How To Get Started In Healthy Living

Wanting to develop a healthier lifestyle but unsure how? Check out this guide to get started on the road to healthy living.

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Never before has there been so much talk about healthy living. The newspapers are packed with stories about the latest dangers and hazards to our health — from mobile phones to sugar, mercury fillings to artificial sweeteners, and genetically-modified foods to noise pollution. The headlines can leave you feeling confused and overwhelmed — and above all, powerless.

But in reality, choosing to live a healthier lifestyle is a choice that any of us can make. It’s not about reacting to the latest scare story, banning certain foods or products from your life and adopting an extreme, all-or-nothing approach — it’s about balance and moderation.

The health jigsaw

You could view healthy living as a jigsaw puzzle — made up of many different pieces, all crucial to the finished picture — but all of different shapes and sizes. If one piece is missing entirely, the overall picture isn’t complete. For example, you could be a fitness fanatic who eats healthily and never drinks alcohol — but you haven’t found a way of coping with the high levels of stress your job brings — and you can’t remember the last time you went for a health check. Or you could be someone bursting with energy, who survives on four hours sleep a night, thrives on stress and never gets ill — but who lives on junk food and caffeine.

While there are quite obviously some pieces missing in these jigsaws, scenarios such as this are far from unusual. For example, while you may be debating whether to have your mercury fillings removed, are you taking the simple step of flossing daily to look after your dental health? As many as 23 per cent of women between 30 and 54 have severe gum (periodontal) disease, according to the American Academy of Periodontology, which, as well as being the leading cause of tooth loss, has been linked to heart disease, premature births and chronic inflammation in the body.

Big health issues

Evidently, we sometimes aren’t seeing the wood for the trees — we’re worrying about the little things (should I drink normal coke or diet coke?) while ignoring the bigger issues. According to the Sleep Council, for example, 20 million people in the UK — that’s roughly a third — don’t get enough sleep, and two thirds claim that stress is a major factor in their lives.

We’re missing a few jigsaw pieces on the healthy diet front, too. While the UK’s average daily fruit and vegetable intake is three pieces — significantly less than the minimum recommended intake of five per day — research from the Office for National Statistics shows that 17 per cent of adult women drink over the recommended 14 units per week, while over a third of men drink above recommended levels.

But while we are glugging down the booze, many of us aren’t drinking enough water. Research by the Lucozade Sport Science Institute found that around 50 per cent of people hit the gym in a dehydrated state — (and that’s before they’ve even started their workout!). At least they’ve managed to get to the gym, though — 56% of men and 70% of women aged 16 to 54 in the UK fail to reach the recommended levels of physical activity for health benefits. While 10,000 steps per day is the Holy Grail — sufficient to reduce your risk of heart disease, aid weight loss and improve musculoskeletal health — a report in the journal Sports Medicine found that less than 5,000 is more typical for the average Brit.

A positive attitude to healthy living

Fascinatingly, our health isn’t just about what we do with our lives, it’s also about how we think, too. In 2002, researchers at the Mayo Clinic in the United States found that optimistic people decreased their risk of early death by 50 per cent compared with those with a less positive outlook. How? The researchers speculate that it’s likely to be to do with pessimists having a greater risk of future problems with their physical health, emotional stress and career achievements — along with possible changes in their immune systems.

With the wrong outlook, you could see the healthy living jigsaw as an overwhelming, unachievable challenge. How can you possibly manage to put ticks in all those ‘health’ boxes? But look again, and you’ll see that the fact that there are so many pieces means that there are countless ways you can make small changes in your life, which will have a big impact on your health.

Learn to cope with stress

Two-thirds of us feel under stress at work, according to a MORI poll — while outside of work, other factors like money worries, relationship and family problems, health issues and travel chaos send our blood pressure soaring. We can’t prevent stress (and how boring life would be if we did!) but we can learn to deal with stress better — and we should do so, for the sake of our health.

