By Max Pemberton For The Daily Mail
As a nation we’ve become enormously reliant on medication to manage our health.
We happily reach for statins or blood pressure tablets, while the number of anti-depressant prescriptions in Britain has rocketed to more than 70 million a year.
Then there are the cupboards full of supplements and health boosters so many of us feel we can’t do without.
But what if we’re missing the point? What if the real secret of feeling better and having a healthier life could be right under our noses?
I recall, as a medic, seeing a man in his early 60s who had suffered a heart attack. It was a wake-up call, and he had been determined to turn his health around.
But he was overweight, his diet was poor, he was stressed and slept badly, and he didn’t know where to start.
He felt overwhelmed, so hadn’t made any changes in the six months since his heart attack.
Becoming healthier seemed like such a huge job, especially when he was already not feeling his best.
The only way to help him was to break down the problem into small, easily achievable goals, so he could make a series of tweaks. Six months later, he was an entirely different man to the one I’d first met.
We all want to be healthier, fitter, less tired. But, just like my heart attack patient, we can all struggle to find the willpower to make the changes we know we need to, and it’s hard to know where to start.
Stop looking at improving your health as one big, all-encompassing goal — whether it’s after a diagnosis or health scare, or for a new year.
The trick is to make ‘micro-changes’ — small alterations that are rather easy to turn into habits. On their own, they might only have a small effect, but when combined they will make a big difference.
That’s why today I’m launching the Mail’s series of 100 small changes, all recommended by top health experts from across Britain, to help everyone transform their life for the better, for ever.
The idea isn’t that you make all of the changes at once — you’d become despondent, then stop. Pick one or two that support your goals (some might not be suitable — for example, if you have to follow a particular dietary regimen due to a health condition) and introduce them into your daily routine. Once these have stuck, pick a few more.
Anyone who has made a New Year’s resolution will know that making a lasting change, however small, requires patience and practice. There are a number of psychological tricks to make the process easier.
The first is to make sure you have prepared for the change — think about how it will fit into your life.
It also helps to be specific. Rather than say you’re going to swim more, it’s better to say you’ll commit to swimming once a week.
You’ll find this easier still by linking it to something you already do. Say, for example, you’ll swim on Tuesdays on your way home from the shops. It will also help if you can start to view a change as part of who you are. We live up (or down) to the kind of person we tell ourselves we are.
So, start to tell yourself that you’re the sort who takes the stairs, for example, and the change is more likely to stick.
Keep track of the habit you’re trying to introduce. Consistency is key — set reminders on your phone or put up Post-it notes at home.
On average, it takes about two months for something to become a habit, but it can take longer.
Some people have a chart on the fridge they can tick off, for example, or note the activity in their diary.
Ask a loved one to encourage you and remind you to stick with it. It can also be easier if you get them to make the change with you.
Be prepared to fail, but don’t let failure be an excuse to stop. Learn from these bumps in the road and put strategies in place to make sure pitfalls are avoided or minimised.
To kick off this series, I’ve come up with 20 lifestyle tips to help you become a fitter, healthier and happier version of yourself.
This will give you just a flavour — there are 100 more brilliant pieces of advice from medical professionals to come every day next week, covering everything from brain and heart health to boosting your sex life and improving your sleep.
I follow all of the tips listed below myself, and often suggest my patients try them, too. Many came from conversations with colleagues who did them, or from research or advice I picked up during my medical career, which I slowly introduced over the years.
I now do them without thinking. They’re part of my routine — and they can be part of yours, too. TIDY ONE DRAWER EACH WEEK
Many of us have lots of stuff we don’t use or want, and it sits there taking up space. Set aside half an hour or so to sort through a drawer, or even a cupboard, every week.
Throw out the rubbish and give anything you don’t need or want to charity for a double feel-good hit.
Studies have shown that chaos and mess generate anxiety, whereas a tidy, ordered environment helps you feel in control and is calming.
MAKE HALF YOUR PLATE VEGETABLES
Few of us eat anywhere near enough vegetables. Not only do they reduce the risk of a whole host of deadly diseases, from heart attacks to strokes and cancer, they help to regulate the bowels, hydrate you, and make you feel fuller so you’re less likely to graze.
Measuring your veggie intake by the plate is much easier than using the ‘five a day’ method. Making every plate of your food half vegetables means you should easily get your five a day, and more.
You can also cut up a selection of vegetables, put them in a bowl and snack on them. In terms of ensuring you get all your vitamins and minerals, it’s also far more effective than taking a supplement. I eat half a cucumber, a carrot and a red pepper this way every day. GO SWIMMING AT LEAST ONCE A WEEK
Swimming is great exercise, boosts circulation, helps to build muscle and improve flexibility, and can also be quite a social activity.
It’s often easier for people to introduce into their routine compared to other exercise, as it’s easy on your joints and it doesn’t matter so much if you have balance or mobility problems.
LEARN A POEM A MONTH
this is a great way of improving memory, and gives you a sense of accomplishment. But poems also speak to us on a profound level, and can help us understand how we are feeling when we’re struggling to articulate this ourselves. Having a collection of poems you know by heart is like a tool bag; if you’re bored, sad, lonely or upset, they can lift your mood or help you think in a different way. I started doing this as a student, during a summer spent working in a nursing home for patients with severe dementia. Needing something to lift my spirits, I bought The Nation’s Favourite Poems and started learning them.
