Given that government guidelines allow you to have a drink every day of the week, you might think that having several alcohol-free days is better. That’s true, provided you stick to the recommended daily limits on the other days. The trouble is, many people ‘save up’ their units during the week and neck them all at the weekend. Evidence suggests that this is more harmful than a more moderate but regular alcohol intake, yet among women in their 20s, 60 per cent of the alcohol consumed is in bouts of heavy drinking (more than six units in one sitting) — while for men, half the drinking is done in binge bouts (more than eight units). As well as putting your liver under extreme stress — as it can only metabolize one unit of alcohol per hour — binge drinking puts you at risk of accidents and dangerous situations, and in the long term is linked to hypertension, stroke, heart disease, some cancers and poor bone health.
Substituting the gym for daily activity
It’s great that you go to the gym three times a week, for an hour a time, but overall, that amounts to three hours a week of activity out of a potential 168! It’s not so great when you put it like that, is it? In a fascinating study at the University of Maastricht, researchers found that gym-goers burn fewer calories on an overall weekly basis than people who are generally active (walking and cycling to get around and performing normal daily activities) but do no ‘official’ exercise. The researchers speculated that gym goers in the study subconsciously used less energy the rest of the time, believing that they had ‘done their bit’ already. So by all means, keep up the gym visits, but don’t think it gives you carte blanche to spend the rest of the day on the sofa!
Thinking ‘low fat’ means ‘low calorie’
If more of us made ‘always read the label’ our mantra, we’d be a healthier nation! Lots of us scoff down foods flagged up as ‘reduced fat’ or ‘low fat’, believing that they must be low calorie. But here’s the thing: firstly, just because the fat has been ‘reduced’, it doesn’t mean the product is actually low in fat. For example, if the original fat content of a standard product is 20g, and in the reduced-fat version it has been reduced to 15g, it is still five times higher than the ‘3g of fat per serving’ that officially qualifies a food as ‘low fat’. Secondly, lost flavor is often replaced by sugar in reduced fat products, and calorie count remains high. Don’t diet in denial — read the label!
You might think that the ‘odd cigarette’ that you have with a few drinks on a night out is pretty harmless, but you are treading on dangerous ground with a drug as addictive as nicotine. It only takes seconds for nicotine to reach the brain, but its effects — including increased nervous system activity, elevated heart rate, blood sugar elevation and narrowing of the blood vessels — can last for an entire day. And it doesn’t matter if you smoke only one cigarette a week or one pack — the damaging effects start right away and get worse as you continue smoking. Also, people who only smoke occasionally are less likely to ever stop smoking than heavier smokers. And what if your occasional smoke is a joint? Well, while it’s unlikely that you would smoke as many joints as cigarettes, marijuana has three times the amount of tar as tobacco and three to five times the amount of carbon monoxide.
Drinking too much caffeine
There is nothing wrong with the odd cup of tea or coffee, but if the staff in Starbucks know you by name, you may be overdoing it! Excessive caffeine intake overstimulates the adrenal glands so that they become ‘switched on’ all the time, and therefore make you feel constantly nervy or edgy. Caffeine also increases the heart rate, affects sleep patterns and can cause headaches and tummy upsets. Also, bear in mind that if you drink cappuccinos or lattes, you are taking in quite a considerable number of calories in every cup. The best advice is to go for quality rather than quantity and to really savor a few cups of tea or coffee, rather than to drink it mindlessly throughout the day.
Failing to set up your workstation properly
A chair that’s too low or too high, a flickering screen, a desk set-up that means your spine or neck is twisted — all these workstation faux pas take their toll on your musculoskeletal system, causing everything from headaches and neck pain, to hunched shoulders and backache. The thing to bear in mind when setting up your workstation is right angles. You want your hips and knees at a right angle, with your feet supported by the floor or on a footrest, then you want your elbows at a right angle, forearms supported by the desk or keyboard support. Your eyeline should be level with the top of the screen. No matter how perfect your desk set-up, you should also get up at least once an hour to walk around and stretch.
Performing unsafe sex
We might be living in the enlightened 21st century, but more people are having more sex with more partners — and much of this sexual activity is unprotected. The number of new cases of STIs such as chlamydia, syphilis and gonorrhoea is increasing while diagnosed cases of HIV are also on the rise. It’s not that we don’t know the risks of unprotected sex — it’s just that in the heat of the moment, we’re failing to take the appropriate action by forgetting to use condoms. Taking responsibility for your own sexual health — and that of your current or future partners — is one of the most important health changes you can make.
Not checking yourself out
Ladies — when did you last check your breasts? Guys — when did you last check your testicles? Sorry to be so personal, but performing these simple self health-checks could save your life. For example, research shows that the majority of breast cancer symptoms are first spotted by the women themselves. The best time to check your breasts is just after your period, when they tend to be softer. Use the flat side of your hand to move gently over each breast in a circular motion, checking under the armpits as well as across the entire surface of each breast. Also, look in the mirror with your hands on your hips and then on your head to check for symmetry, and look for any dimples, bulges or other irregularities. Men should regularly check their testicles in the bath or shower, feeling for any lumps or swelling, tenderness or change in size. And see your doctor immediately if you spot blood in your semen or urine. If testicular cancer is caught early, it is relatively easy to cure.
Keeping water in a re-used plastic bottle
Drinking plenty of water contributes to good health, but re-using a plastic bottle to store water in isn’t a good idea. While the jury is still out on whether there is any danger from potentially carcinogenic substances ‘leaching out’ from polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles after they have been opened, a University of Calgary study found bacteria thriving in water samples taken from students’ bottles that had been used and then refilled without being cleaned. If you do choose to reuse a plastic bottle — or use a sports drink container — wash it out with hot soapy water and dry it thoroughly between uses to keep germs at bay.
Bottling up stress
A life without stress would be a life lived in a sealed, sterile box — but there are ways of learning to deal with stress which work better than the ‘stiff upper lip’ approach. And learning a few coping mechanisms is well worthwhile, as the evidence that stress can be detrimental to your health is now irrefutable. High levels of stress are associated with heart disease, high blood pressure and metabolic syndrome as well as a compromised immune system and weight gain. Research at Ohio University found that couples undergoing marital conflict took 60 per cent longer to heal from blisters than they did when they were getting on well, while other research found that stressed people exposed to a cold virus were more likely to catch a cold than non-stressed folk.