Chronic, uncontrolled stress produces high levels of a hormone called cortisol, which over time can affect our mental functioning and weaken the immune system. Stress has also been linked to the development of stomach ulcers and high blood pressure. A study led by the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine found that men with the highest level of anger in response to stress were over three times more likely to develop premature heart disease than men who reported lower anger responses. They were also over six times more likely to have a heart attack by the age of 55.

Take action

  • Learn what your stress triggers are so that you can avoid them as much as possible. Some classic triggers include leaving things to the last minute, taking on more than you can handle, being put on the spot when you’re not prepared, being late and having to cope with other people’s mistakes or failings.

  • Find a healthy coping mechanism. Getting drunk or eating a whole packet of biscuits doesn’t count! Try a chat with a friend, some breathing exercises (see below), thinking of something funny, a 10-minute walk or a soothing hot drink. It’s even worth writing down what coping mechanisms work for you, as you may not always think of them at times of extreme stress.

  • Don’t try to be perfect in everything you do. You’ll make life a lot less stressful if you sometimes accept things as ‘good enough,’ rather than striving to achieve 100 per cent.

  • Breathe. One of the first things we do when we’re under stress is hold our breath, or breathe in a rapid and shallow manner. This prevents us getting fresh oxygen in to fuel the brain and muscles. Start by breathing out as far as you can (ideally through your mouth). Exhale every last bit of carbon dioxide! Then allow your inhalation to occur naturally (ideally through the nose). Gradually lengthen the in-breath, but always ensure the out-breath is longer, to dissipate tension.

  • Do the ‘sphere of influence’ test. This involves determining whether a particular stressor is within your control to change. If it’s not, then accept that there’s nothing you can do about it and that it isn’t your fault. If it is, then deal with it as best you can now and consider how you could avoid a repeat of the situation in future.

  • Ensure you get sufficient levels of vitamin B and C, which chronic stress depletes. Zinc and magnesium levels can also be affected by stress — leaving your immune system vulnerable — so be vigilant with these or consider supplementation.

Get to grips with health checks and screening

Many of us only visit the doctor when something goes wrong — but healthcare is as much about prevention as cure, so it’s important to stay on top of regular checks and screening. When did you last have an eye test? When is your next smear test due? Have you had your blood pressure checked recently? What about that itchy mole on your back? Screening gives the experts a chance to identify problems while they are still minor and easily treatable, and yet, according to a survey by healthcare provider HealthSure, 57 per cent of men and 42 per cent of women have never had a health screen or wellbeing check. Start taking control.

Take action

  • Get out your diary and write down when your important health checks are next due — for example a smear test, mammogram or cholesterol check. If you don’t know, then ask your doctor. If they don’t know, then start with a ‘clean slate’ and get checked now.

  • Keep note of your test results. While, for example, your blood pressure may still be ‘normal’, you should still be made aware if it has gone up since the last time it was checked.

  • Check your breasts each month — and men, check your testicles regularly so that you become aware of what feels ‘normal’ to you.

  • If anything — a mole, your eyesight, back pain, your reproductive organs, a stubborn cough — is bothering you pick up the phone NOW and make an appointment to see the relevant professional. Ignored health problems don’t go away.

Get a good night’s sleep

There’s no doubt that sleep deprivation is a major health problem — women who sleep less than eight hours a night over a 10-year period have a slightly higher risk of heart disease, according to a study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, though other studies say anywhere around seven to nine hours is ideal. The two major factors to tackle are poor quality sleep (insomnia, constant waking or difficulty falling asleep) and simply failing to get enough sleep in altogether.

Take action

  • To improve sleep quality, avoid caffeine for four to six hours before bedtime (depending on how ‘caffeine-sensitive’ you are). But a warm drink, such as hot milk, can help prepare you for slumber. Don’t take work to bed with you — which is likely to make you wakeful. According to The Sleep Council, a warm bath, some soporific music or gentle yoga can help get you wind down.  

  • Make your bedroom sleep friendly: the ideal bedroom is well ventilated, completely dark and has an ambient temperature of 22ºC (72ºF), according to the London Sleep Centre.

  • Avoid alcohol in the evenings if you wake up tired. While it helps you fall asleep faster, alcohol disrupts sleep quality and depth, and leads to more frequent awakenings and earlier-than-usual waking times.

