Keeping your heart healthy

Dr. Martin Makau

by Dr. Martin Makau

At the center of them all, there is one vital organ – the heart, which pumps blood to the rest of the body.


Hypertension (or high blood pressure), heart attack, atherosclerosis, cholesterol – these are terms you may have heard affecting people we may know or even ourselves. At the center of them all, there is one vital organ – the heart, which pumps blood to the rest of the body.

Hypertension, or high blood pressure, is a condition in which the pressure of blood in the blood vessels rises above the physiological normal, leading to progressive damage of body organs. Most sensitive of these organs to the devastating effects of hypertension are the heart itself, the kidneys and the brain. Cases of hypertension have been on the rise in Africa; nearly half of the adult population is estimated to be hypertensive


Like any other organ, the heart needs blood to function. “Heart attack” is experienced when blood supply to the heart muscle is cut off, affecting the heart’s ability to pump blood to the rest of the body (want to learn more? Watch this video:

A heart attack happens when the coronary artery – the vessel supplying blood to the heart muscle itself – gets blocked, usually from a buildup of cholesterol [4]. Symptoms of a coronary artery blockage can vary from diffculty breathing or chest pain to loss of consciousness and, in the worst case, may result in death. The good news is that much of our risk of hypertension, heart attack, and even stroke, is preventable, and manageable. Heart health, more commonly referred to by doctors as cardiovascular health, refers to the health status of our heart (cardio) and blood vessels (vascular).

What can we do to improve our heart health?

Lifestyle modifications are critical to improve heart health and prevention of cardiovascular diseases for all of us. These modifications include weight loss, dietary changes, exercise, stopping smoking, and moderating alcohol intake.


What we eat affects how our body functions – a diet high in cholesterol means you have more cholesterol in your system, and this can block your blood vessels, for example. A good diet must be sustainable in the long run, otherwise it can be hard to stick to. Make sure your diet includes healthy foods that you enjoy eating and are easy to access

Consider the following ideas as a good starting point:


Reducing your salt intake to less than one teaspoon (5 grams of salt) a day. A reduction in salt intake has been shown to reduce blood pressure if it is high, and delay or prevent developing high blood pressure if you have normal blood pressure. Not adding salt to cooked food and moderating food and favouring with high salt content (sausages, bacon, Royco, spice cubes) is a good way to start.


Increasing your intake of potassium rich foods such as bananas, beans, spinach, broccoli, and avocado while reducing your salt intake, has been shown to have an even more dramatic effect on lowering blood pressure [ 6 ]


Plan meals rich in fruits, vegetables, legumes, lean meat, and low-fat dairy products and low in snacks, sweets, sweetened beverages, and saturated fat.
The DASH (Dietary Approach to Stop Hypertension) is one of the dietary programs that has been scientifcally demonstrated to be effective in preventing and managing hypertension and other cardiovascular illnesses [ 7 ]. Want to know more about this? Speak to a HealthX Wellness Advisor about the DASH diet and a personally tailored diet plan based on your specifc health needs, food availability, affordability and personal preferences.


Exercise or physical activity is any activity that gets your body moving. Regular exercise has been shown to reduce blood pressure, reducing total and LDL (“bad) cholesterol and reduce body weight, among other benefits such as preventing or delaying onset of diabetes and relief of stress [ 9 ].
This can be achieved by:


Having moderate aerobic exercise for 150 minutes total a week AND strength training on at least two non-consecutive days in a week OR


Having intense aerobic exercise for 75 minutes total a week AND strength training on at least two non-consecutive days a week.
The simplest way to know if you are doing moderate intensity exercise is if you can talk during the activity, but you cannot sing the words of a song. During intense exercise, you won’t be able to sing or talk. Adequate strength training is achieved when you do enough repetitions of a weight related activity (pushups, squats, lifting weights for example) to the point that you cannot complete a repetition without assistance [ 8 ]

STOP SMOKING (It can be hard, but it can be lifesaving!)

Smoking is known to directly trigger and accelerate the buildup of cholesterol in blood vessels (called atherosclerosis). Smoking damages the heart and blood vessels very quickly, but the damage can be repaired for most smokers who stop smoking. Even a few cigarettes now and then damage the heart, so the only proven strategy to keep your heart safe from the effects of smoking is to quit [ 10 ] – or even better, not to start.


Drinking alcohol on a single occasion can see a temporary increase in blood pressure, and regular, heavy drinking can cause hypertension and can damage the heart muscle resulting in a weaker heart. This makes it harder for the blood to circulate around the body. Alcohol also increases levels of LDL (considered”bad”) cholesterol, increasing the risk of developing atherosclerosis.

Eliminating alcohol entirely, or at least reducing alcohol consumption to recommended limits reduces these cardiovascular risks. The recommended limit is one unit of alcohol per sitting for women and two units per sitting for men. Note that this is not an average but the maximum limit per sitting.

What does this mean in practical terms? One unit of alcohol is approximately equal to:

  • A single measure of spirits (ABV 37.5%); OR
  • 1.2-pint average-strength (4%) lager; OR
  • 87.5 ml of average-strength (12%) wine


Regular check-ups with your doctor also go a long way in improving cardiovascular health. Unless otherwise advised by a doctor, have a medical checkup with a doctor at least once per year to identify and address risk factors that you may have for developing cardiovascular diseases early.
The following tests are likely to be a part of any healthy heart checks:
  • Blood Pressure
  • Lipid profile (cholesterol)
  • Blood sugar
  • Body weight and body mass index
Depending on risk factors specific to you, including your family history, age, and gender, your doctor may recommend a repeat of these tests at specific intervals or further testing. Unsure of whether you need a checkup or not? Call HealthX and speak to one of our doctors for advice and guidance.

What do I do with this information?

Heart disease is the leading cause of death worldwide, and a major cause of disability. The good news is that a signifcant proportion of heart diseases can be prevented by modifying our lifestyles and managing any existing risk factors for heart disease. At HealthX Africa, we have a primary health care team of Family Practitioners and General Practitioners that cater for your physical, mental and social well-being. We offer you unlimited and affordable access to physicians who will walk you through your health needs at all stages of your life and develop an action health plan specific to your needs, as well as wellness advisors and psychologists to cater for your nutritional, social, mental and other lifestyle needs. We believe you should have the power to make the best health and wellness decisions for yourself and your family, not driven by cost or fear, but by what you need. Be it preventive, promotive, curative, or rehabilitative primary health care, we strive to be your constant and trusted partner on your health and wellness journey, and to support you in achieving your dreams and aspirations for yourself and your family. If you have any questions or need any more information about primary health care or any health care issues, contact us anytime on our toll-free number 0800 720 795. We are just a phone call away from walking with you in both preventing and managing heart disease to make sure you live a longer, happier, healthier life.

Citations and further reading

Share :

Skip to content