If you can’t remember when you last had the relevant tests for your age, gender and health status, ask your doctor. If in doubt, err on the side of caution and get checked again.
If 2013 is the year you are finally going to get healthy, here are 12 ways to ensure you reach your goal by this time next year.
Quit the ‘social’ smoking
You may not be a fully-blown ‘smoker’ (if you are, then it goes without saying that that’s the most crucial step you can take to be healthier next year) but if you’re one of the 1 in 20 people who ‘only’ has a cigarette when you have a drink, or when you’re at a party, or when you’re nervous, you probably aren’t aware just how much harm you are doing. Nicotine is such a powerful drug that even if you only smoke at weekends or on occasional nights out, addiction may be taking a hold of you. No safe level has been determined. What’s more, statistics from the organisation Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) show that people who smoke fewer than 10 cigarettes a day are less committed to quitting than heavier smokers — so are likely to continue doing themselves harm for longer. Of course, smoking increases your risk of cancer and heart disease, but it also increases your risk of respiratory problems, diabetes, eye disease, erectile dysfunction and hearing loss, not to mention making you age prematurely, putting those around you at risk of inhaling your secondhand smoke and making your clothes, hair and breath smell bad. What’s social about that?
Get five a day, or more
Many people joke about the ‘5-a-day’ campaign. Does tomato ketchup count? What about wine? All very amusing, but the fact is, five portions of fruit and vegetables per day is the recommended minimum intake — not the ideal. The more, the better as far as health is concerned (guidelines are significantly higher in other countries), and yet according to Cancer Research UK, just 14 per cent of us even manage five portions, with one in five 4-18 year olds eating no fruit at all in a typical week. But we pass over the fruit bowl at our peril. Higher fruit and vegetable consumption will reduce the risk of colon, stomach, lung and oesophageal cancer, while research in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that a minimum of 6 servings of fruit and vegetables a day reduced the risk of stroke by around 30 per cent. What makes fruit and veg so healthy? Well, as well as being low in fat and calories and high in fibre, they are packed with health-promoting, disease-fighting phytonutrients, vitamins and minerals which you just won’t find in a capsule. If you have a long way to go to reach five-a-day, aim to increase your intake by one per week. Remember, one portion can be a juice, one can be dried fruit and one can come from beans or pulses. Canned and frozen varieties count, too — so get munching.
Be screen savvy
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 is one of the most important ways of staying on top of your health. It gives the experts a chance to identify problems before you are even aware of them — maximising the likelihood of them being able to deal with it quickly and easily. 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. Just as worryingly, the Blood Pressure Association estimates that one third of those who have high blood pressure are not aware of it — putting themselves at risk of stroke and heart disease. If you can’t remember when you last had the relevant tests for your age, gender and health status, ask your doctor. If in doubt, err on the side of caution and get checked again.
Drink within your units
When people find out what ‘drinking within their units’ really means, they are often stunned. For women, just a bottle and a half of wine per week equals 13.5 units — a tad under the maximum recommended weekly intake of 14 units. For men, 9½ 440ml cans of premium strength lager, such as Stella Artois, puts you bang on the maximum weekly amount of 21 units per week — barely more than one per day. You might be sceptical that it’s necessary to restrict yourself to the recommended units for your gender, but bear in mind that they are based on medical evidence that drinking above these levels is harmful to health. The fact that many of us have been drinking far in excess of the recommended amounts is borne out in the statistics — the amount consumed by the average person in the UK has doubled between 1950 and 1980 — and the alcohol-related death rate has increased from 6.9 per 100,000 population in 1991 to 12.9 in 2005. Cirrhosis of the liver now kills more women than cervical cancer, for example while. One of the problems is that portion sizes of food and drink have grown bigger — many bars now serve double measures of spirits as standard (2 units), and the so-called small glass of wine — 175ml — contains just over 2 units. The best way to get to grips with your drinking is to learn what one unit of your favourite tipple really is, and then keep count on your weekly intake.
Use sunscreen all year round
If you only slap on sunscreen when you are lying on a beach, it’s time to wake up to the chance you are taking — both in terms of increasing your risk of skin cancer and also in damaging your skin. Every year, around 46,000 new cases of skin cancer in the UK are diagnosed, with 2,000 lives lost annually. Ultraviolet rays from the sun come in three forms — UVA, UVB and UVC. While the latter is the most harmful, they are blocked out by the ozone layer, but UVA rays can even penetrate through windows and water. While UVA rays don’t cause burning, they damage collagen and elastin in the skin, causing premature aging and wrinkling. UVB rays are the ones that burn, and are the greatest contributors to skin cancer. Protect yourself with a broad spectrum sun protection product with an SPF of at least 15 — much higher if your skin is sensitive, delicate or prone to burning, And don’t just use it when the sun is shining — a third of the rays still reach the earth under full cloud cover. If skin aging is your concern, you should use a facial moisturiser with a sun protection factor of 15+ too. Experts recommend hats, sunglasses and cover-ups when you are out in the sun, and advise keeping in the shade when the sun’s rays are at their strongest, between 11am and 3pm.
Use your legs more often
A recent ICM poll found that one in 10 of us jumps in the car to post a letter, while one in three uses the car to visit friends living nearby. Another study, conducted in airports, banks, office buildings and university libraries, found that only 6 to 9 per cent of people chose to use the stairs instead of the lifts or escalators. While such time-saving measures are sometimes unavoidable, many of us just take the easy option out of habit. And it’s a habit that’s costing us our health, not to mention our waistlines … Next time you are about to make a short journey, ask yourself whether you could do it on foot or by bicycle. You’ll be surprised just how often the answer is ‘yes.’ And you’ll be adding hundreds of steps towards your daily 10,000-step target.
