It would seem incredible to those born a century ago that today’s adults need to be educated about making the right choices for our bodies, but changes in food, work, and leisure activities over the generations mean that, despite advances in modern medicine, we are unhealthier than our great-grandparents!
The Department of Health reports that a third of people in England die before they turn 75, and of these “early” deaths, 100,000 a year are avoidable because they are deaths where a person’s actions (such as being overweight and inactive) could be directly attributed to their cause of death. It’s scary stuff!
The rising number in avoidable, lifestyle influenced illness and death is a trend which clearly needs to change, and it starts with healthy living. To live healthily is to make the best choices for your body and mind. It is moderating elements we know cause poor physical and mental health, such as lack of exercise, and stress, and consciously choosing to treat ourselves with care and respect.
Healthy Choices for Your Body
The three best things you can do to keep your body healthy are to eat a diet balanced in whole foods, to stay active, and to get enough sleep.
While my mum always made sure I ate well when I was growing up, my late teens and early 20s were a smorgasbord of processed food, and sugar. Being busy studying, and working, meant I was happy to substitute natural foods for convenience ones, especially where “diet” food was concerned. I thought that the odd apple and a regular vitamin tablet was all I needed to keep me healthy, but a bout of illness and lethargy persuaded me to take a good hard look at what I was doing to my body.
These days my diet is predominantly made from whole foods, with very few processed or convenience options. There’s just no need to buy something like shredded cheese, which has unpronounceable ingredients to stop it sticking together when grating it only takes a few minutes. Pre-prepared and convenience foods may save time when preparing a meal, but they only cause issues down the track when your health suffers.
I exercise every morning both because it makes me feel good and because I enjoy it, but healthy living is not about being sedentary for 8 to 10 hours a day and punishing your body for an hour, it is about regularly moving and using your body the way it was designed. We were built to walk, climb, and run, not to sit on our backsides and stare at a screen. Take the stairs, go for a walk outside at lunchtime, leave the car at home and cycle – healthy living requires constantly making choices which benefit our bodies.
Lack of sleep has become almost something to brag about but the damage it causes is real. Sleep is not merely a pause between one day and the next, it is vital to keep your body in the best possible condition. While we are asleep our bodies are repairing cells, growing muscle, regulating hormones, and consolidating the information we gathered during the day.
Short term, poor sleep can cause you to be forgetful and uncoordinated. Long term, insufficient sleep can lead to obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and even early death.
Healthy Choices for Your Mind
Healthy living is about your mind as well as your body. Stress, anxiety, and depression are not only horrible to live with, they can take a physical as well as a mental toll. The key is finding a balance that works for you.
I was really inspired by a friend of mine who, together with her husband, took the step to leave their regular, well-paying jobs and work as freelancers. Some people looked at them in shock – how could they give up what was, on the outside at least, an enviable lifestyle. Speaking to her a year after the change she said they can’t imagine how they lived with the pressure for so long. Having young children, ageing parents living at opposite ends of the country, and demanding jobs, meant that they constantly felt dragged in every direction. Trading their car in for an older model and forgoing holidays abroad has been a small price to pay for having flexibility in their working hours and being able to spend more time together as a family.
Happy, well-balanced people do things like saying “no” where they feel it is necessary, rather than trying to please everyone all of the time. They try new activities and challenge themselves to avoid getting stuck in a rut. They also spend time doing things that they love, and with people who make them feel good about themselves. Healthy people know that it’s ok to put themselves first on occasion and that doing so doesn’t make them selfish or horrible.
Practising mindful thinking is a good way to improve your quality of life. Mindfulness is being aware of how you think and of being fully present in the moment. When it feels like you are being bombarded with information and stimulation from every direction, mindfulness can tune out the white noise so you can focus on what is important. Mindful thinking can help improve your psychological well-being. Devoting time to meditation and prayer is very useful for helping quieten a busy mind. Focus on the positive and allow yourself to acknowledge and feel appreciation and gratitude.
How to Form Successful Habits
Trying to change everything all at once will lead to failure. Instead, choose one or two changes you can easily incorporate into your daily life, such as drinking more water, or taking five minutes to write a gratitude list before sleep. Make the changes positive ones like drinking more water instead of cutting out your beloved morning coffee, or eating seven portions of fruit and veg a day instead of banning sugar. Start your momentum slowly to allow good habits to form, then build on them by doing things like arranging to meet a friend you haven’t seen in ages, or finding a local netball team because you loved to play at school and you miss it.
Small positive changes will make a huge difference to your health, allowing you not only to live longer but to enjoy your life more fully.