How to get started in healthy living — part 2

The benefits of leading a healthy lifestyle

In part 1 of this guide to healthy living, we looked at the overall picture of healthy living, and at some of the factors that contribute to a healthier lifestyle. But how do you go about making changes to your life without causing havoc and disruption? This section will show you how small changes to your lifestyle can equal big results.

How to get started in healthy living

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 zzzzzs 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.

  • Get help from your doctor, pharmacist or the NHS SMOKING HELPLINE: 0800 169 0 169.

Now you are well on your way to understanding the health jigsaw and how small changes can equal big results, check out How to get started in healthy living — part 3 to find out how to adjust your diet and activity levels for the better…

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