  • As far as hours in bed are concerned, you may not be able to stay in bed longer in the mornings due to your daytime commitments, but you can almost certainly go to bed a little earlier. If you constantly suffer from daytime fatigue, go to bed 30 minutes earlier each night for a week. If that doesn’t help, increase it to an hour. Maintain the same sleep patterns at weekends, too. The body likes routine.

Take care of your teeth

Many people balk at the cost of private dentistry — yet wouldn’t think twice about spending that amount of money on a haircut or highlights, or a new pair of glasses. Our teeth are integral not only to our appearance but also to the way we chew food and speak. Yet few of us are as conscientious as we should be of our dental health — leading to tooth decay and gum disease. According to the British Dental Association, most adults suffer from at least a mild form of gum (periodontal) disease, which can lead to tooth loss, and, in more serious cases, heart disease, premature births and chronic inflammation in the body.

Take action

  • Floss once a day

  • Rinse out your mouth after eating sticky sweet foods if you can’t brush them

  • Don’t rinse your mouth out with water after brushing — as the fluoride in toothpaste helps protect your teeth.

  • Replace your toothbrush at least every three months

  • Clean your teeth for two minutes — not a perfunctory 10 seconds! Ask your dentist to show you how to brush properly if you’re not sure.

  • See the dentist and hygienist twice a year for a check-up.

  • Chew sugar-free gum after eating. Chewing gum after a meal stimulates the production of saliva, which helps to neutralize plaque acids and reduce the risk of tooth decay.

Stub out your smoking habit

While smoking prevalence is on its way down, too many people are still slaves to the evil weed. The average cigarette contains over 4,000 toxic chemicals — so it’s no surprise that smoking increases your risk of cancer and heart disease, respiratory problems, diabetes, eye disease, erectile dysfunction and hearing loss, not to mention making you age prematurely and putting those around you at risk of smoking-related conditions. Nicotine is such a powerful drug that no safe level has been determined. While cutting down helps, in the long run, there are no half measures with smoking. Unlike alcohol, stress or dietary fat — there is no amount that is acceptable for health.

Take action

  • Set a date on which you are going to give up and get prepared for that day.

  • Don’t expect giving up to be easy — it’s not. The first few days, when nicotine withdrawal symptoms are strongest, are likely to be tough, so prepare yourself for that.

  • Work out how much money you will save between now and Christmas if you give up smoking tomorrow.

Balanced diet

Eating a nutritious, balanced diet is perhaps the lynchpin of healthy living. Not only does it keep all your body systems working efficiently, it also provides energy, protects your heart, helps prevent and fight off disease, maintains a healthy body weight, contributes to healthy skin, hair and nails and even influences mood.

Eat more healthy foods

Most of us eat too much processed and refined food (containing excess sugar, fat and salt) and not enough whole grains, fiber, fruit and vegetables. The average daily intake of fiber in the UK, for example, is 12g per day — significantly less than the 18g target, while a recent Nutrition and Diet Survey found that although fruit and veg consumption has increased, the average is still less than three portions per day.

Take action

  • Take a daily pill. According to the Harvard Medical School, most people benefit from a daily multivitamin and mineral complex, particularly if they don’t eat the recommended five portions of fruit and vegetables each day, if they regularly miss meals or rely on highly-processed foods.

  • Up your antioxidants. These naturally-occurring compounds fight disease-causing free radicals in the body and are found mainly in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes and nuts. Vitamins A, C and E and the mineral selenium are powerful antioxidants, so foods rich in these micronutrients are a great place to start.  

  • Eating more fruit and vegetables is one of the simplest things you can do to enhance your health — and up your antioxidant intake. While ‘five-a-day’ is the well-known recommendation, the ideal is seven to nine portions, according to many experts. Don’t get stuck in the trap of eating the same varieties, day in day out. Make it a rule never to leave the house without having consumed one of your five a day, and always have another one in your bag or car.

