A winter of lockdown has taken its toll. But spring is in the air and there’s no better time to adopt a few new habits and set yourself on the path towards a healthier you. Here are 20 simple tips to start you out on that path.
Cold showers, ice baths and outdoor plunges are all the rage, inspired, chiefly, by Iceman guru Wim Hof. But research does suggest there are benefits to a daily cold shower. It can make you feel more alert – by increasing your heart rate, blood pressure and respiratory rate.
One study found that people who take cold showers are 29% less likely to call in sick for work or school. Another found that cold-water immersion over a period of time may reduce stress response in other stressful conditions. There may even be, cold water researcher Dr Mark Harper has written, “therapeutic benefit from cold water adaptation for conditions associated with chronically elevated levels of inflammation” – although only anecdotal evidence exists for this.
Still not fancying the jolt of a chilly shower? Take this tip from Hof himself: “The more often you take cold showers and the more accustomed you get to that initial shock, the more you begin to crave the sensation.”
Over the past year there has been a lot of talk about whether vitamin D may protect people from getting Covid-19. Only recently, however, have significant studies been published and the results have been mixed. Last week it was announced that two, still to be peer-reviewed papers had reached the conclusion that evidence for a direct link between vitamin D deficiency and Covid-19 outcomes was lacking.
However, the pandemic is not the only reason to start popping your vitamin D pills. Apart from anything else, there’s the fact that here in Scotland, where sunlight hours and intensity are relatively limited, many of us are vitamin D deficient. A clinical paper in the British Medical Journal revealed that more than 50 per cent of adults in Britain have vitamin D levels that are too low, with 16 per cent being severely deficient in winter. Such deficiency can lead to respiratory issues, numbness, muscle pain, joint pain, bone loss, depression and seasonal affective disorder.
A clear link has been demonstrated between multiple sclerosis and lack of vitamin D. and studies show that the vitamin can reduce cancer cell growth and reduce inflammation.
Government advice on vitamin D supplementation, given by the Chief Medical Officer in Scotland, is that for most people 10 micrograms a day is enough and is safe and that adults should avoid daily high dose vitamin D supplements containing more than 100 micrograms.
Feast on fibre
The debate rages on about whether fat or sugar and carbohydrates are our biggest dietary demons, but no-one argues against the idea that to enhance our health most of us should eat more fibre. A paper in the Lancet in 2019 said that a series of systematic reviews and meta-analyses of trials and studies, conducted over nearly 40 years, reveal the health benefits of eating at least 25g to 29g or more of dietary fibre a day.
People who eat higher levels of dietary fibre – found in vegetables and fruits and whole grains – have lower rates of non-communicable diseases than people who eat less.
Increasing fibre intake has also been shown to be associated with lower bodyweight and cholesterol. In 2015, the UK Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition recommended an increase in dietary fibre intake to 30g a day, but only 9% of UK adults manage to reach this target.
Ditch the alarm clock
It’s World Sleep Awareness month so there is no better time to start making sure that you’re getting the necessary shut-eye. Aside from following all the usual advice about establishing good and regular sleep routines, one tip you might like to follow is to ditch the alarm, whether it’s on your phone or bedside clock.
Waking up with an alarm is known to deplete sleep, since you’re not getting what your body requires, but also means you wake up at the wrong point in your sleep cycle. Research done with medical students has shown that both irregular and reduced sleep time raises the likelihood of depression and low mood.
Take a brisk stroll
Any kind of walk in the outdoors is good for you – whether a vigorous march or an amble. But research has shown that fast-paced walking can have huge benefits for health. One study found that fast-paced walking on a daily basis increased cancer survivors’ chances of living longer.
In a report analysing of a number of studies, researchers found that walking reduced the risk of cardiovascular events by 31%. Harvard University researchers also discovered that participants who walked briskly for an hour saw the effect of any obesity-promoting genes they had cut in half. Walking also boosts immune function. One study found that those who walked for at least 20 minutes a day, at least five days a week, had 43% fewer sick days than those who exercised once a week or less.
