How to take care of your heart this winter

As the weather gets colder, staying healthy is important. The cool weather and an increase in winter bugs put people with heart disease at risk. Here are seven tips to help you take care of yourself.

Woman holding warm drink on a rainy day

Why do we associate winter with getting sick?

The cold winter weather makes it easier to get sick than at other times of the year. Cold and flu viruses linger, and most people experience a change to their lifestyle as they spend more time inside.

Winter can have more of an impact on vulnerable people in the community too. This includes the elderly, pregnant women and anyone with a long-term health condition.

Winter and heart conditions

Winter can be tough for people with heart conditions. The cold makes our arteries tighten, decreasing blood flow and the delivery of oxygen, which means the heart needs to work harder. 

People with heart disease are more vulnerable to the winter flu, which can make symptoms of heart conditions worse. The flu can also be a trigger for atrial fibrillation (AF).

Seven ways to stay healthy in winter

Staying healthy in winter helps you avoid getting sick and is best for your heart health. Here are seven tips to help you beat winter illness.

1. Embrace healthy winter food

Cold weather is associated with hot and hearty meals that keep us warm. There is good reason for this. Keeping warm is one way to help keep the immune system strong against winter illnesses.

Hot food can also be comforting over the winter months as we spend more time indoors. However, when we seek comfort through food over winter it’s important to make sure we’re still choosing heart-healthy meals.

Check out these healthy eating tips to keep you nourished this winter. Using plenty of seasonal fruit and vegetables is the first step when planning your winter meals. Often people think there are less healthy options in winter as the seasonal vegetables take more time to prepare, compared to a summer salad.

However, there are lots of different colourful vegetables in season in winter that are easy to cook.

Some winter vegetables include:

  • Jerusalem artichokes
  • brussel sprouts
  • broccoli
  • beetroot
  • bok choy
  • cabbage
  • capsicum
  • carrots
  • cauliflower
  • kale
  • kumara
  • leeks
  • parsnip
  • pumpkin
  • potato
  • silver beet 
  • turnip.

Soups and stews are excellent winter dishes that can meet all your needs for a heart-healthy meal. Use our soup recipes to inspire you to use different vegetables, legumes and pulses for some hearty winter meals.

Chickpea soup in bowl on table

2. Keep moving

Cold weather and less daylight make it hard to stick to an exercise routine. Often the wind and rain stop even the most committed from getting outside. There’s no denying that there are many excuses not to exercise during winter.

Exercise is just as important for your heart health, and overall physical and mental health throughout winter, as it is any other time of the year.

To get started, take inspiration from our 10 ways to stay active during winter blog. You could also try these small daily habits that will make a difference in the long-term.

  • Go outside for a 10-15-minute walk during the day.
  • Pack a raincoat and/or umbrella (or leave it in the car) so you can still walk without getting wet.
  • Layer up with clothes when going outside to exercise. Light layers that draw sweat away from the body will help keep you warm and dry.
  • Keep a beanie, gloves and scarf in your bag, or in the car so you can keep warm when heading outside.
  • If you can’t go outside, then stay indoors and make the most of online exercise classes.

Man running on cold morning

3. Find a sleep routine

Getting enough good quality sleep is essential for good mental and physical health. Poor sleep has been linked to the development of a range of health conditions including heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and stroke.

Most adults need between 7-9 hours of good quality sleep each night. A consistent evening routine can help you sleep better. There are many small changes you can make to create this evening routine and build some healthy sleep habits.

Tips for a healthy sleep routine

1. Keep regular sleep hours

  • Try to go to bed and get up at the same time each day, even at the weekend.

2. What we do in the day affects us at night

  • Keep active and use our tips above to help you keep moving throughout winter.
  • Go outside for some sunlight in the morning and evening.
  • Avoid large meals, alcohol, caffeine or nicotine in the evening before you sleep.

3. Set yourself a time each night to switch off from technology

  • Put aside all screens, phones, iPads and the TV at least 30-60 minutes before you want to sleep.

