Living well with heart failure

A heart-healthy lifestyle is a great way to manage your heart failure and stay out of hospital. We look at ways to maintain your physical and emotional wellbeing when living with this long-term condition.

A senior Maori lady holds her baby granddaughter in an embrace. Both are smiling happily.

Learning you have heart failure can be frightening, but there’s a lot you can do to continue to live a healthy active life. 

Understanding your condition, taking your medication, and checking your symptoms daily are all important for staying well and out of hospital. You can read more about them on our Understanding heart failure page. 

A heart-healthy lifestyle also plays a large part in your wellbeing and your condition management.  

In this article

Emotional wellbeing

It’s normal to experience a wide range of emotions when you’re living with heart failure. These feelings might include:

  • fear
  • confusion
  • shock 
  • anger
  • denial
  • depression
  • anxiety.

These feelings are normal, especially when you’re first told you have heart failure.

Experiences of depression and anxiety are common after a heart failure diagnosis. If you have a low mood that continues for more than two weeks, or your mood is seriously impacting your lifestyle, talk to your GP or nurse for further help.

You can call 1737 to speak with a trained counsellor for free, any time of day or night.

There are also things you can do to improve your mood and emotional wellbeing.

  • Be active each day.
  • Ensure you’re getting good sleep.
  • Make time for relaxation or hobbies.
  • Talk about your feelings with whānau or friends.
  • Find a support group, or connect with other people living with heart failure.

 

Depression and anxiety after a heart event

Physical activity

A group of senior ladies in a swimming pool doing aqua aerobics.

Physical activity or exercise is one of the best ways to stay well with heart failure – it's great for your physical and emotional wellbeing.

Start gently with small amounts of regular exercise and build up gradually, until you reach at least 30 minutes a day on most days of the week. You can split it into more than one session a day, for example, 15 minutes in the morning and 15 minutes in the afternoon.

Here are five tips to get you started.

  1. Set a realistic goal - If you're new to exercise, set a goal of 5-10 minutes a day and build up slowly.
  2. Find an activity you enjoy- There are lots of different activities that count such as dancing, gardening, walking and swimming. It's an opportunity to try something new.
  3. Ask family or a friend to join you - Build activity into meeting with friends like going for a walk or a hike.
  4. Stay safe - Know your limits and stop if you feel any pain or discomfort.
  5. Build up slowly - Gradually increase the amount you do. Go for a little longer or a little further each week until you’re doing 30 minutes or more on most days.

Our Heart Help Directory has contact details for your local cardiac groups and for Green Prescription, a free health and wellness support service throughout Aotearoa.

Tips for exercising safely

It is normal to be a bit breathless when you exercise, especially when you first start.

The talk test is a good guide to check that you are exercising at the right level. If you cannot talk in sentences while exercising, slow down. If you can whistle and sing while exercising, pick up the pace.

Avoid exercise when:

  • your symptoms are worse than usual
  • if you feel unwell.

Follow your heart failure or angina action plans. Wait until you are feeling better and then slowly get back into your exercise routine.

 

Read more about keeping active

Heart-healthy eating

Eating a heart-healthy low-salt diet will help you to manage heart failure and other health issues you may have.

Salt (sodium chloride) makes it harder for your body to get rid of fluid. Eating too much salt is likely to make your heart failure symptoms worse.

Most of the salt we eat comes from processed, pre-prepared and takeaway foods. Processed foods and takeaways usually lack fibre, vitamins and minerals and are full of saturated fat, sugar and salt.

Foods that are close to their natural states such as fresh vegetables, fruit, legumes, nuts, whole grains and oily fish are all heart-healthy choices.

Tips for choosing lower-salt foods

Look at the nutrition information panel on the food label and choose foods with the lowest sodium per 100g (salt is listed as sodium on food labels). Less is best.

Compare sodium in foods you eat often (like bread and breakfast cereals) as these foods can contribute a lot of salt to your diet.

Choose foods with ‘no added salt,’ ‘unsalted,’ ‘low-salt’ or ‘reduced salt’ on the packet.

Eating for a healthy heartHow to cut back on salt for heart health

Drinking choices

If your heart failure symptoms are well controlled, you should not need to restrict your intake of fluids. However, it’s a good idea to avoid drinking large amounts of fluid.

Water is the best choice to stay hydrated. Avoid sugary drinks like soft drinks, juices, energy drinks and iced teas as they are high in calories and have little nutritional value.

If your body is retaining fluid, you may be advised to reduce your fluid intake. If you have been told to restrict your fluids, remember that yoghurts, soups, teas, ice cream and smoothies all count towards your intake.

Alcohol

Drinking alcohol comes with risks to your health and not drinking alcohol is a healthy choice.

If heavy alcohol use has caused your heart failure, then you should avoid alcohol even when you start to feel better.

If you choose to drink alcohol, have at least two or three alcohol-free days a week and avoid binge drinking.

  • Women should drink no more than two standard drinks a day, and no more than 10 standard drinks a week.
  • Men should drink no more than three standard drinks a day, and no more than 15 standard drinks a week.

These limits could be too high for some people with heart failure. Talk to your doctor about whether drinking alcohol is safe for you.

If you’re worried about your drinking, speak to your doctor or nurse or call the Alcohol Helpline on 0800 787 797. Or visit alcohol.org.nz.

Quit smoking

Becoming smoke-free is one of the best things you can do for your heart.

You are more likely to successfully stop smoking if you get help. Talk to your doctor nurse or pharmacist about options to help you quit.

 

Read more about quitting smoking

Relationships and sex

For many people, sex is an important part of their relationship. When your heart failure symptoms are under control, you can safely enjoy sex. Like other forms of exercise – it’s good for your heart.

It’s common for people and their partners to feel nervous about having sex after they’ve been diagnosed with a heart condition. Talk honestly with your partner about your feelings and take the time to ask how they are feeling. Take things slowly.

Even if you're not feeling ready for sexual intercourse, maintaining or rebuilding the intimacy of your relationship is important.

Tips to resume sexual activity gradually:

  • Kissing, cuddling, touching and being touched help people to feel loved.
  • Communication is important. Talk about how you're feeling and remember to tell your partner how you feel about them.
  • Choose a time when you're rested, relaxed, and comfortable.
  • Avoid sex within two hours of eating a heavy meal or having a lot of alcohol.
  • Ensure the room and bed is warm.
  • Choose positions that feel comfortable.

Our information on intimacy and sex after a heart attack has lots of useful information for people living with heart failure.

Vaccinations

Heart failure can put you at greater risk of getting seriously ill from Covid-19 and the flu. Vaccination is the best way to protect yourself against this risk.

If you’re living with heart failure, you’re entitled to a free flu vaccination each year. Covid- 19 vaccinations are free for everyone.

 

Flu vaccinations reduce risk of heart eventsCovid-19 vaccinations and the heart