A fresh look at health

When it comes to healthy living, there’s no shortage of advice out there. But with information comes misinformation which no doubt can leave us feeling overwhelmed and confused.  This makes separating the facts backed by true science from the fads disguised by clever marketing, a real challenge.

If we believe everything we read, then the only way to look good, feel great and keep the doctor away is to down at least five bright green smoothies a day.  But with a new year just begun, it’s time to leave the fads behind and instead shed some light on what it really takes to get us and the whole family, off to a healthy start.

 

To diet or not to diet?

Being at a healthy weight is an important part of keeping us well.  Slashing calories is the most popular way to lose weight and the foundation for many diets including the 5:2 diet and the Cambridge Weight Plan. How fast we lose weight depends on several factors such as age, gender and how much we have to lose in the first place.

 But most of us have probably realized by now that diets only work whilst we’re on them; come off and watch as the weight piles back on.  This is why we need to re-evaluate our overall attitude to food and how we choose to eat, rather than obsessing with short term solutions.

 Experts today largely agree that the fundamental principles of healthy eating are simple; consume mostly whole or minimally-processed foods which are mainly plant based and in balanced combinations. This doesn’t necessarily mean never eating meat but having it in smaller portions and less frequently. This would be good for the planet too as over-consumption of red meat is a significant contributor to climate change.

 We’ve also learnt from the Blue Zones, pockets around the world were people live longer, that eating foods we enjoy in the company of people we love is important. So it’s not all about what we eat, but how much we enjoy it and who we enjoy it with.

 If we can start seeing weight loss as a natural side effect of healthy living, it takes some of the pressure off achieving fast results as the true impact of living well is much deeper than what we see on the outside.

 

Cross Fit, Box Fit or Dance Fit?

Whatever you’re into, rest assured there’s a class for you! And if you prefer going solo, you’ll probably find more than enough equipment at your local gym to keep you entertained. But with so much choice, it’s easy to forget that exercise is not the only way of keeping fit and healthy.

The World Health Organization recommendations on physical activity for health are pretty clear and have been adopted by many countries, including the UAE to help set national policy. For most adults, the advice is to do a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity a week. This works out as around 30 minutes a day in bouts of at least 10 minutes each. It’s also recommended to build in two weekly muscle strengthening activities. Examples of muscle strengthening activities include climbing stairs, walking uphill, digging the garden, carrying shopping, weight training and Pilates.

We can tell when we’re being moderately active without using a heart rate monitor or app. Essentially, doing any activity which gets us feeling warmer, breathing harder and our heart pumping faster can be considered moderate intensity. Or put another way, we would be able to maintain a conversation but should be too out of breath to sing. What this means is that even if we don’t plan structured exercise into our lives, we can still be healthy by upping the vigor with which we do our daily activities.

Physical activity matters because it’s anti-inflammatory and it improves insulin sensitivity which reduces the risk of heart disease and cancer and prevents Type 2 Diabetes. But when we are sedentary our cells release unstable molecules called free radicals, which cause inflammation and speed up the aging process. This is why moving matters and why the phrase ‘sitting is the new smoking’ was coined by a Mayo Clinic endocrinologist to highlight the fact that among modifiable risk factors, sedentary living is the fourth leading cause of death globally.

Standing desks and standing board meetings are becoming more and more popular. But if these aren’t viable options then just get up every now and then as there’s compelling evidence emerging that the effects of prolonged sitting can not be undone by exercise at the end of the day. So it’s much better to walk around for a few minutes than to go all out in the gym after sitting down for hours on end.

 

 Keep Calm And…. Meditate? 

In the US, roughly 60-90% of visits to the doctor are for conditions related to stress. Although it’s unlikely a little stress will do us much harm, stress over prolonged periods of time can do a lot of damage. Apart from just being a psychological nuisance, chronic stress can have a far reaching physical influence. Stress affects our hormonal balance and encourages inflammation which as we’ve mentioned already can propagate serious health conditions.  It may seem strange that a seemingly emotional state can contribute to such severe damage of our biology. 

An effective way of managing stress is through meditation, which rather than being a passive state is actually active brain training. It comes in many shapes and forms from Mindfulness meditation to certain types of yoga. Far from being a fad, meditation can actually change the structure of brain regions associated with stress and anxiety whilst enhancing our overall psychological well-being.  Only eight weeks of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction has been shown to increase cortical thickness in a part of the brain called the hippocampus which is responsible for learning and memory. There were also reductions in the amygdala, another part of the brain this time responsible for anxiety, stress and fear.

If you’re not a meditator and don’t see yourself ever becoming one, just sitting quietly for a few minutes a day and letting whatever thoughts you might have float by like a cloud in the sky can do a lot of good too.

 

There are so many fads out there that analysing each and every one would take a very long time. But once we understand the principles of healthy living, we can make informed choices and are much less likely to be swayed by advertising or the latest celebrity trends. So to help get the new year off to a healthy start, here are a few of my top tips:

·       If the ingredient list on what you’ve picked up at the supermarket is taking a while to read through, save yourself the effort and put it back. It’s unlikely to be good for you.

·       Too busy to exercise? Walk a little faster from A to B, even if it’s in a mall. Doing this 10 minutes at a time, three times a day is your 30 minutes all done.

·       A beige plate is a sad plate so make it a little happier by adding some colourful veg.  This won’t only make it more visually appealing but will help keep you fuller for longer.

·       If meditation or sitting quietly aren’t how you roll, listening to music, doing something crafty or even cleaning are also great ways of switching off for a while.

·       Don’t have water on your desk. Instead keep it in your office kitchen or refill your glass when you’re thirsty to get you standing and moving.