When it comes to keeping yourself healthy, a bit of common sense can go a long way.
We all know basic things like a balanced, nutritious diet, reducing alcohol intake and getting enough sleep will do you the world of good in the long run – but is there anything else you can do to hack the system right now?
1. Make strength training part of your everyday life
“Strength training is essential to maintain muscle mass,” explains Sam Bhide, advanced practice physiotherapist and CSP member (csp.org.uk). “Muscle mass starts declining by age 30, which leads to lack of daily function, can cause stiffness, muscle and joint weakness, body aches and joint pains, and can also increase chances of cardiovascular diseases.”
There are plenty of good reasons to pick up strength training, with Bhide suggesting that, generally speaking, it can help lower “chances of early death from multiple chronic diseases such as diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular disease”.
Research published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found doing between 30 and 60 minutes of muscle strengthening activity every week was linked to a 10-20% lower risk of death from all causes.
But hitting the gym can feel more like a chore than an easy life hack, so how can you make strength training part of your everyday life? Bhide recommends adding simple exercises into your daily routine.
“Lift grocery bags in both hands to strengthen your upper body muscles when shopping,” she suggests. “Squat down to load the washing – repeat 10 times to build stronger legs.”
If you’re new to strength training, Bhide recommends starting with bodyweight exercises, then you can work your way up to weighted tasks when you’re feeling strong enough (always seek professional guidance when starting out).
2. Boost your vitamin D levels
Having enough vitamin D is “important for your long-term health, bone strength and immune system”, says Mr Narendra Pisal, consultant gynaecologist at London Gynaecology (london-gynaecology.com). “It also plays a role in the quality of sleep, energy levels, fertility and mood. Having optimal levels of vitamin D will help in prevention of osteoporosis. It will also help in fighting off infections and boosting your energy levels as well as mental health.”
Pisal says “vitamin D deficiency is common and often underdiagnosed”, with symptoms including “fatigue, muscle pain and poor sleep”. If you have symptoms, your GP might offer you a vitamin D blood test – otherwise, Pisal recommends ordering a self-test from Thriva (thriva.co).
If you do have low levels – which many people do in the UK and Ireland over the autumn and winter months, as there isn’t sufficient sunlight this time of the year for our bodies to produce enough – it’s a relatively easy fix. “You can buy over-the-counter vitamin D supplements and your pharmacist or GP may be able to advise you regarding the dose, depending on your levels,” says Pisal.
3. Pick up a book
When was the last time you got lost in a really good book? Not only can reading transport you to another world, it might just be good for your health too.
“In one 2017 study, those who read for 30 minutes every night before going to sleep had a 20% reduction in the risk of dying during the 12 years of the study, compared to those who did not read. Reading books was significantly more beneficial than reading newspapers or magazines,” says Dr Deborah Lee of Dr Fox Online Pharmacy (doctorfox.co.uk).
Why might curling up with a book boost your health? “Reading disassociates your thoughts from your worries, induces feelings of calm and relaxation, and lowers levels of the stress hormone cortisol, plus your heart rate and blood pressure,” suggests Fox. “In fact, reading is regarded as a meditative task, meaning the mind is focused on a single activity, and this has been proven to enhance rest and relaxation.” So, you might sleep better, too!
4. Go plant-based
“A simple hack to live longer is to ditch the animal products and go vegan,” suggests Justine Butler, head of research at vegan charity Viva! (viva.org.uk). “Animal products, even at low levels, may increase the risk of illnesses and diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and certain cancers. Therefore, avoiding meat, fish, eggs and dairy can help reduce the risk of an early death.”
She cites 2013 research published in the JAMA Internal Medicine journal which found vegans had 15% lower all-cause mortality compared with meat-eaters.
Going vegan isn’t accessible to all, nor is it something everyone wants to do – but it might be worth considering how you can easily incorporate more plant-based meals into your life, perhaps by doing ‘Meat Free Monday’ once a week.
When adopting a plant-based diet, this is Butler’s top piece of advice: “Remember to vary the foods you eat to ensure you’re receiving a wide range of nutrients.” By avoiding animal products, she suggests: “You not only increase your chances of living longer, but you will feel healthier and have more energy.”
5. Drink more green tea
Living an all-round healthy life with a balanced diet and regular exercise is the best way to stay as fit as possible, but if you wanted an extra boost, you could try drinking a few more cups of green tea.
“Green tea differs from black tea as the tea leaves are steamed, dried and crushed – as opposed to black tea where they are boiled, which destroys many of the constituents,” explains Lee. “This means green tea contains far higher quantities of polyphenols, substances found in plants with many health-giving properties.
“Green tea has been shown to help reduce heart disease, reduce oxidative stress and lower chronic inflammation. It can also help with blood glucose control and may help prevent the onset of dementia. Overall, the health benefits of green tea are thought to help prolong longevity.”
Lee’s advice? “Plan to drink three to five cups of green tea per day. Make the tea with hot – not boiling – water and allow the tea (or tea bag) to steep for two minutes.” However, you might want to avoid drinking it after 6pm, as the caffeine could keep you awake.