Climbing a flight of stairs at home is just as good as a gym class when it comes to warding off a heart attack, scientists have found.

Professor Maureen MacDonald, from McMaster University in Canada and her team of researchers found that walking up 18 steps had the same benefits for the heart as a 45-minute aerobic class. “We’ve shown stair-climbing is a safe, efficient and feasible option for cardiac rehabilitation, which was particularly relevant during the pandemic when many people didn’t have the option to exercise in a gym,” says MacDonald.

A 2019 study from the British Heart Foundation (BHF) found that the number of under-75s dying of heart disease has risen for the first time in 50 years.

“What we’re talking about here is adults under the age of 65 – working age adults – dying of heart disease,” says Ashleigh Li, a senior cardiac nurse at the BHF. 

The study found that our increasingly sedentary lifestyles, and soaring rates of obesity and diabetes are pushing up the figures among younger people.

“Heart disease used to be thought of as an old person’s disease, and older men at that,” says Li. “But what this study shows is that younger people, including women, are at risk.”

“Early on in my career I was taught that to look after your heart is to look after your overall health, and this should start as young as possible.” says Maureen Talbot, another cardiac nurse at the British Heart Foundation.

Here’s how…

Stop what you’re doing – and go and climb some stairs

In 2019, then-Health Secretary Matt Hancock said he kept fit by walking up the nine flights of stairs to his Department of Health’s office to keep fit – and calculated he was climbing around 10,000 steps a month and felt less out of breath as a result.

A paper in the European Journal of Applied Physiology found that subjects who regularly did just three short 20-second sprints on an indoor bike enjoyed a nine per cent gain in cardiorespiratory fitness. Another paper in Experimental Physiology found that even short walks can reverse the vascular dysfunction – such as reduced blood flow and increased stress on the artery walls – caused by extended periods sitting down. Simply taking the stairs a few times a day can protect your body from the risks of a sedentary lifestyle and ensure you live a longer and healthier life.

Know your numbers

“Sadly many of the risk factors for heart attacks and strokes don’t have any obvious symptoms,” says Li, “so people only find out there’s a problem when things are already severe. However, when you’re 40 you can book in for a health check with your GP who will check your weight, blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and look for signs of heart, kidney and liver disease, and diabetes, which are all contributing factors of heart disease. After 40 you can go every five years. If you’re over 40 and have never had this check, please book one today.”

Eat well

“It’s very easy to eat a heart-friendly diet,” says Talbot. “Studies show a healthy Mediterranean diet is the most heart-protective so focus on mono-unsaturated fats like olive oil, oily fish, fruits, vegetables, wholegrain, a little dairy, a little bit of meat. The Japanese have low levels of heart disease and high rates of longevity, which is thought to be a result of, among other things, the amount of oily fish in their diet.” 

Other heart-friendly foods include asparagus, legumes (beans, peas, lentils, chickpeas and so on) and flaxseed. Dark red or purple berries are also very heart-protective, because they contain antioxidants that can lower your risk of heart disease. So make today’s lunch a heart-protective one.

Call a friend tonight

Having solid social support has emerged as one of the biggest protectors of health. “There’s been a lot of evidence in the last decade showing one of the most important factors in health and your risk of dying is having a good network of friends,” says psychologist Professor Robin Dunbar from the University of Oxford.

“One major study done on heart attack patients found one of the most important factors in surviving, along with stopping smoking, was the quality of the patient’s friendships. That’s how important friendships are for our health.”

One study, published in the health journal Heart, found people who are socially isolated are also more likely to have a heart attack or stroke and have an increased risk of dying from heart disease. “We’ve long known loneliness is one of the biggest killers of old people, but what we’re increasingly discovering is this protective benefit extends down to younger people,” says Dunbar.

Don’t drink tonight

“Alcohol in moderation thins the blood, which is where the studies suggesting its cardio-protective ability come from,” says Talbot. “Whereas binge drinking hardens the arteries, raises blood pressure and increases the risk of liver disease. However, we still avoid prescribing or advocating moderate drinking because it’s just not heart-protective in the way that regular exercise is, which we would advocate. However, if you must drink, have no more than two units a night and at least two alcohol-free days a week.”