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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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