Write one on a piece of paper to carry with you for the month, and read through it every chance you get. If you do this a few times a day, you’ll be amazed by the end of the month, when it will have stuck.
Don’t worry too much if you stumble over some lines — the passages that most resonate will be with you for good, and be there for you when you need them.
AVOID HANDRAILS ON PUBLIC TRANSPORT
The handrails on buses and trains are heaving with bugs from other people’s hands. Once these are on your hands, it’s all too easy for them to be transferred to your mouth when you touch your face or eat. This is one of the main ways that colds and flu are transmitted. Handrails are a common source for upset stomachs, too.
So lean against the rail — or, if you have to hold it, hold it with your non-dominant hand. When going down escalators or stairs, avoid holding the rail directly if possible, and either hover your hand just above it in case you trip, or lean on it with your elbow.
WASH HANDS AFTER TRAVEL AND EATING
Washing your hands is the single most effective way of reducing your risk of falling ill, yet we often go hours without doing it. This increases your chance of picking up bacteria or viruses.
As well as after using the loo, you should wash your hands when you get into work, before and after eating, and when you get home, at an absolute minimum. Use soap and warm water.
ANXIOUS? TAKE A LAVENDER PILL
If you suffer from anxiety, you might consider using lavender oil, which works on the same parts of the brain as benzodiazepines such as diazepam (Valium), but has the benefits of not being sedating or addictive.
You can sniff the oil, although there’s some evidence that it’s most effective if consumed — you can buy lavender oil in capsules designed to be swallowed.
BUY A REUSABLE WATER BOTTLE
People often worry that they don’t drink enough water. The truth is that while the eight-glasses-a-day rule is a myth, most of us could do with hydrating ourselves better.
We often mistake being thirsty for being hungry, and I think a lot of headaches are the result of people not drinking enough.
Buy yourself a reusable bottle to keep on your desk or in your kitchen and aim to drink it dry twice a day. Also, never say no whenever anyone offers you water.
NO MORE SAYING ‘SHOULD’
It’s easy to feel bad about yourself if you don’t achieve what you think you ‘should’ be doing. Write down what you feel you ‘should’ do and change the way you think about it.
Rather than saying ‘I should exercise more’, say ‘I like how I feel after I exercise’. Instead of ‘I should clean the windows’, say ‘I like how it feels when the housework is done’. This can lead to a more positive attitude and reduce stress levels. ONLY EAT RED MEAT ON SUNDAYS
There’s a lot of debate about red meat and precisely how hazardous it is to health but, on balance, there is good research suggesting it’s healthier to reduce our intake.
During the week, swap red meat for other protein, such as lean meats like chicken, turkey or fish. Reducing red meat consumption is also good for the environment.
If you limit yourself to just eating it once a week, you’re more likely to be able to afford better-quality meat, from a local butcher, for example, and avoid processed meats.
USE A DIARY TO KEEP TRACK OF LIFE
We place far too much pressure on ourselves to remember things, then berate ourselves when our memory lets us down.
Use a diary to record all your events and important dates — electronic or paper, it doesn’t matter, but ensure you have it with you at all times.
Also, after the year has ended, keep it as a reminder of what you did and when. It can help remind you of positive achievements and experiences to boost your mood.
TAKE A VITAMIN D SUPPLEMENT
Most of us don’t get enough vitamin D, a fat-soluble vitamin that our skin makes when exposed to the sun. It is good for the heart and immune system.
We can also get it from food but it’s difficult to get enough from a typical diet, so we rely on the sunshine. In winter months, most of us become deficient.
Take a supplement from the end of September until late March at a minimum. I wear factor 50 every day to protect my skin — as should you, to protect against skin cancer — but it also limits my vitamin D absorption, so I take a supplement all year round.
HAVE A FAMILY MEAL EVERY WEEK
Mealtimes are important — an opportunity for everyone to catch up and reconnect. They’re also vital for spotting problems within the family and working out conflict.
Set aside one mealtime every week and make it clear that it’s expected all family members will attend.
And, obviously, no mobile phones at the table!
SEE ‘FORGOTTEN’ LOVED ONES
Make a list of all those friends or relatives you always intend to visit, but rarely do. These are the people you write Christmas cards to saying ‘We must meet up this year’, and then the year ends and you say the same thing the next year.
Give yourself a year to work your way down the list, contacting the people with concrete dates.
You will be amazed how quickly you reconnect with them, and how a little effort can reap great rewards.
Social networks are important for our health — people who maintain friendships are not only less likely to have depression and anxiety, but are also less likely to suffer heart problems, high blood pressure and strokes.
FINALLY, NEVER SKIP BREAKFAST
Your mum was right, it really is the most important meal of the day.
It helps to kickstart your metabolism and ensures your brain has fuel for the beginning of the day.
If you’re not used to having breakfast, you can find you’re not hungry or feel bloated, but persevere and you will soon wonder how you ever went without it.
If you are rushed for time in the morning, try having a hard-boiled egg, which you can eat on the go like an apple.