Play tennis or another social game (if restrictions allow)
What’s the best sport to play if you want a longer life? One Danish study comparing different activities found that tennis came out on top. Compared with sedentary people, those who reported playing tennis as their main form of exercise could expect to add 9.7 years to their lifespan. This was followed by badminton (6.2 years), football (4.7 years), cycling (3.7 years), swimming (3.4 years) and jogging (3.2 years). Health club activities added only 1.5 years.
The study’s authors concluded that social interaction – which we have been missing over the past few months – may be one of the reasons why sports with interaction came out best. They said: “Belonging to a group that meets regularly promotes a sense of support, trust and commonality, which has been shown to contribute to a sense of wellbeing and improved long-term health.”
Whether it’s in front of the television, while chatting with friends or working on your laptop, one of the best things you can do for your fitness may be to replace the seated position with a squat. A study published last year, which looked at the hunter-gatherer Hadza people of Tanzania, found that, despite being effectively sedentary in such positions for almost ten hours a day, they lacked the usual markers for chronic disease associated with long periods of sitting.
The lead author on the study, Dr David Raichlen of the University of Southern California, said: “Even though there were long periods of inactivity, one of the key differences we noticed is that the Hadza are often resting in postures that require their muscles to maintain light levels of activity – either in a squat or kneeling.”
If you want to make a change, or start a new habit, tag it onto a habit that’s already part of your life. Dr Rangan Chaterjee said in one of his blogs: “I get my own five-minute workout done when the kettle’s on and my morning cup of tea is brewing. Think about the various transition points or existing tasks in your day. What new habit could you piggyback onto something you always do without thinking about?”
Eat less red meat
It has long been known that intake of red and processed meat heightens the risk of being diagnosed with bowel cancer. But it appears that the damage done by meat goes further. An Oxford University study published in recent weeks found that eating red meat, processed meat or poultry three or more times a week was associated with an increased risk of developing nine serious illnesses, including heart disease, diabetes and pneumonia.
Lead author Dr Keren Papier said: “We have long known that unprocessed red meat and processed meat consumption is likely to be carcinogenic and this research is the first to assess the risk of 25 non-cancerous health conditions in relation to meat intake in one study.”
Dr Papier added, however, that people who cut down on meat need to be careful that they obtain enough iron through other dietary sources.
Wine and cheese
When interviewed last month on her 117th birthday, Sister Andre, a French woman who is the oldest known person to survive Covid-19, was asked for her longevity secrets. One of these was red wine – and she celebrated her birthday with a lunch that included “roasted capon with mushrooms and sweet potatoes as a main course, followed by a two-cheese platter – Roquefort and goat cheese – and maybe a few glasses of red wine”.
Of course one woman’s longevity does not make for a health rule, and there is plenty of research that suggests most of us should cut back, but moderate wine consumption has been found to associated with reduced risk of stroke and heart disease – and it’s known to protect against diabetes. A recent study in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease showed that regular moderate consumption of both wine and cheese is associated with greater cognitive acuity in later years.
Cut the processed food
Our Herald food columnist, Joanna Blythman, has long been an advocate for cooking from scratch and eliminating anything processed – any packaged food that contains a long list of ingredients. She is not alone. Doctor Rangan Chatterjee suggests we need to eat “more real food”. “This is one of the most powerful pieces of health advice I can give anyone,” he has said. Meat that looks like meat and vegetables that look like vegetables are what he recommends. Two studies published by the British Medical Journal in 2019 found positive associations between consumption of “ultra-processed” foods and risk of cardiovascular disease and death. These would include “packaged baked goods and snacks, fizzy drinks, sugary cereals, ready meals containing food additives, dehydrated vegetable soups, and reconstituted meat and fish products”.
Turn your housework into a work out
A study of physical activity, which analysed data from 130,000 people across 17 countries and was published in 2017 found that one in 12 deaths could be prevented with 30 minutes of physical activity five days a week. But it wasn’t all about going to the gym or taking up jogging – household chores such as vacuuming or scrubbing the floor were among the types of activity that provided enough exercise to protect the heart and extend life. Top household workout chores include mopping, gardening, kneading dough and doing your washing by hand.