  • Avoid trans fats. Increasingly, evidence is building to suggest that this type of ‘manufactured’ fat is more harmful even than saturated fat — no safe level has been established. Read food labels and avoid products with the words ‘hydrogenated vegetable oils’ or trans fats on.

  • Switch to wholegrain and brown versions of rice, pasta and bread — these are more nutritious, in terms of their vitamin and mineral content, and also contain more fiber than white varieties.

  • Eat more fish. There is strong evidence that the 'omega-3 fatty acids' in oily fish helps to protect against heart disease. Eat sardines, salmon, herring, mackerel or fresh tuna once a week, and another type of non-oily fish once a week.

Maintain a healthy body weight

If you are overweight, losing weight and making healthier food choices is crucial to better health, as obesity is associated with an alarming number of diseases including diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke, heart problems, some types of cancer, arthritis of the back and legs, gallstones, breathing problems, some complications of pregnancy and depression. One study found that just a 10 per cent weight reduction helped overweight people reduce blood pressure and cholesterol and increase longevity. The two main factors are reducing overall calorie intake and reducing fat intake.

Recent research from the University of North Carolina found that portion sizes have expanded not just in the home but also when we eat out — it’s quite common to be eating a serving that is up to three times larger than a ‘standard’ portion, piling on additional calories. The average British diet contains 41 per cent fat — significantly higher than the recommended maximum percentage of 30 per cent. What’s more, too much of the fat we eat comes from unhealthy saturated and trans fat sources (derived from meat and dairy products, pastry, fried food, refined and pre-packaged products and cakes), which is damaging to heart health.

Take action

  • Weigh yourself and check your body mass index. If you are overweight, aim to lose 0.2 to 0.4kg (0.5 to 1lb) per week. Don’t be tempted by quick-fix diets. The best way to keep weight off is to lose it slowly and sensibly.

  • Don’t cut out, cut down. Instead of banning cookies from the house, for example, allow yourself one in the morning and one in the evening instead of eating half the packet.

  • Learn what portion sizes look like. For example, a serving of cheese should be about the size of a matchbox, a serving of meat the size of the palm of your hand. While what you eat is obviously a very important part of the equation, even very healthy food, like wholegrain bread, oily fish and pasta, when eaten to excess, is fattening.

  • Reduce your use of oil or fat in cooking. You can substitute water, tomato juice or white wine — with a dash of soy sauce — for oil in pan frying.

  • Go easy with fat-filled condiments and sauces, like mayonnaise, oily salad dressings, rich or creamy sauces and gravy.

  • Trim visible fat from meat, and don’t eat the skin of meat or fish. Opt for leaner cuts, such as back bacon rather than streaky, chicken breast rather than leg

  • Don’t forgo dairy products, as these are the richest source of calcium, which has an essential role in muscle contraction and in metabolism. It’s also vital in maintaining bone health, as calcium is a component of bone. Go for low fat versions instead.

  • ‘Frontload’ your diet, so that you eat most of your calories earlier in the day and eat lightly in the evening. One study found that people who skipped breakfast or lunch and ate most of their calories in their evening meal had lower metabolisms than ‘frontloaders’, while research has also shown the body is more responsive to insulin in the morning, and therefore more capable of handling carbohydrate efficiently compared to in the evening, when the action of cortisol is more likely to cause carbohydrates to be converted and stored as fat.

Exercise for a healthy life

Despite myriad campaigns and initiatives, we still aren’t getting out and about nearly often enough to benefit our health. The average person in the UK watches 26 hours of television per week! The latest statistics show that 56 per cent of men and 70 per cent of women aged 16 to 54 fail to reach the recommended levels of physical activity for health benefits. No wonder obesity is such a problem in this country ... But we remain sedentary at our peril: regular physical activity has been shown to reduce the risk of a number of chronic diseases including cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes — as well as the risk of premature death.

Take action

  • Stop and think before you make a journey. Could you walk it or bike it instead of driving? If it will take under 15 minutes to get there, then the answer is yes!

  • Be more aware of how you use your body. Bend your knees when you pick up heavy objects, sit at your desk properly and try to keep your stomach pulled in and shoulders back and down.

