What can we do to stay healthy for longer? How important are diet and exercise? What about smoking and drinking? Can mental health affect physical health?
What should we eat?
The Mediterranean Diet is rich in fruit, vegetables, pulses and olive oil. It is associated with a lower risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart attacks and stroke. It may also slow cognitive decline and lower the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
However, variety is also important. The NHS recommends that our plates should include plenty of vegetables, starches (including potatoes, rice and wholemeal bread), some dairy, meat, fish, eggs, beans and only small amounts of sugar and fat.
What is a healthy weight?
There are two main measures:
- BMI (Body Mass Index). A BMI between 18.5-24.9 is said to be healthiest.
- Waist to height ratio – which is now believed to be a more accurate measure for health purposes.
How much should we eat and how can we avoid over-eating?
- How much we eat makes a difference. The NHS advises that a man needs around 2,500kcal a day and a woman around 2,000kcal. Factors like your age and how active you are could make a difference, so this is a rough guide.
- Keeping a food diary can double your chances of weight loss. This doesn’t have to be a formal thing. You can write it on a post-it note or text it to yourself. It’s more about raising awareness of what and how much you eat.
- Weight loss apps may also help.
- To avoid what has been described as ‘mindless eating’ try eating from a smaller plate, not eating in front of the TV, moving snacks out of sight in the kitchen etc.
How important is exercise?
- Even a small amount of exercise can help you live longer. Macmillan Cancer advise that walking just a mile a day can save lives. While England's Chief Medical Officer Sally Davies advises, "physical activity offers huge benefits”.
- Exercise can also help you control your weight, provided you also limit your calorie intake (as what we eat and how much is the main reason we put on weight) - and exercise reduces the risk of falls when you’re older.
- Exercise may even help protect you against future depression.
- Exercising with a friend or in a group/class seems to increase the amount of exercise we do and provides motivation to continue as well as useful social support.
- And exercise doesn’t have to mean going to the gym or running. Walking, dancing, swimming, gardening, Tai Chi and Yoga are some other ways you can keep physically active.
For people who have had heart disease, heart failure, stroke and prediabetes, some studies suggest that exercise can be as effective as medication in helping prevent a recurrence.
What about smoking and drinking?
- Smoking is the single most preventable cause of disease, disability and death in the USA – and in many other countries.
- Moderate drinking may protect against heart attack and stroke, although the evidence here now seems weaker. What is clear is that drinking more heavily increases your risk of liver disease, pancreatitis, drink related accidents/injuries and six different types of cancer.
So don’t smoke - and drink in moderation.
Why mental health is important
Fortunately there are some things we can do to increase our mental and physical health, including:
- Physical activity. This can reduce the likelihood of developing depression.
- Meditation. This can reduce psychological stress.
- Get enough sleep. As poor sleep is linked to weakened immune systems, anxiety and depression.
- Keep up with family and friends. That’s because feeling lonely can shorten your life and increase the risk of disability, especially if you’re middle aged. Volunteering, clubs, teams, societies, faith groups, families and work can all help you socialise, stay connected and avoid feeling lonely.
To increase your chances of enjoying a healthy life for as long as possible:
- Eat a varied diet, including plenty of fruit and vegetables.
- Maintain a healthy weight – if necessary keeping a food diary and following the tips to avoid ‘mindless eating’.
- Keep active, to support both physical and mental health – if possible with a friend or part of a group.
- Don’t smoke - and drink alcohol in moderation.
- Get enough sleep.
- Keep up with family and friends or find other ways to stay socially connected.
Reviewed and updated February 2020.