7 ways to improve your health

We discover the simple but effective guidelines to good health.

14 July 2011
by Joanne Lillie

1. Eat breakfast

Think you're too busy for breakfast? It seems you can't afford to miss it: getting a smart start in the morning may have a long-term payoff: protection against heart disease and possibly a longer, healthier life. Studies show that eating breakfast makes for smaller rises in blood sugar and insulin after all of the day's meals and snacks. Stable blood sugar and insulin levels can help reduce harmful LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, and curb appetite.

What you eat matters just as much: a morning meal of whole grains reduces risk of heart attack or stroke. It's also a perfect opportunity to get in fruits and protein and good fats from nuts and seeds.

2. Sit up straight

Good posture reduces the amount of stiffness in the back, neck and shoulder muscles, lowers your risk of injury, allows more oxygen to the brain and the lungs, and aids circulation. "When we slouch, we strain our back muscles, which work in connection with the spine and enable us to go about our daily activities. When there is more tension in the muscles than normal, they tire and the brain sends out a signal to the surrounding muscles to work harder, putting even more strain on them," explains sports massage therapist Melanie Brand. And that's when problems with flexibility, fatigue, tension headaches and pain start to occur more frequently.

3. Sleep tight

If you want to look attractive and healthy, the best thing you can do is get a good night's sleep, according to a study in the British Medical Journal. For the first time, say the authors, there is scientific backing for the concept of beauty sleep. In the study, where participants were photographed after sleeping well and being sleep-deprived, observers judged the faces of those sleep-deprived as less healthy and less attractive.

Interestingly, a recent survey at Harvard Medical School found that more people are sleeping less than six hours a night, and sleep difficulties affect 75 percent of us at least a few nights per week. The recommended eight hours a night is necessary for optimal physical and mental health: it's been shown to boost learning and memory, metabolism and weight, mood, heart health and immunity.

4. Quit smoking

Smoking harms every system and function in your body (tobacco smoke is a cocktail of over 4 500 chemicals, of which 43 are known carcinogens), and stopping almost immediately enhances your health.

When you stop:

  • Coughing and sinus congestion clear up
  • Your nerve endings begin to recover and your taste buds and sense of smell come alive
  • Blood circulation improves and activity becomes easier
  • The lung's natural cleaning system starts working again and breathing is easier
  • Your risk of serious diseases starts to fall
  • The carbon monoxide levels in the blood decrease and you have more energy and stamina.

"25 percent of smokers will develop lung disease," says Dr Greg Symons, a consultant pulmonologist.

5. Say thanks

Grateful people are happier people: "When people consciously practise grateful living, their happiness goes up and their ability to withstand negative events improves, as does their immunity to anger, envy, resentment and depression," says psychologist Robert Emmons, who published his findings in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. He found that individual happiness is a result of outlook, rather than life circumstances.

  • Practice mindfulness to keep focused on the present moment
  • Make it a habit to stop and smell the flowers, observe a glorious sunset, feel the rain on your face -- there are abundant moments to celebrate
  • Start a gratitude journal, or make a list of all your blessings
  • Do something for someone else: there's no better way to appreciate what you have than to help someone less fortunate.

6. Floss those teeth

People who have poor oral hygiene have an increased risk of heart disease compared to those who brush their teeth twice a day, finds research published in the British Medical Journal. Inflammation in the body (including mouth and gums) plays an important role in the build up of artery-clogging material, leading to serious cardiovascular problems.

Oral bacteria can also harm blood vessels or cause blood clots by releasing toxins that resemble proteins found in artery walls or the bloodstream. Along with regular check-ups, dentists advise brushing and flossing twice a day, and having a hygienist clean your teeth twice a year.

7. Get a dog!

In a study published in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health, researchers from Michigan State University (in the US) found that people who had a dog and walked it regularly had a 34 percent higher chance of attaining their physical activity targets. Apparently owning a dog impacts our behaviour in two ways: it encourages us to walk more and become more active overall.

Our lifestyle changes associated with work, transportation and leisure have increased the amount of time we spend sitting in a day, and the more time we spend being sedentary the greater our health risks, says biokineticist Mariam Hassen.

The answer is to move more – whether it's a run around the block with a four-legged friend, a longer walk from the parking lot to the mall entrance, or taking the stairs instead of the lift.