Do you need a lifestyle makeover?
Monday 16th February
The way we live today – from what we eat to how we cope with stress – can have a big impact on our future health. Lucy Dimbylow explores some areas for improvement.
Who hasn’t pledged to eat more healthily, exercise more often or tackle their stress levels, only to find these good intentions rather short-lived? While it’s easy to downplay the impact our lifestyle can have on our health, the statistics tell a different story. The World Health Organization lists sedentary living among the top 10 causes of disease and disability, and lifestyle-related conditions are on the up. Diabetes diagnoses have more than doubled since 1996, for example, and stress is the biggest cause of long-term absence from work. So how can we improve our health, both now and in the future?
Your daily bread
Too much fat, sugar and salt, and not enough fruit and veg – the hallmarks of the British diet, linked to 70,000 premature deaths a year. “We’re experiencing an obesity epidemic, with some of the world’s highest rates of type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome and heart disease,” says Sam Mckenzie, a healthcare practitioner at Screenetics, one of the companies which have partnered with benenden wellbeing to offer health assessments to members. “These conditions are often associated with poor diet, alongside other risk factors like inactivity, smoking and excessive alcohol.” Even if you’re a healthy weight, your diet could still be a problem. For example, 70 per cent of us eat too much salt, contributing to high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke.
Your waist size could indicate whether your diet is affecting your health. “The risk of type 2 diabetes is increased if your waist measures over 80cm (31.5in) for women, and 94cm (37in) for most men (90cm/35.5in for those of south Asian ethnicity),” explains Douglas Twenefour, a clinical advisor at Diabetes UK. “Reducing portion sizes is one of the easiest ways to manage your weight, as well as increasing your intake of fruit and vegetables, which fill you up for longer.”
Making “smart swaps” and long-term changes are preferable to crash-dieting. Ordering a regular-sized latte rather than a large will cut calorie intake; while choosing a chicken sandwich over ham, or a pizza topped with vegetables instead of pepperoni, reduces salt consumption. Aim to fill a third of your plate with veggies or salad, and eat meals at the table. Eating distractedly, such as while watching TV, can encourage overeating.
Lack of physical activity increases the risk of major illnesses like heart disease, diabetes and cancer, but only one person in 20 does the recommended 150 minutes’ moderate exercise a week. “Exercise helps to make the heart more efficient, reduce your weight, blood pressure and cholesterol, and control blood sugar,” explains Chris Allen, senior cardiac nurse at the British Heart Foundation. It can also have a positive effect on mild to moderate depression and anxiety.
Little and often is the key to increasing activity levels, and has bigger benefits than doing your weekly exercise in one or two intense bursts. Regular activity is also more sustainable – cycling to the station or fitting in a walk at lunchtime may prove easier than finding time for the gym.
“Ideally, try to include both cardiovascular and resistance exercise,” adds Sam Mckenzie at Screenetics. “This will help not just with fitness and strength but also with blood sugar control, in combination with a balanced diet and limiting your intake of refined sugars.”
If you’re not used to exercise, start slowly: the NHS Couch to 5K programme could help you get into running; or invest in a pedometer and build up to 10,000 steps a day. Above all, choose exercise that you’ll enjoy, whether that’s swimming or salsa. If it feels like a chore, you’re less likely to continue with it.
Smoking and alcohol
It’s no secret that tobacco and alcohol are bad for our health, but these habits can be hard to break. Over a third of us exceed the recommended daily guidelines for drink (two to three units a day for women, and three to four for men), thereby increasing our risk of more than 60 medical conditions, including cancer, liver disease and hypertension. Smoking, meanwhile, causes 100,000 deaths every year in the UK.
Reduce your booze intake by choosing wine or beer with a lower alcohol content, ordering single measures of spirits instead of doubles, and using a smaller glass at home. Having at least two alcohol-free days a week is also recommended. “Some people use alcohol as a coping mechanism during stressful periods, but if you feel you may have an addiction, it’s important to seek medical help,” says Sam Challis, information manager for mental health charity Mind. If you’re trying to stop smoking, NHS Smokefree has a range of resources, from a mobile app to face-to-face support. Visit www.smokefree.nhs.uk or ask at your GP’s surgery.
Reducing stress levels
Stress is a fact of modern life, with 60 per cent of workers regularly doing unpaid overtime, not to mention the challenges that relationships, family and life events bring. But too much can lead to problems like high blood pressure, anxiety and depression, and sleep issues. People who are stressed are more likely to smoke, drink excessively and overeat, too (see previous section).
Exercise, volunteering and embarking on new challenges such as learning a language are all proven stress relievers, so dedicate a few hours each week to these pursuits, or just reading or listening to music. “If stress affects your sleep, try to do the tasks that worry you early in the day, and more relaxing ones later,” continues Sam at Mind. “And if the stressful time passes and you’re still feeling anxious or down, consider seeing your GP, as you may be experiencing anxiety or depression.”
Find out how healthy you are
Try the online health risk assessment, brought to you by benenden wellbeing and Screenetics. It’s free to do and only takes 15 minutes to complete.
Take the test and you’ll receive guidance on all aspects of your lifestyle, to help you take those first practical steps towards living more healthily. Visit https://www.benenden.co.uk/health/services/health-assessments/ to get started.
Learn about our full range of self-pay health assessments online or telephone 0800 414 8486* to book an appointment.
This article first appeared in benhealth magazine (issue 30, spring 2015).