Easy ways to make a change

Rather than going for a complete lifestyle overhaul, we can get remarkable health benefits by altering just one thing in our lives. Helen Foster asks 10 health experts for their suggestions


Easy ways to make a change

1. Take up a new hobby

Trying something new means learning something new. ‘Learning creates spare cognitive capacity in the brain that can protect you against the damage associated with problems such as Alzheimer’s,’ says Terry Horne, cognitive psychologist at the University of Central Lancashire. For the best results, Horne says our learning should involve senses or talents we don’t use in day-to-day life. Any learning is best done in a group. ‘When someone writes about a subject, perhaps four areas of their brain are stimulated, but if they discuss it with someone else the effect on the brain is greatly enhanced – social interaction improves the brain immensely.’

2. Watch less television

‘The average person in the UK spends a total of 12 years watching television,’ says psychologist Dr Aric Sigman, author of Remotely Controlled: How Television Is Damaging Our Lives (Vermilion). ‘Are you really going to reach your deathbed thinking, “Well I’m glad I did that”?’ Studies have found that people who don’t watch much TV are less likely to feel depressed, more likely to sleep better, have better sex, and be slimmer – watching TV has such a detrimental effect on metabolism that we burn more calories reading a book.

3. Walk tall

‘Most people don’t walk correctly and the result is that, with every step, our body is moving in incorrect alignment,’ says Sammy Margo, physiotherapist and spokesperson for the Chartered Society Of Physiotherapy. ‘In the short term this can lead to pain, and in the long term to excess wear and tear on the joints, which is linked to osteoarthritis.’ To correct your walk, first focus on the way your foot strikes the ground. ‘The heel should strike the ground first then you roll up through your midfoot and off your toe,’ says Margo. Pay attention to your stride length, too. Most of us take strides that are too short as we hurry. Covering one paving slab per step is a good stride guide, ‘and walk tall as if someone is pulling you up by the hair, elongating your whole body’.

4. Reduce your sugar consumption

‘So many of the problems women in my clinic complain about – insomnia, fatigue, headaches, lack of sex drive, tearfulness, dizziness, concentration – can be symptoms of fluctuating blood sugar,’ says women’s health expert Marilyn Glenville, author of Fat Around The Middle (Kyle Cathie). 'And one cause of that is too much refined sugar. I’d like to see women cut out 80 per cent of the sugar they consume. One of the easiest ways to do this is to ban food with added sugar five days a week, then relax for two.’ This doesn’t just mean avoiding sweet foods such as chocolate or cakes, sugar is hidden in a lot of savoury foods such as soup, pasta sauces and baked beans. Check the labels for anything ending in ‘ose’.

5. Accept your sleep patterns

‘Many people with sleep problems have huge expectations as to how their night’s sleep should be,’ says physiologist Dr Nerina Ramlakhan, sleep expert at London’s Capio Nightingale Hospital. ‘They feel they must get eight hours in order to function, or that they should never wake during the night. When you set those limits, you notice if you take a little longer to drop off or wake up in the night – and then you’re worrying about it and really can’t sleep.’ Ramlakhan believes that the key to sleep success is to think of sleep like the British summer and not expect perfection. As long as you feel good about things overall, don’t stress. ‘When people start accepting the amount of sleep they get any insomnia issues often disappear naturally,’ she says.

6. Drink less alcohol

‘Alcohol intake is the number one avoidable risk factor for breast cancer,’ says Professor Kefah Mokbel, lead consultant breast surgeon at the London Breast Institute at The Princess Grace Hospital, London.‘When alcohol is broken down in the liver, the byproducts produced act like oestrogen in the breast, potentially feeding tumour cells. 'I wish that women would stick to no more than two units a day and a maximum of seven units a week [a small glass of wine is 1.25 units]. And it is not just breast cancer risk you reduce by doing this. Many women find that cutting down on alcohol also helps to reduce breast pain.’

7. Maintain your ideal weight

‘Being either underweight or overweight makes it harder to conceive,’ says natural fertility advisor Zita West. ‘If you’re overweight you’re probably producing too much oestrogen; if underweight you won’t be producing enough – both will interfere with your fertility.’ The ideal weight for conception – and sustaining a healthy pregnancy – is a BMI of between 20 and 24.9 (calculate yours by dividing your weight in kilos by your height in metres squared).

8. Eat less meat

‘If everyone stuck to the recommended portion size of 75 to 100g of meat they’d not only reduce the amount of saturated fat in their diet, they’d also reduce acidity levels in their body, which are a major contributor to poor health,’ says GP Dr Wendy Denning, founder of integrated medicine clinic The Health Doctors. ‘The body likes being in an alkaline state, but lifestyle factors such as stress and dietary factors such as meat, dairy, alcohol and coffee constantly tip us into a more acid one. This is linked to painful joints, osteoporosis and generally poor ageing of the body.’

9. Listen to your body

‘We grew up hunting and gathering, and we were never meant to eat three set meals at the same time every day,’ says Mario Kyriazis, gerontologist and medical advisor to the British Longevity Society. ‘When food was plentiful we ate, but then it might be a day or two before we ate again. If the body is given constant food it learns to expect it and does not process it as efficiently.’ Kyriazis says we should start listening to our body. ‘If you wake up and you’re not hungry, delay breakfast until you feel the need for food – even if that means you don’t eat until lunch. Likewise, if you wake up ravenous feel free to eat twice before lunch.’ Not only does this naturally control weight, it may boost longevity.

10. Think differently

How do you approach your to-do list or New Year resolutions? With words such as ‘I suppose’, ‘I’d better’ or ‘I should’? According to hypnotherapist Marisa Peer, author of You Can Be Thin: The Ultimate Programme To End Dieting (Sphere), we’ll be happier, and more likely to succeed if we rephrase things. ‘We all have to do things in life that we find hard, but if we preface these thoughts with negative phrases such as “I suppose”, it puts our brain into a negative state.’ Instead, Peer recommends prefixing everything we do with ‘I choose to do X so I can do Y’. ‘Our brain sees what we are doing as a positive decision with a good outcome – and it makes things happen.’