Life after a heart attack: lifestyle changes

After a heart attack, it’s important to make changes to your lifestyle to reduce the chances of it happening again. We look at ways to help you lead a heart-healthy life.

Heart-attack survivors need to make positive lifestyle changes for many reasons, one of which is that they’re living with a heightened risk.

“If you’ve already had a heart attack, you’re more likely to have another one,“ explains Bupa Dietitian Rosalyn D’Angelo.

But there are lifestyle changes you can make to reduce the chances of this happening to you.

Changing your lifestyle 

Lifestyle risk factors can be responsible for a lot of heart problems. And the more you have, the higher your chances of having a heart attack. This is why your doctor will advise you to make changes that target the following to help reduce your risk of another heart attack: 
  • Cholesterol: “The idea is to reduce that fatty build-up [in your arteries] with lifestyle changes that work with any medication you need to take,” says D’Angelo.
  • Blood pressure: “High blood pressure damages arteries, increasing your risk of heart attack and stroke,” D’Angelo explains.
  • Blood-sugar levels: “High blood-sugar levels can damage artery walls and contribute to heart disease,” says D’Angelo.
  • Abdominal fat: “Carrying [excess] weight around your waist increases your risk of high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels as well as your overall risk of heart disease,” says D’Angelo. As a rule, a low-risk weight circumference is under 94 centimetres for men and under 80 centimetres for women. 

How to change your diet for better heart health

The first stage of your diet makeover is to acknowledge that you’ll need to stop eating certain foods. 

Reduce your intakes of saturated fats and trans fats
Saturated fats are converted by your liver to ‘bad’ LDL-cholesterol; triglycerides and trans fats also increase LDL cholesterol levels. These fats are present in foods such as fatty meats and deep-fried takeaway foods; and also in baked goods including pies, pastries, biscuits and buns.

The good news is that you can replace these harmful fats with tasty, healthy alternatives to help raise the levels of your good cholesterol. These healthy fats include olive oil, oily fish, nuts and avocado.

Eat less salt
“Limit your intake to no more than 4 g (1600 mg sodium) a day, which is about a teaspoon,” D’Angelo says. 

The best way to do this is to buy fresh fruit, veg, meat and fish rather than packaged options. 

“Anything in a packet (even sweet food) often contains salt, because salt is a preservative,” explains D’Angelo. “When choosing packaged foods, look for those with no added salt or a low salt content. Avoid salty snacks, like chips and pretzels. Apart from your groceries, try to cut out salty snacks and takeaway foods like hot chips. When you’re cooking, don’t add salt. Instead, add flavour with herbs and [aromatics] like chilli and garlic. And remove the salt shaker from the table.”

Limit your alcohol consumption
Check with your doctor whether you can drink alcohol and if you can, “have no more than two standard drinks a day,” says D’Angelo. She also suggest you become familiar with the size of a standard drink as it’s not necessarily the pour you receive at a restaurant. 
older people eating at a table

Developing a regular exercise routine

Being overweight or obese is a major risk factor for heart disease, and regular exercise helps you manage your weight. Not only that, regular exercise can reduce high blood pressure and your risk of developing type 2 diabetes (high blood sugar), which are other risk factors for heart disease.
 
“If you’re currently doing no exercise, start with something [achievable] and gradually build on it,” suggests D’Angelo. “You want to be active on most or all days of the week.” 

You can view the Department of Health’s Physical Activity and Sedentary Behaviour Guidelines here. Research shows that following these guidelines can reduce your risk of heart disease by approximately 30 per cent.
 
It’s important to minimise the time you spend sitting and to remember that keeping your exercise simple is okay. 

“You don’t need to join a gym and sweat it out; it’s just about moving your body and making that your goal,” says D’Angelo.

Quit smoking too

If you smoke, it’s extremely important to quit smoking for many health reasons, including reducing your risk of having another heart attack. Smoking increases the speed at which cholesterol gets into the walls of the arteries, and damages your blood vessels as well as increasing your chances of getting a blood clot.

Further help and advice

You can seek professional help from your doctor, a dietitian or an exercise physiologist and visit the following websites:
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