Here are our top four health stories. We’ve selected them from the many reported in the media in recent weeks because of their importance for public health.

Walk your way to a longer life? 

Could a brisk 20 minute walk each day be enough to reduce our risk of an early death? 

That’s the verdict from a study of more than 334,000 European men and women over 12 years, published in January 2015.

in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. This found that twice as many deaths may be attributable to lack of physical activity compared with the number of deaths attributable to obesity.  

"This is a simple message: just a small amount of physical activity each day could have substantial health benefits for people who are physically inactive. Although we found that just 20 minutes would make a difference, we should really be looking to do more than this - physical activity has many proven health benefits and should be an important part of our daily life."

Professor Ulf Ekelund, Cambridge University

But could what we do in the rest of the day matter too? 

Exercising once a day is better than no exercise at all. However, we need to make sure we don’t spend the rest of the day sitting down. 

University Health Network researchers in North America found the amount of time a person sits during the day is associated with a higher risk of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and death, regardless of regular exercise. Their review study in the Annals of Internal Medicine in January 2015 outlined the dangers of a sedentary lifestyle.

"It is not good enough to exercise for 30 minutes a day and be sedentary for 23 and half hours”.

“For example, at work, stand up or move for one to three minutes every half hour; and when watching television, stand or exercise during commercials".

Dr. David Alter, Senior Scientist, Toronto Rehab, University Health Network (UHN).

However the study found the negative effects of sitting time on health were greatest for people who do little or no exercise – compared with people who do a lot of exercise. So doing more exercise reduces the risk. 

Do optimists live longer?

Might an optimistic approach to life double your chance of a healthy heart?

That seems to be the conclusion from a study of more than 5,100 adults aged 52 to 84, published in the Health Behaviour and Policy Review in January 2015.

The researchers rated participants’ heart health based on blood pressure, body mass index, blood sugar readings, cholesterol levels, diet, physical activity and whether they used tobacco. Individuals were also questioned about their outlook on life and their physical health. Those with a positive outlook were twice as likely to have healthy hearts as those who didn’t.

“Individuals with the highest levels of optimism have twice the odds of being in ideal cardiovascular health compared to their more pessimistic counterparts”. Rosalba Hernandez, Professor of Social Work

Do we have any control over our outlook?

If you’re a pessimist the good news is that you can take action and make changes to take a more optimistic approach to life.

Pessimism can include assuming the worst, only seeing the negative, avoiding problems and failing to take action to improve quality of life. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is one proven way to help challenge negative thinking patterns, address overthinking, break down problems and increase motivation. This is often used to help treat the negative thinking of people with depression but can be used to encourage positive thinking more generally. So a course of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy could be one option to tackle these traits of pessimism.

Another suggestion is to keep a positivity log. Instead of focusing on the negative events in your day write down each and every positive occurrence, no matter how small. Keep a note of a catch up with an old friend, a compliment on your new haircut, or having time to watch your favourite programme. At the end of the day review all these positive events to increase your positive outlook.

Research suggests that you may have more control over your mind than you thought.  That’s according to Elaine Fox, M.D., author of the book Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain: How to Retrain your Brain to Overcome Pessimism and Achieve a More Positive Outlook. In her research, Fox discovered that neurons, the very circuitry of our brains, can be reshaped by new thought patterns. This is, in and of itself, cause for optimism. Seeing the glass as half full seems to be a skill we can improve.

You can also find further information in our article on Positive Thinking.

Can Porridge help you live longer?

We don’t usually report on ‘superfoods.’ That’s because media stories are often based on initial experiments with animals rather than serious trials with people.

However, we thought this story was worth including, for two main reasons:

  • It is based on a large, long term study by a reputable organisation. The eating habits of over 100,000 men and women in the US were tracked over 16 years by researchers at Harvard University.
  • Porridge (and the other whole grains researched) are cheap and readily available. At the time of writing a 1 kg basic pack of porridge oats costs just £1.20 in many supermarkets (or around £2 for some of the more well known brands).  

We know that wholegrain foods such as oats, wholemeal bread, brown rice and quinoa are good for you. But does including them in your daily diet actually help you live longer?

All the participants in the Harvard study were healthy and free of disease when the research started in 1984. Twenty-six thousand had died by the time the study finished in 2010.  However, the researchers found that with each additional small helping (28gm) of any kind of wholegrain food, risk of all death was reduced by five per cent and heart deaths by nine per cent

The research took factors such as diet and lifestyle into account. However it acknowledges that it could not eliminate all outside influences in such a large study and the participants were all health professionals so perhaps not an entirely representative cross section.

The NHS’ verdict is that bearing these limitations in mind, the researchers have produced a large, useful and good-quality study. The findings reinforce the benefits of including more wholegrains in our diet.   

"These findings further support current dietary guidelines that recommend increasing wholegrain consumption. They also provide promising evidence that suggests a diet enriched with wholegrains may confer benefits towards extended life expectancy." 

Dr Hongyu Wu, Harvard School of Public Health

Eating more wholegrain foods may be a relatively simple way of looking after your heart and increasing your chances of living longer- and won't break the bank!

These health stories were selected and reviewed by Judy Graves, Rachel Laughton-Scott and Laura Symes.