Our expert:
Dr Jack Tan, deputy head and senior consultant, Department of Cardiology, National Heart Centre Singapore

Choose cardiovascular exercise
Strength exercises are good, but if you really want to boost your heart health, you can’t beat an energetic cardiovascular workout. It can be anything that increases your heart rate and metabolism, and gets the oxygen pumping around your body – try brisk walking, running, dancing, or even housework. Aim for at least 30 minutes of cardiovascular activity, three times a week.

Lose the belly fat (even if you aren’t overweight)
You know that being overweight increases your risk of heart disease. But did you know that, even if you are of a normal weight, having excessive abdominal fat could increase your chances of having a heart attack? This type of fat, called visceral fat, is an important risk factor for cardiovascular disease in women. So adopt a weight-loss eating plan if you have to, and get moving to help get rid of that dangerous belly flab.

Get screened
High blood pressure, a risk factor for heart disease, is often a silent killer. In fact, up to a third of people with high blood pressure don’t even know they have it. The first sign of trouble is often a heart attack, stroke or kidney failure. After you turn 40, it’s best to get checked annually for hypertension, diabetes and high cholesterol. 

Get quality sleep
Quantity is one thing, but you should also get good-quality, uninterrupted sleep. Many things can ruin a good night’s sleep, from insomnia to frequent trips to the loo, to obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA). Insomnia is common and can sometimes be a result of other medical problems like depression and heart failure. Frequent trips to the toilet at night might be due to undiagnosed diabetes. OSA causes poor oxygenation of the blood, leaving you feeling even more tired when you wake up. Over time, it can also raise your blood pressure and stroke risk. You might have OSA if you have high blood pressure, snore loudly, and often doze off during the day even after a long night’s sleep – speak to your doctor about getting this problem under control. 

Don’t mix smoking and oral contraceptives
Smoking is bad in itself – most young patients who have acute heart attacks tend to be smokers. But did you know that if you smoke and take oral contraceptives, you are at particularly high risk for heart disease and stroke? There is no way around this other than to stop smoking. 

Watch your BMI
An annual weight trend review is a helpful reminder to stay in shape. But you should also strive for a healthy BMI (Body Mass Index) – 23 at most. You can calculate your BMI by dividing your weight (kg) by the square of your height (metres). 

Sleep between six and nine hours a night
Eight hours of sleep is ideal but only 40 per cent of us manage that amount. If you sleep less than five hours a night, you are 40 per cent more likely to suffer from heart disease than women who get an average of eight hours. However, if you sleep more than nine hours a night, you’re equally likely to get heart disease. 

Take control of your overall health
Some risk factors for heart disease are things we have no control over, such as ageing and our genes. But we can control our diet, exercise and lifestyle habits. While many good medications exist for the treatment of heart disease, it’s important to take a preventive approach to the problem. Hypertension, diabetes and high cholestrol are just a few risk factors for heart disease. If you get your health under control now, your heart will stay healthy for longer. Make that your motivation to change and develop better habits today. 

Find an effective way to quit smoking
Many smokers struggle to kick the habit. If you’re really serious about quitting, get counselling at a smoking cessation clinic and speak to your healthcare professional about therapies that can help you quit, like Champix and nicotine replacement. Smoking promotes the formation of soft plaque that can cause blood clots and block your arteries, causing a heart attack. There are often no preceding cardiac symptoms, and the first attack can be fatal. 

Make healthy eating a lifestyle
Forget diets – these are boring and imply deprivation. Just eat a wide variety of foods and keep your meals interesting, with plenty of natural, wholesome ingredients, and as few processed products and as little salt as possible. When it comes to the unhealthy stuff, just remember that moderation is key. So don’t deprive yourself; instead, adopt a balanced eating plan that is simple and easy to sustain. 

Don’t over-exercise
When you exercise, it’s important to pace yourself. Working out too much, too often, and pushing your body beyond its limits can put a lot of stress on your heart and increase your risk of cardiac arrest or even death. 

Meditate, do yoga, or just chill out
Stress can actually kill. When you have stress hormones like adrenalin, cortisol and other catecholamines constantly running through your system, your blood pressure and heart rate become elevated. Research has found that people who returned to a stressful job after a heart attack were twice as likely to experience a second attack as those who held down reasonably stress-free jobs. 

Patients who had stressful personal relationships were also found to be a high-risk group. If you find yourself perpetually stressed, learn to manage it. Make time to rest, do activities you enjoy, stop worrying about what you can’t control and practice mind relaxation techniques like meditation.

This article was originally published in Simply Her August 2014.