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10 things you can do right now to improve your health

woman and dog doing yoga

Getting healthy doesn’t have to be hard work.  Healthy Food Guide editor Jenny de Montalk looks at the top 10 easy changes you can make to improve your health right now.

Most of us have made resolutions we haven’t been able to stick to before. Setting a lofty goal to be “super fit and a beacon of sobriety from here on in” may seem very achievable when we’re thinking hard about our health during a pandemic, but what happens when life kicks back in and our old habits return with renewed enthusiasm? Many of us will feel like such failures that we start self-sabotaging with even worse habits than the ones we were trying to kick in the first place.

So, how can we successfully set ourselves up to be healthier and happier?

The trick is to make small, achievable changes that add to your life rather than restrict it. Instead of telling yourself you’re going to completely cut sugar out of your diet, for instance, you might set a goal to eat one more portion of vegetables each day. Once one goal is ticked off, start on the next. Eventually, you will have stockpiled healthy habits that will make your overall lifestyle healthier, while barely noticing the effort, and you’ll feel and look better for it.

Here are ten achievable changes you can make to take charge of your health and wellbeing:

1. Build your strength

Having strong muscles provides support and stability for your body and speeds up your metabolism, making it easier to burn energy, even when you’re sitting still. You can start building muscle at any age and it doesn’t have to involve joining a gym or accumulating expensive equipment.

Where to start

To build strength you need to do regular exercise comprising resistance, flexibility, balance and aerobic movement. Resistance exercise involves lifting weights or working with your own body weight. This can include push-ups, climbing stairs, shifting the wood pile or heavy gardening. The trick is to do a little bit, often and keep increasing the load as you get stronger. Flexibility can be improved by doing stretching exercises, tai chi or yoga. Yoga and tai chi are also great for improving balance, but something as simple as brushing your teeth while standing on one leg can help. Finally, aerobic exercise is anything that gets you puffing – think cycling, brisk walking, dancing or swimming. The trick is to find something you enjoy so you’re motivated to do it every day.

2. Ditch the diets

Anyone who has struggled with weight loss will know quick-fix diets may work in the short term but are difficult to sustain and often result in gaining unwanted weight back. Research shows diet culture is associated with dangerous eating disorders and now many people are rejecting it in favour of body acceptance and the concept of ‘health at every size’. Reaching and maintaining a healthy weight is still a fine goal to have, considering even modest weight loss, if you are overweight, may improve your blood pressure and reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, insulin resistance, sleep apnoea and joint pain.

Where to start

Rather than trying another faddish diet, focus on improving what you eat. If your diet consists of plenty of veges, legumes, fruit, whole grains, nuts and healthy plant fats, fish and white meat in moderation and, occasionally, red meat, processed meats, dairy and sweet treats, you’ll find it much easier to stick to for a lifetime, and consequently maintain a healthy weight for your body type, too.

3. Eat more vegetables

If there is only one thing you do differently in 2020, this is the one to choose. We’ve all heard that eating at least five servings of vegetables a day is important, but if you can push beyond that to seven or more servings you’ll hit the sweet spot in terms of reducing your risk of a variety of cancers, heart disease and stroke, and improve your odds of not developing type-2 diabetes and obesity.

On top of providing protective antioxidants, fibre and a whole range of essential nutrients, eating a wide variety of vegetables is associated with having a diverse gut microbiome (bacteria, yeasts, fungi etc, that live in our digestive system). Scientists are just starting to understand the role our gut microbes play in many aspects of our health from immunity to metabolism and mental health.

Where to start

Try to include vegetables in meals you might not normally have them in, for example breakfast or snacks. You can easily add a handful of spinach to your eggs in the morning, use avocado instead of butter on your toast, or snack on vegetable sticks with hummus. Eat like they do in the Mediterranean by making vegetables the focus of the meal, with meat treated as more of an accompaniment.

Also, go for variety. Data from the American Gut Study suggest eating 30 or more different plant types each week is associated with greater gut bacteria diversity and may also reduce antibiotic resistant genes. That includes veges, fruit, legumes, nuts, whole grains, rice and seeds, to name a few.

4. Head into nature

Over half of the world’s population lives in an urban environment these days, meaning we spend most of our time in artificial settings. Multiple studies have shown the potential health benefits of spending time in nature, including better outcomes for cancer patients, reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, improved symptoms in children with ADHD and better mental health.

Also, an indoor, artificially lit environment can disrupt our body clocks which dictate everything from sleep to metabolism and hormone secretion. Animal and human studies have shown disruption of body clocks or circadian rhythms is implicated in a range of health problems including lowered life expectancy, increased risk and progression of certain cancers, increased heart attack and stroke risk, obesity and metabolic syndrome, mood disorders and cognitive impairment.

Where to start

Try to make sure you spend time outside every day. Find out where the green spaces are in your neighbourhood, head to the beach on the weekend or take a walk during your lunch break. It’s especially important to expose your eyes and skin to morning sunlight (within sunsmart limits) and switch your screens off at least an hour before bed to limit blue light exposure, which can interfere with sleep hormone melatonin. Better still, if you can go camping, research shows a couple of days sleeping outside can reset your body clock and improve your sleep quality.

