tip-top condition.

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

Most of us take our hearts for granted, but this powerful organ is essential to us every second we're alive. It may be small at only half a pound, but the heart pumps about 4-5 litres every minute. Although many people might feel like they are too healthy to have heart issues, nine out of ten Canadians over the age of 20 have at least one risk factor for heart disease, making it the second leading cause of death in the country. That sobering statistic shows that anyone can be at risk, no matter their age, shape, size and ethnic background. But thankfully, it's never too late to make a change, so Dr. Fariha Khan stopped by The Goods to unpack five steps to a healthier heart — so yours can keep beating for years to come.

Dr. Khan challenges everyone to go through these steps in order to gain more information about your heart health, and once you know the basics, you can put a plan in place with your healthcare provider to help make improvements.

Step one: Take an online heart health quiz

You can go to many online websites like the Heart & Stroke Foundation of Canada to get a sense of how your lifestyle affects your heart health. These online tools can allow you to start taking ownership of your body, instead of waiting for your doctor to chase you! They can provide some basic insights into how factors such as alcohol consumption, food choices, and exercise can help or hurt the heart. But don't make changes based on a quiz! Use this info to start a meaningful conversation with your doctor and together, you can make a plan to improve your heart health.

Step two: Know your blood pressure

Abnormally high — or low — blood pressure can be problematic. Low blood pressure can lead to dizziness and lightheadedness, but high blood pressure is a major contributing factor to heart attacks or strokes. For most, a normal blood pressure is less than 140 for systolic and diastolic of less than 90, and 120/80 is the magic number. Some people will have higher or lower but the threshold depends on other factors, such as diabetes and high cholesterol, which can play a role in what is acceptable.

It's very simple to check your blood pressure. Visit your doctor or your healthcare provider and have it checked so that you'll have an accurate starting number. Once you get more comfortable, you can go to almost any pharmacy and use a machine there. If you get numbers that seem concerning to you, consult your doctor. If the numbers are high, doctors can hook patients up to a machine for up to 48 hours to monitor their heart beat. This is done over a long period because stressful situations can elevate your blood pressure and the monitor will determine if everyday life stresses are responsible for high blood pressure or if something more serious is going on. It's important to keep in mind that blood pressure fluctuates, so doctors give more importance to blood pressure at home or at work because these are important day to day.

Step three: Know your resting heart rate

A person's heart rate fluctuates depending on what they are doing throughout the day. A higher heart rate may not be a sign of something wrong, because everyone's resting heart rate is unique to them. It could indicate something as simple as iron deficiency, or even a change based on your thyroid.

Your heart rate is very simple to find. Look at your stopwatch, find your pulse, and count how many beats occur in 6 seconds. Multiply by 10 to get the number of beats per minute. It's not as accurate as a machine, but it will be close. And nowadays, most smartphones even have heart rate monitors integrated into them.

A normal resting heart rate is between 60-100 beats per minute. If it's lower, you might just have a lower heart rate but if it's something new, or if it's higher (over 100) in resting, the issue could be hormonal or nutritional, so talk to your doctor.

Step four: Know your blood sugar level

Diabetes is the highest risk factor of heart health and stroke, and according to the Canadian Diabetes Association, "The total population with diabetes [was] estimated to be 2.7 million people (7.6%) in 2010, and is projected to rise to 4.2 million people (10.8%) by 2020." Unchecked high blood sugar levels can lead to heart attack and stroke, and doctors know that it's not just about reducing numbers over time, it's also about reducing the numbers early on. The development of diabetes begins years before it actually shows up as diagnosed, so it's important to keep blood sugar in mind.

To get your blood sugar tested, go to your doctor and get your blood work done. They'll take your fasting blood sugar with a Hemoglobin A1C test which gives doctors a natural measure of sugar levels in the body for three months. There are now a multitude of machines and gadgets that easily allow you to check your blood sugar levels at home if you're concerned. Talk to your doctor and ask if at-home blood sugar tests might help you to manage your levels if you're concerned about becoming diabetic.

Normal blood sugar range is 3.2-6 for non-diabetics and under 7 for diabetics. Some people have naturally low blood sugar, but generally if it dips below 3.2 or drops dramatically, it can be considered problematic.

Step five: Stay away from the deadly three

Alcohol, sugar, and fat are nicknamed "the deadly three." Alcohol is damaging to the liver and heart but alcohol is also very high in calories, and many people don't realize just how many calories they're adding to their diet during a night of drinking.

And sure, we know to avoid a lot of the common sugar culprits, like candy and soda but many of us don't know that we also have to look out for sugar in less obvious places. There's a lot of sugar in breads, cereals and pastas, but you can simply check the labels to know for sure. Dr. Khan also says to beware of products that are marketed as low in something like fat, because if the product tastes too good to be true, they're likely adding extra sugar. Sugar in the system turns into fat, and fat gets stored in the liver, organs and contributes to negative heart health.

There are fats to stay away from like those found in junk food and processed meat, but there are also a lot of healthy fats and oils, so don't avoid them altogether! The ones from avocado, salmon, and olive oil are actually great for your heart. Good fats will keep you full longer, which will help you to say no to tempting treats. Dr. Khan's rule of thumb is to stay away from the junk food aisles usually found in the middle of the store. Instead, stick to fats you can get from the perimeter of most grocery stores.

All of the above is how you can start your heart health makeover. Use it as a guide to get a sense of how healthy your heart is — and what you can improve with the help of your doctor.