Two hours in the outdoors per week
According to one report, just being outdoors in nature for a two-hours a week is enough to significantly boost health and wellbeing, even if you’re not doing anything you would rate as exercise – even if it feels like you are doing nothing at all! A study based around 20,000 people in England found that those who spent more time in nature were more likely to be satisfied with their lives and feel their health was good.
An expanding body of research is showing how time spent in green places, forest bathing for instance, can enhance health and there are also the benefits of exposure to daylight – which is known to help prevent and reduce depression. Researchers have even noted a link between exposure to the sun and lower blood pressure levels.
Consider that good old-fashioned cuppa a dose of medicine. Whether it’s green tea, black tea, oolong, they all contain plant compounds called polyphenol, which are known to encourage the growth and activity of “friendly” lactobacillus bacteria in the gut. The antioxidants in tea also help lower blood pressure, by causing relaxation of the muscles that line blood vessels. And green tea has also been found to be good for so much more – inhibiting the formation of cancers and reducing the risk of heart disease.
Drink a glass of water before every meal
In a 2015 study, researchers from the University of Birmingham found that drinking 500ml of water at half an hour before eating main meals may help obese adults to lose weight. This is probably because the water gives a sense of fullness, so diners then tend to eat less. But also, the other positive of drinking water is that even mild dehydration can cause a drop in energy levels, and a regular glass is the best way to prevent that.
Wean yourself off the digital and get back into the real world
The last year has seen us plugged into the digital more than ever – almost whatever age we are – our posture impacted by months of craning over laptops and slumping with phones. That has now started to seem the norm, and, as we ease out of lockdown, one of the challenges will be to bring ourselves back out of the digital world, into the real world, for the sake of our health as much as anything else. To start off your retreat from the digital, create no-phone zones, or periods in your life. The dinner table, for example, is a prime opportunity for families to agree to put phones away for at least 30 minutes and reconnect.
Eat within the daylight hours
Intermittent fasting – popularised in diets like the 5:2 or – has long been a popular restriction regime for weight loss, but studies in humans, generally found that though it was safe and effective, it wasn’t more so than other diets. However, in recent years, more research has been done into whether the timing of the fasting is key, and if it’s a matter of eating and fasting more according to our circadian rhythms. A small scale study by researchers from the University of Alabama obese men with prediabetes, compared two groups, one which had their meals fit into an early eight-hour period of the day (7 am to 3 pm),and another which had theirs spread over 12 hours (between 7 am and 7 pm). Neither regime had a huge impact on weight, but after five weeks, the eight-hours group had dramatically lower insulin levels and lower blood pressure.
Meet up with a friend
We may not yet be able to meet up in large groups, but we can at least make a date with a friend or family member outdoors. Throughout the pandemic lockdowns some of the greatest challenges to our health have been the result of isolation. We humans need to socialise. Dozens of studies have shown that people who have social support from family, friends, and their community are happier, have fewer health problems, and live longer. Loneliness can be as bad for us as smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day. One study found that lack of strong relationships increased the rick of premature death from all causes by 50 percent.
Escape the noise
A 2018 report by the World Health Organisation noted that “in western Europe alone at least 1.6 million healthy years of life are lost as a result of road traffic noise”. If you live in a city, or near an airport, motorway or building site chances are you are being exposed to some serious noise. Get away from it as much as you can, in a local park or other nature space, but also, if noise-levels bother you, campaign for better noise policies and infrastructure planning.
This may sound counter-intuitive and in contradiction to some of the other advice here – but actually stopping worrying about how fit you are could actually take you a step closer to better health. A study conducted by Harvard University looked at two groups of hotel workers, one of which was told that their daily work fulfilled recommended exercise guidelines, and the other was not. The former group actually showed significant health improvements, including a drop in systolic blood pressure and small weight loss. There are some benefits in simply believing yourself to be active enough. One large scale study in the United States examined data from 60,000 people and found that those “who perceived themselves as less active than others were up to 71 percent more likely to die in the follow-up period [up to 21 years] than those who perceived themselves as more active”. It concluded that “individuals’ perceptions about their level of physical activity strongly predicted mortality, even after accounting for the effects of actual physical activity and other known determinants of mortality”.