  • Find a fitness goal that you can work towards. It could be something as simple as being able to walk up all seven flights of stairs at work, or entering a charity fun run.  

  • Think of a sport or fitness activity you loved as a child — perhaps netball or judo, cross country running or ballet — and find somewhere that you can give it a go again. It may rekindle your enthusiasm …

  • Avoid labor-saving devices in and outside the home — like the remote control, the food processor, the elevators and escalators, the shopping home delivery service — even the ‘no-scrub’ bathroom cleaning fluid!

  • Invest in a pedometer (they are not expensive) and monitor your steps for a full day. The goal is to reach 10,000 steps per day, but if you are like most people, your total may be closer to half of that. Aim to build up by 200 steps per day.

Drink more fluids

Many of us spend a lot of time in a state of hypohydration. We’re not officially dehydrated but just slightly under-hydrated. This can make you feel sluggish, impair mental function and increase the risk of constipation. It also doesn’t do wonders for your complexion. Experts recommend that we consume 1ml of fluid for every calorie we take in — which means that the average UK woman needs around 2l, the average man needs 2.5l of fluid per day. Happily, at least a third of this comes from the moisture in the foods we eat — but it is still important to ensure you drink fluids regularly throughout the day (it doesn’t have to be water — though water is a calorie-free, sugar-free, additive-free choice). If you exercise, then starting at a level of hypohydration practically guarantees that you won’t perform to the best of your ability — so be especially vigilant if you are active.

Take action

  • Keep a bottle of water handy — on your desk, in your bag or in the car — you’ll be surprised how often you take a sip from it.

  • Drink a cup of water for every cup of tea or coffee you drink.

  • Swap sugary carbonated drinks for sparkling water. Don’t drink too many diet drinks — the acid in them is harmful to teeth and there is still controversy over the safety of the artificial sweeteners they contain.

  • Swap at least some of your caffeinated beverages for decaffeinated ones. Caffeine is a diuretic, meaning it makes the body shed water. ‘Water-processed’ decaffeinated coffee is free from chemicals and much tastier.

  • If you are exercising for more than 45 minutes, consider drinking an isotonic sports drink instead of water.

  • Monitor the color of your urine. If you are adequately hydrated, it should be the color of pale straw. Dark urine, infrequently passed, is a sure sign of dehydration.

Alcohol consumption

Excess drinking has become so much part of our culture that many of us barely notice we are doing it — but health practitioners certainly are – with worrying increases in alcohol related diseases from cirrhosis of the liver to heart problems, stroke, obesity, some cancers and alcohol-related accidents. Stick to the recommended amounts and you can enjoy alcohol without harming your health (there’s some evidence that consuming modest amounts of alcohol is actually healthier than being teetotal) – but unfortunately, many of us are overdoing it. A survey by the Royal College of Physicians found that one in five women aged 25 to 44 had ‘binged’ (defined as consuming more than six units in one session) at least once in the previous week while in 2001, the Chief Medical Officer’s report stated that liver cirrhosis had increased seven-fold in the last 30 years in women aged 35 to 44 and eight-fold in men of the same age group.

Take action

Know your units. The maximum recommended amount is four units per day for men (but no more than 21 per week) and three units per day for women (but no more than 14 units per week), necessitating at least two alcohol-free days per week. Keep a ‘drink diary’ to find out how much you are really drinking on a weekly basis.

  • Find a glass at home and mark on it with tippex or nail varnish the amount that constitutes a unit of your usual favourite tipple. For beer drinkers, that’s half a pint, for wine drinkers, 125ml and for spirit drinkers, 25ml constitutes a single unit.

  • When you’ve finished an alcoholic drink, fill the glass with water and don’t drink another one until you’ve finished the water.

  • Don’t get involved in ‘rounds’. You often end up drinking just because it’s been bought for you, even though you already feel you’ve had enough.

  • Don’t drink alcohol when you are thirsty. Make your first drink a large soft one, otherwise you will gulp it down too quickly.

  • Don’t drink on an empty stomach — either drink with food or eat before you go out.

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