Taking small, sensible steps – which you can actually stick to – could improve your health beyond measure. Abi Jackson suggests a septet for success
1 – CUT SALT INTAKE
Salt is a major factor in high blood pressure, which is linked with a number of serious conditions, like stroke and heart disease – two of the biggest killers in the UK. The trouble is, as Consensus Action on Salt and Health (CASH, www.actiononsalt.org.uk) points out, we’re often unaware of how much salt we’re consuming. Some salt is required and the general RDA is 6g a day for adults, but processed foods (ready meals, certain cereals, white bread etc), sauces and some tinned foods can be especially high in ‘hidden salts’, and adding extra to meals is very rarely needed. If you already have high blood pressure, or conditions like stroke and heart disease run in your family, avoiding excess salt could certainly pay off.
2 – DON’T IGNORE NIGGLING WORRIES
We’ve all been there – that strange pain or lump, those dizzy spells that have been playing on your mind. But rather than just making an appointment with your GP, you Google the symptoms and worry yourself silly thinking it’s something serious, or ignore it in the hope it’ll go away. This does your health no favours. Firstly, chances are the anxiety’s doing more damage than the ‘problem’ you’re worrying about. Secondly, if it is something that needs treating, getting it done sooner rather than later is always a good idea. When it comes to cancer, early diagnosis is vital for a positive prognosis, and the sooner things like type 2 diabetes are detected, the more manageable they are. “Sometimes symptoms of more serious illnesses can start off quite mildly,” says Dr Catherine Hood from the Simplyhealth Advisory Research Panel (ShARP, www.sharppanel.co.uk). “As a rule of thumb, if you have an ache or pain that’s persistent, goes on for about three weeks and isn’t getting better, then go and see your doctor. Also, if you notice any changes – lumps or bumps or changes in your skin, for instance, or things just don’t feel the same as normal, get it checked. You’ll be able to pick up on these things far quicker than your doctor.”
She advises people not to worry about ‘wasting their doctor’s time’. She says: “There are always reports about how busy GPs are, but it’s much better to be seen than to sit there worrying or sticking your head in the sand.”
3 – KNOW YOUR FAMILY HISTORY
When it comes to certain conditions, doctors will always ask whether there’s a family history of it. Some illnesses – such as certain cancers – can be caused by inherited genes (as actress Angelina Jolie highlighted when she opted for a preventative mastectomy earlier this year, because she carries the faulty BRCA1 gene), while there are many conditions – like heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and dementia – which you may be at higher risk of developing if there’s a strong family history. These illnesses can all occur without a family history too, and a family history doesn’t always mean you’re definitely going to be affected, but being aware of what problems tend to occur in your bloodline means you can take extra care to prevent them with lifestyle measures, and you and your GP can keep an eye on early warning signs.
4 – EAT FOR WELLNESS
We’re bombarded with information about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods and how they can impact our health, yet eating well can still be overwhelming. The best thing to do is to opt for the ‘everything in moderation’ rule. You can allow yourself chocolate or a glass of wine (after all, enjoyment’s also important!), but making a conscious decision to ensure that the bulk of what you eat is ‘good’ could improve your long-term health.
The Simplyhealth Advisory Research Panel’s Dr Emma Derbyshire, a top nutritionist, points out that, according to the National Diet and Nutrition Survey (NDNS), lots of Brits are lacking in vitamin D and iron, and not eating enough oily fish. “Vitamin D’s vital for bone health, mental health and it’s been linked with the risk of certain cancers and diabetes,” she says. “Fortified cereals, dairy products and mushrooms are a great source. Omega 3 oils, found in oily fish, are also very important for maintaining brain function, particularly as we get older. Guidelines advise two portions of fish a week, with one of them being oily fish, like salmon, sardines, mackerel or trout.”
Lean red meat is a strong source of iron but eating iron-rich, leafy, dark-green vegetables, like spinach and kale, is also important. Vegetables are also packed with minerals and antioxidants like selenium, which will help maintain good general health.
5 – MAKE RELAXATION A PRIORITY
The media’s full of reports about how chronic stress and anxiety are on the rise, and there’s plenty of research suggesting it’s taking its toll on our health. Just recently, scientists at America’s Ohio State University found that chronic stress can change gene activity in immune cells, potentially leading to an increased risk of heart disease and diabetes. As well as being bad for our physical health, chronic stress is a mental health concern and can affect moods, behaviour and sleep patterns. We can all take steps to combat stress and prevent it from building up to problematic proportions. Learning to say ‘no’ when we’re over-stretched is a good place to start, and factoring in regular ‘relaxation time’ is a must. This could be something as simple as going for a peaceful walk, switching the mobile phone off and curling up with a book, or treating yourself to a monthly massage. Don’t feel guilty about it – it’s important!
Wellbeing expert and holistic health practitioner Annie Aulds (www.wisteriaholistichealth.co.uk) also suggests learning some instant relaxation techniques to employ when stressful scenarios get your pulse racing. “The only real way to counteract stress is by evoking the relaxation response – physiologically, this is the exact opposite to the stress response. Therefore, every time we feel stressed (increasing heart rate, shallow breathing), it’s important to practise a relaxation exercise (like breathing, visualisation and deep muscular relaxation exercises), so the body can restore its balance,” she says. “Unfortunately, with our fast pace of life, these exercises are often forgotten or unfamiliar, yet there are few other methods that can have the same effect, or be carried out any time and in any place.”
6 – GET MOVING
Regular physical exercise has not only been proven to help prevent a wide range of serious illnesses and improve immunity, it can also significantly improve mental health and wellbeing, warding off depression, keeping stress under control and boosting confidence and motivation. Don’t overwhelm yourself with unachievable ‘targets’ – just incorporate regular activity into your daily life. There’s something to suit everybody and you could even make it a social activity (join a local walking group or dance class) which will make the experience even more rewarding. Even a gentle swim or walk’s better than nothing, and you’ll reap endless rewards for your efforts.
7 – NEVER MISS A SCREENING
People may moan about the NHS, but in the UK, we’re very lucky to have access to free healthcare. Screening programmes, like those routinely offered to certain age groups for cervical, breast and bowel cancer, are designed to help save lives. For instance, every year, the NHS Breast Screening Programme invites over two million women for screening every year, detecting more than 14,000 cancers. It’s important to visit your doctor in the meantime if you spot and changes or warning signs, but missing a screening could be putting your health at serious risk. A little inconvenience is definitely worth it if it helps save your life.
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