A HAMPSHIRE heart charity is taking its battle against cardiac disease into the centre of the community.

Wessex Heartbeat has announced plans for a change in direction, with a new emphasis on preventative work in the community from 2019.

Historically, the charity has focused predominantly on funding equipment and facilities at Southampton General Hospital’s Wessex Cardiac Centre. Over the last 25 years the charity has raised an impressive £16m, with the majority of the money going towards ensuring the cardiac centre can provide state-of-the-art care.

Now, it’s turning its attention to stamping out the problem of cardiac disease at its root.

“We’ve helped to create this amazing facility, now we want to make sure no-one uses it!” jokes John Munro, Wessex Heartbeat’s CEO.

“As a charity, your aim is always to put yourself out of a job by combatting a problem and making it disappear. When we were first set up our aim was to help create a UK-leading centre for cardiac care and we truly feel we are there.

“The facilities at the Wessex Cardiac Centre really are second to none. People in the Wessex region have access to some of the best equipment and care in the world. Now it’s time to cut off the problem at the source; working to stop people from contracting heart disease in the first place.”

John, pictured above, says that while some heart disease is unavoidable due to hereditary conditions or trauma from an accident, many conditions can be avoided with a healthy lifestyle.

“That’s really what we want to educate people across the entire Wessex region about and to do that we need to be there in the community talking to people,” he adds.

The charity put its toe in the water earlier this year when it trialled a brand-new health initiative with the region’s business community.

The 12 Week Healthy Heart Challenge saw scores of businesspeople take on a small but achievable challenge every week for three months in a bid to reduce their BMI, cholesterol and other factors of cardiac health.

The challenges ranged from drinking more water to getting more active and had a real effect, with the group collectively losing more than 12 stone and reducing their cholesterol.

“It was a big success and proof that with small changes you can improve your overall health,” said John.

“As a result we’re going to be rolling the challenge out to the wider public can from 2019. It’s probably the thing I’m most excited about next year. It has the potential to change the lives of hundreds, even thousands of people.”

Wessex Heartbeat says that it has the best chance of success when educating people at a young age about cardiac health.

“The longer people live with a healthy heart, the longer they’re likely to live,” says John.

“Plus, you have the chance to create healthy habits from the outset.”

The charity has plans to work with more schools across Hampshire, Wiltshire and Dorset next year. Among its initiatives will be healthy heart talks, teaching children about the importance of exercise, diet and nutrition.

“We hope that as well as reaching the children, they’ll go home and encourage their parents to take on some healthier habits too,” said John.

The charity also hopes to work with sports teams to reach the community with its healthy heart message. Already it’s teamed up with AFC Totton and is running several projects to spread the word. Running healthy heart checks for players, holding a healthy heart conference and even funding exercise programmes like walking football, are just some of the schemes on the cards.

Running such initiatives costs money and, with Brexit causing economic uncertainty, John says Wessex Heartbeat knows it needs to work hard to fundraise.

“Brexit’s already had an impact on the charity sector,” he says. “People are uncertain of what the future holds and understandably not spending as much as they would normally. That said, we’ve had a good year and our net profit looks good.

"Just like a business, we’ve always been mindful to adapt to survive. That’s exactly what we’ve done over recent years and what we’ll continue to do.”

Wessex Heartbeat is one of a declining number of charities bold enough to put on its own theatre shows to raise money.

On February 10, it will raise the curtain on its fourth variety show at Southampton’s Mayflower Theatre, with 350 performers taking to the stage including Wicked’s Kerry Ellis, Britain’s Got Talent’s Gareth Oliver and hundreds of local performers.

Organiser Ken Wilde said: “We’re incredibly lucky to work with some fantastic people to put together such a good line up. It’s a bold move arranging our own show in such a big venue but it continues to draw in hundreds and hundreds of people every year; it’s incredibly popular.”

John adds: “What’s exciting is that there are many more people we can reach with our healthy heart message.”

Looking ahead, Wessex Heartbeat will continue to fund cardiac projects where needed at the Wessex Cardiac Centre and will continue to run its popular Heartbeat House, a home just across the road from the hospital where families of those undergoing heart surgery can stay to be close to their loved ones.

Families can stay at the serviced accommodation for free for as long as they need to. It’s a vital lifeline for those who live further away and would otherwise have to commute for hours to see their loved ones or spend hundreds on hotel accommodation.

“It could be that Heartbeat House plays a part in spreading our healthy heart message too,” John says. “We’re already talking about running healthy cooking workshops from the kitchen there to teach people about diet and nutrition.”

To find out about Wessex Heartbeat’s events in 2019 visit www.heartbeat.co.uk and to book tickets for the variety show at the Mayflower, which cost £19.50, visit www.mayflower.org.uk