5. Have a digital detox

Forget the juice cleanses and try a digital detox. With most of us glued to our smartphones for at least three hours a day, before we even factor in time spent on our laptops, work computers and binge watching the latest Netflix series, detoxing from our screens could be just the ticket for better mental and physical well-being, not to mention a better night’s rest.

Physiotherapists have reported seeing more incidence of neck and upper back problems as well as hand and wrist inflammation, due to overuse of smartphones and other electronic devices.

Other physical problems include eye strain and headaches. And the blue light our screens emit suppresses melatonin, a hormone needed to help us fall asleep. Top that all off with being caught in a feedback loop where our brain releases the reward hormone dopamine every time we see a notification on our screen, along with people presenting impossibly perfect versions of themselves all over our social media feeds, taking a break from our devices may do us a world of good.

Where to start

If quitting cold turkey seems like a step too far for you, there are actions you can take to moderate your smartphone and other screen time. Start by turning off the notifications you get from your social media and email accounts.

Then, take a look at who you follow on Instagram and Facebook and mull over how they make you feel. If the pages you follow are uplifting and inspirational, keep them. If they make you feel like you and your lifestyle don’t measure up, cull them. Be ruthless.

Finally, set yourself some rules around screen time. Make a rule to not have devices around during mealtimes. Place time limits for scrolling or streaming and stick to them. And, most importantly, give yourself at least an hour before bed of no screen time, so your body can get ready for sleep. Read a book or take a bath instead.

6. Develop an optimistic outlook

This isn’t the same as just thinking more positively. That idea is simplistic and doesn’t work for a lot of people. Instead, fostering an optimistic outlook is about developing a flexible and resilient attitude to life. Being optimistic can protect our mental health and make it easier to bounce back when things go wrong.

Research has shown that optimists may fare better after natural disasters and traumatic events and this mindset may be protective against developing post-traumatic stress disorder. Some people are naturally optimistic, but for many of us it’s something that takes work.

Where to start

Each day spend some time imagining your ideal future, five years from now. If nothing was standing in your way what would that future look like? Be as detailed as you can, let your imagination run wild and keep it optimistic. Also, try to surround yourself with people whose cups are half full. Pessimism loves company.

7. Be sociable

The Blue Zones are five geographical regions that are home to the world’s longest-lived people. As well as having great whole food, plant-focused diets, Blue Zoners share in common active social lives, at all ages and stages. Eating is treated as a social event and sharing a meal with family and friends is a regular and important part of life.

There’s plenty of evidence showing that eating with friends and family helps you stay connected to your social circle and contributes to your sense of well-being in later life. As a bonus, teens who eat meals with family at the dinner table have reduced risk of developing depression, getting pregnant or becoming drug dependent.

Where to start

Invite your favourite people over for Sunday lunch at least once a month and encourage them to return the favour. It’s a great opportunity to try out new dishes and catch up on what’s happening in everyone’s lives. If you’re not much of a cook, don’t worry. You can buy some fresh bread and have a spread of delicious cheeses, salad, meats and condiments that people can use to assemble their own sandwiches or salads at the table.

8. Volunteer

Giving your time to a cause you believe in not only makes communities better but has surprising benefits for our mental well-being. Volunteering decreases feelings of loneliness, builds connections, improves self-esteem and provides an increased sense of purpose which can be beneficial for people with anxiety and depression or suffering from PTSD.

Where to start

Think about what matters to you. If you’re a fan of animals, the SPCA offers volunteer opportunities at most of their centres where you can clean, feed, walk and socialise all sorts of creatures.

If you care about kids, the Big Brothers Big Sisters organisation offers opportunities to mentor children who would benefit from having a supportive, consistent role model in their lives.

Or if you’d prefer to help an older person feel less lonely, Age Concern runs a great Accredited Visiting Service where you can befriend a person who would like a bit of company and visit them for a chat or an activity for about an hour a week. Contact your local volunteering service for other ideas.

9. Get a pet

Studies show dog owners exercise more and have lowered risk of early death and cardiovascular disease. And cat owners are reported to have lower stress levels, be more socially sensitive and trust people more.

Where to start

Owning a pet is a huge responsibility and financial burden that lasts for the entire life of the animal, which can be, on average, 10-14 years for a dog or anywhere up to around 17 years for a cat. The first thing you need to do is make sure you’re in a position to take that responsibility on: do you have a suitable property; do you have enough money for food, registration (for dogs) and vet bills; will you be able to be home enough to spend time with your pet; do you understand how important desexing and vaccination is?

If you’re sure you are ready, then head to your local SPCA or animal shelter. There are hundreds of animals that need loving homes, and they will become just as much a part of the family as a made-to-order pet bought from a breeder or, heaven forbid, a puppy mill would.

10. Plant some trees

If you are one of many who are feeling stressed out about climate change, compounded by a sense of helplessness about it, then this is the 2020 activity for you. Trees help cool the climate by taking in greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen back into the atmosphere. In one year, an acre of forest can absorb the same amount of carbon dioxide as a car driving about 42,000kms produces. Not only that, trees help create habitat for wildlife, they look good and, if you plant them with other people, they build a sense of community spirit.

Where to start

Find your local native plant nursery, buy or borrow a spade, pick the right spot, invite some friends along and get planting. You can make a forest in your own back yard. Just make sure you get some good advice on how big the trees will grow so you allow enough space for them.

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