4. Sort out your sleep environment

  • Declutter the bedroom and keep your working-life and other distractions, like TVs, out of the bedroom.
  • Adjust the temperature so that your room is not too cold over winter. Make sure you have enough warm bedding and use a hot water bottle if needed.

5. Relax and unwind before going to sleep

  • Relax with a hot shower or bath, read or listen to some guided meditation.

Sleep problems can happen after a heart attack, as you may feel anxious or emotional. If you have sleep problems, try to learn how sleep can help your recovery and take some steps to improve your sleep.

If your sleep problems don’t go away and none of the recommendations help, talk to your doctor for more support.

4. Try some practical steps to reduce stress

Stress can affect us at any time of year, winter is not excluded from this. With the change of season and routine, many of our tried and tested stress management tools, like exercise and healthy eating, are forgotten. 

New stressors can pop up across winter such as rising bills to keep the house warm and dry, tiredness, a lower mood from the darker and shorter days, or illnesses preventing progress at work. 

To help deal with stress, the Mental Health Foundation NZ recommends the "three Rs" – Refuel, Resolve, Relax. It's always good to take some time to work out what's causing your stress. Finding some mindful activities to help calm the mind and relax while indoors can help you with the changes you might experience in winter.

Mindful activities can include:

People walking in city during winter

5. Stay connected

What we learnt during the COVID-19 lockdown period was how important social connection is for our wellbeing. Over the winter months as we spend more time indoors, it’s important to keep in contact with friends and family.

Winter can be difficult for those who are more vulnerable. Keep an eye out for neighbours, friends, or family members who may be more vulnerable during winter. Support them in any way you can to make sure they’re warm, getting some hot food and drinks, and able to get outside to exercise safely. They may need support with things like supermarket shopping or blocking draughts in the house to make it warmer.

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) can affect anyone. The change in season is the trigger for SAD and continues through the winter months until spring. The impact can be mild, or it can prevent someone from living their usual life. Check in with friends and family and ask how their mental health is. Asking them about their mood, sleep, energy, appetite and motivation can give you an idea of how they are coping and whether they need extra support.

6. Prevention is better than cure

Winter brings us cooler weather, but it also brings flu season. Viruses are in the spotlight more than ever following COVID-19, and the age-old saying rings true that prevention is better than cure. 

If you have a heart condition get the flu vaccine to help protect you from the winter flu.

There are also other steps you can take to avoid getting ill.

Remember to:

  • wash your hands regularly for 20 seconds with soap and water
  • keep taking your usual medications 
  • focus on eating well, exercising regularly and getting good sleep to keep your immune system strong.

Woman sick with cold

7. Keep warm

This might seem like common sense, but it’s easy to get caught out in winter when the weather changes or you get caught in the rain. Keeping warm is so important when you’re inside and outside the house. The cold can make heart disease symptoms worse or trigger new symptoms.

Our tips to keep warm:

  • Keep your home at around 18 degrees and seal up any draughts that are going to let the heat escape.
  • Keep active when you’re inside, get up every hour and keep moving.
  • Layer up! Wearing lighter clothing layers traps warm air in better than one bulky layer.
  • Use a hat, scarf and gloves to keep the heat in as well.
  • Use a hot water bottle/an electric blanket or extra blankets to keep your bed warm.
  • Alcohol expands our blood vessels and makes us feel warm however the body is drawing heat away from our vital organs. Avoid alcohol before you go out into the cold.
  • Check to see if you are eligible for any extra payment support to pay for your heating so you can keep your house warm this winter.

Winter can be a tough time physically and mentally so keep an eye on your health for the next few months. Take inspiration from our seven steps and start some small daily habits to look after your health. Remember to also look out for others. Every bit of support helps and can make the cold winter months a lot more comfortable.

How to boost your immune system
Nickie Hursthouse, NZRD

Nickie Hursthouse, NZRD

National Nutrition Advisor

As a Registered Dietitian, I know that food gives us so much more than just nutrients. I am driven to simplify nutrition messages, educate on all aspects of food and support Kiwis to develop a love of food that helps them stay healthy throughout their life.