6 MIN READ | Health Psychology

Professor Nigel MacLennan

11 Choices to Keep Your Heart Healthy: The Psychology of Keeping a Healthy Heart

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Professor Nigel MacLennan, (2022, September 12). 11 Choices to Keep Your Heart Healthy: The Psychology of Keeping a Healthy Heart. Psychreg on Health Psychology. https://www.psychreg.org/psychology-keeping-healthy-heart/
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Some people keep their hearts very healthy well into old age. How do they do that?? Which of the heart risks can we minimise or remove? What psychological and emotional processes have an effect on our heart health?  How can we improve our heart health?

People who hold on to a healthy heart are those who practice the principles in this article. Of course, there are some outliers in any field of health. There are some people who take all the right steps and still develop heart problems, and there are others who have done everything that would have killed an average person’s heart, long ago, yet they are still alive.

That raises an important issue; some people interpret health information to support what they already believe and want to hear. If they believe that keeping a healthy heart is about misery-inducing self-denial, they will filter all information through that mindset to justify their health-damaging behaviour.

If, by contrast, they believe that health is 90% within their control and the other 10% they can’t do anything about, they are more likely to take what steps they can to keep their heart healthy.

Here is some great news for those who have decided to take control of their heart health (that is probably you since those who have abdicated control would probably not read this article): the same behaviours that maximise our heart health are those that increase the chances of keeping almost every other organ healthy.

Avoid smoking and other airborne toxins

In the UK, still, despite decades of health information about the risks of heart disease, lung disease, and cancer, around 20% of people choose to ignore the evidence and continue to smoke. People who breathe clean air and avoid toxic or carcinogenic risk vapours, (such as vaping), keep their hearts and lungs healthier for longer.

Keep a healthy weight

If we carry extra weight, it damages almost all our systems. The feet, ankles, knees, hips, back and neck are all damaged by carrying extra weight. In the process of putting on the excess fat, the blood circulatory system becomes furred and clogged. Then there is the extra work that the heart has to do to pump blood to all the extra fat cells.

The digestive system too is put under extra load, and it too requires more heart effort to process all that needless extra food.

Keeping within the healthy limit for your height is very wise, and prevents or minimises the wear and tear damage to almost every system in the body.

Avoid or minimise alcohol

For decades people in various countries have been told by their governments that there was a safe level of alcohol consumption. There is not. All alcohol consumption is dangerous. Around 9% of all cancers can be attributed to alcohol consumption.

Many people who know the facts and figures continue to drink too much alcohol. Right across the health care sector, there are dangerous amounts of alcohol being consumed. Why? People want to be able to change their emotional state, and alcohol gives them the ability to do that, nearly instantly. Healthy people find non-damaging ways to change their emotional state.

Avoid illegal drugs and other narcotics

Any and all drugs that can change mental and emotional states have toxic side effects. Cocaine, and crack are known to have a very dangerous effect on the heart. In fact, almost all ‘re-creational’ drugs are, indeed as the name suggests, very effective at creating heart problems.

Even people who are well-educated about the damage such drugs inflict on the body, are willing to take them. There seem to be many psychological explanations for such self-harm, ranging from, ‘It won’t happen to me,’ to ‘I hope I die before I get old.’

That is, self-induced heart damage comes from a multitude of beliefs and attitudes, and for many people, prior knowledge of the likely damage does not encourage them to avoid heart risky behaviour.

Regular exercise

Too much exercise can be as dangerous as too little. Finding the sweet spot is best; that optimum level of exercise maintains heart fitness without the degree of exercise that wears out the heart and all other body parts.

Above are the health-preserving behaviours known as the ‘Big Five.’ Following the Big Five alone has hugely positive health effects. To illustrate the value of the Big Five, here are some startling stats.

  • 75% of premature deaths are among those people who do not live by the Big Five.
  • Only 3% of the population follows the Big Five. That is, despite the compelling evidence that the Big Five preserve health, 97% of the population choose not to act on the evidence.
  • In developed countries, around 66% of the population are overweight or heavier.
  • Being overweight or obese accounts for around 14% of all cancers.
  • People who are obese are 50% more likely to develop asthma.
  • People who are obese are 80 times more likely to develop type two diabetes than people with a BMI of 22 or less. Yes, a shocking eight-zero times.
  • Being overweight increases the chance of a stroke by 22%, and being obese increases the chances even further to 44%.
  • Overweight people are 31% more likely to develop coronary heart disease, and for obese people, that figure swells to 80%.