Sort out your workstation
If much of your working life involves sitting at a desk (or anywhere in which you are confined for long periods), make sure you are sitting comfortably. Chairs and worktops that are too high or low, lights that flicker, screens set too close or too far back, insufficient desk space, a twisted torso … all these occupational hazards can leave you feeling stiff, sore and fatigued by the end of the working day. It is your employer’s responsibility to ensure that your workstation is set up in an ergonomically correct fashion — even if that means investing in a special type of keyboard, a lumbar support or phone headset for you. If the responsibility lies with you, then invest in a workstation assessment to help you (and your staff, if you have any) are in the correct set-up. Once you’ve got it right, keep your desk clutter-free and sit properly, with your feet flat on the floor, your thighs supported but not compressed by the chair seat and your back straight, with abdominal muscles gently pulled in. Regularly ‘scan’ your body throughout the day, keeping an eye out for hunched, tight shoulders, a clenched jaw, a hanging-out stomach, a jutting-forward head or crossed legs. And above all, get up as frequently as you can to move around and stretch.
Drink more water
While most healthy changes in life involve giving something up or cutting down, this one is all about more, more, more! Few people — whether active or not — drink sufficient water, and side effects of even slight dehydration include headaches, fatigue and low concentration levels (as well as poor physical performance). Yet increasing fluid intake can increase energy levels, aid digestion and give skin a boost. It’s not possible to recommend a set amount of water for everyone — fluid intake should be approximately 1ml (0.03oz) per kilocalorie of food intake (for example, 2000ml (67.63oz) for a 2000 calorie per day diet) — but some of this is provided by food, so don’t get hung up about drinking the full amount per day. Instead, concentrate on drinking little and often throughout the day, being extra vigilant after exercise or when you’ve been confined in a dry, overheated or air-conditioned environment. Your fluid intake doesn’t have to just be water — other drinks (even tea and coffee) count towards your daily quota, too — but given that it’s calorie-free, sugar-free and fat-free — it’s certainly a good bet.
You may not have considered lifting weights for its health benefits — but strength training has many benefits as we age (and by that, I mean hit 30!). The evidence for strength training is now so irrefutable that the American College of Sports Medicine, American Heart Association and the Surgeon General’s Report on Physical Activity and Health all now acknowledge the important role it plays in a balanced fitness regime. How? Well, it fights off age-related declines in metabolism, lean muscle and bone mass and, according to a study published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, has a positive effect on heart-unfriendly abdominal fat. Weight training also reduces your risk of osteoporosis and back problems, maintains full range of motion in your joints and, perhaps most surprisingly of all, lowers your risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and some cancers. In just six months of regular weight training, you can expect to lose fat, gain muscle and increase your today daily energy expenditure. Subjects in a study from the University of Alabama did just that after 26 weeks of resistance training — burning an additional 220 calories per day.
Get out more
If you could choose between an artificially-lit, heated manmade building or a picturesque natural setting, it’s pretty obvious which would be favoured, in fact, a US survey found that 70 per cent of people find outdoor activities more effective at reducing stress than indoor activities. Yet for many of us, life is becoming increasingly indoor-focused, dominated by manmade structures and artificiality. It’s no surprise we barely notice the seasons changing. But proponents of the ‘biophila theory’ believe that contact with the natural world is not just beneficial but essential to our wellbeing — both emotionally and physically. According to research at Texas A&M University there is a quicker recovery from stress, a reduction in blood pressure and an alteration brain electrical waves as a result of being in natural environments. Researchers are still investigating why Mother Nature makes us feel so good — but it may be at least partly due to the greater abundance of negative ions in the air in natural surroundings (especially around running water, mountains and forest.) Research from Surrey University found that subjects asked to complete tasks in negative ion-rich air performed 28 per cent better. The other benefit to getting out to the great outdoors more regularly is that sunlight is the body’s primary source of vitamin D (well, not exactly a source — but vitamin D is synthesised in the body after exposure to UV rays). This fat-soluble vitamin is well known for its role — along with calcium — in preserving bone health but recent research also suggests that vitamin D may play a part in maintaining a healthy immune system too.
Get more sleep
How much sleep did you get last night? And what about the night before? If you are regularly getting significantly less than seven to eight hours — and don’t wake up feeling refreshed in the mornings — you are almost certainly sleep-deprived, and aren’t getting the most out of your waking hours. Not only are short sleep lengths connected to increased risk of mortality, they can also make you fat. A study from Stanford University found a strong link between sleep duration and body mass index (BMI). In individuals who slept less than eight hours (74 per cent of all participants), BMI was inversely proportional to sleep duration. Your aim should be to go to bed earlier rather than get up later, as a constant ‘getting up’ time — regardless of whether it’s the weekend or your day off — is advised by sleep experts. According to the London Sleep Centre our biological clock primes us for bed time between 10 to 12pm and wake time from 6 to 8am. Even an extra half hour makes a difference, so put the hot chocolate on…
Take a multivitamin
Providing you are eating a healthy, balanced diet, you should be getting sufficient quantities of vitamins and minerals in your diet. But what exactly is a healthy, balanced diet — and can you be sure that by the food reaches your table, its micronutrients are still intact? The experts haven’t yet answered this question satisfactorily, and in the meantime, the Harvard Medical School suggests that most people would benefit from a daily multivitamin and mineral complex, particularly if they don’t eat the recommended five portions of fruit and vegetables each day, if they regularly miss meals or rely on highly-processed foods or are vegan or vegetarian. There is certainly no harm, in taking a multi-vitamin and mineral supplement and it can be a useful insurance policy for nutritional health.
Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.