Minimise stress

People whose stress levels are highest are at greater risk of stress-induced heart damage. Cortisol, released in the body when people are either under stress or put themselves under stress, is known to have damaging effects on the heart.

Stress leads the body’s bone marrow to release more white blood cells. The arteries then become inflamed. Inflamed arteries are heavily involved in the development of heart disease. Stress increases the risk of developing coronary heart disease by 71%.

Here are some observations from pain studies and practice that may help reduce or manage potential stress. ‘The physical cause of the pain is real, but suffering is a choice.’ That is, there are many people who have the same chronic pain condition, yet some of them report much less stress and distress than others.

Why? In their minds, the pain is real, but some choose not to turn it into suffering. That is, the pain is a physical fact, no more than that. Some people experiencing pain choose not to imbue it with extra meaning.

The same principle may work in protecting the heart from the long-term effects of stress and raised cortisol. The circumstances that a person is in may be interpreted by them as stressful.

Another person in the same circumstances may accept that the pressure is real and choose not to let it affects them.

That is, it could be that whether an objectively tough situation results in heart damage may be mediated or influenced by how the person chooses to interpret the situation. If so, that would explain why some people thrive in and seek out what others would regard as high-stress roles. For the person seeking such roles, the absence of stimulation may be stressful.

Healthy diet

Many people have more than enough calories in their diet but nowhere near enough nutrition. The consumption of junk food seems to increase yearly. Sugar consumption alone has risen by 23% over the last decade or so. People who eat a healthy, well-balanced diet, take at least five items of fruit and veg a day and keep themselves properly hydrated with water, keep their hearts healthier.

They avoid caffeine and alcohol as much as possible; both dehydrate. Recent evidence reveals that eating ultra-processed foods has a hugely damaging effect on health. The reasons for ultra-processed ‘foods’ being so harmful are still not understood.

Among the likely explanations is that the more processing any food is subjected to, the more of the nutrition is damaged or destroyed. Perhaps it is no coincidence that people who eat a healthy diet of fresh food are healthier than those who eat ultra-processed ‘foods’.

Plenty of sleep

There is a strong connection between disturbed and insufficient sleep and the development of mental health and cardiometabolic problems (heart disease, obesity, diabetes, stroke).

People whose sleep is not healthy, have up to a 43% greater chance of developing cardiometabolic problems. If we take the sleep we need, we are allowing our body the time it needs for self-maintenance, including the heart.

Social connection and good relationships

People who live in well-adjusted social networks with mutually supportive people remain healthier for longer than those who exist in dysfunctional or socially toxic environments.

Social isolation can also damage health in all sorts of ways, including heart health. Poor relationships increase the chances of heart disease and stroke by around 30%.

Humans seem to respond well to human contact and human warmth. People who hug and cuddle often remain healthier for longer. Great relationships are great for our hearts.

Religion or faith

People who follow a faith (it seems not to matter which religion or faith) seem to be psychologically healthier and experience less stress than those who do not. That in turn reduces the health damage done by stress. That in turn keeps people healthier for longer.

Faith can take many forms. The passionate scientist, who has faith that their work will make the world a little better for all, seems to health benefit from faith as much as the religiously devout. It seems that believing in something, some purpose bigger than ourselves, keeps us healthy for longer.

Pets and hobbies

People who have pets or hobbies live longer and are happier than those who do not. Pet owners make 15% fewer visits per year to the physician than people who do not own a pet.

Having something to care for, a purpose, as with faith above, seems to provide health protection or enhancement. Here are health insights from two of the wisest people in history:

‘It is health that is real wealth and not pieces of gold and silver,’ Mahatma Gandhi.

‘The greatest of follies is to sacrifice health for any other kind of happiness,’ Arthur Schopenhauer.

Of the 11 choices to keep your heart healthy, which beat in time for you? Which do you have your heart set on?

At the heart of health is this: the more of the above choices we make, the healthier our hearts will be.


Professor Nigel MacLennan runs the performance coaching practice PsyPerform.

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