The Simple, Often Overlooked Ways to Optimal Health

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The holidays are over and a new year is upon us. This leaves some of us thinking that it’s time to leave the indulgences behind, and to get back onto the healthy-lifestyle bandwagon. Our readers will know that there are many specialised products and activities that have potential to give you an extra edge in health- from the musculoskeletal benefits of PEMF therapy to the anti-ageing potential of the klotho protein. However, more often than not, attending to ‘boring’ lifestyle basics can provide the most substantial health benefits. We outline four of these simple but powerful measures that could help you or someone you know make 2022 the healthiest year yet.

Key Points:

  1. New year’s resolutions can work, particularly if they are well-planned, realistic and sustainable. For this reason, it’s worth focusing on simple but effective ways on improving your health
  2. Many of us could drink more water, get more exercise, eat more fruit and vegetables and give greater priority to rest.
  3. The science reveals far-reaching consequences of meeting- or not meeting- these needs, both in daily life and in terms of chronic illness.

Why re-focus on your health now?

Believe it or not, science says there is a point to making that New Year’s Resolution

Even if you haven’t established a resolution yet, or if you have but the year has not started off so well, it is not too late to make this year one of positive changes. In truth we can make conscious changes at any time. Each new day, each new moment provides an opportunity to try doing something a little differently. We don’t need to wait until the arbitrary closure of one calendar year and opening of another. However, this period can feel like a perfect opportunity to make a fresh start. For example, some people may find the particular associations they have with this season, enjoying some holidays, having time to relax and/or reflect, catching up with loved ones or doing things that they don’t have time for in daily life in itself can help them gain perspective on life and what they value. At any time you are thus inspired, you might as well capitalise on it. 

The value of keeping it simple 

From what I’ve seen and heard, a lot of people have found the last couple of years tough. Amongst all the uncertainty, stress and confusion, one thing has become increasingly apparent: just how important it is to look after ourselves, and each other. 

But let’s talk about practicalities. If you’re anything like me, there’s a myriad of things you could do to improve your health and life. So many that it can be overwhelming, particularly if you are prone to thinking you should do it all.  Seeing that people are doing it tough in the current climate, however, I think we need to throw any unnecessary pressure out of the window. A key to making changes stick is to make your goals SMART: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Trackable. Let’s tick off the achievable and realistic criteria by making small, sustainable changes rather than aiming for perfection or radical transformation. And let’s start with improving the simple things that we know can make a significant difference… Let’s focus on our foundations of health.  

Science suggests working on any of the following areas, if they’re less than ideal, will give you much bang for your buck.

Get more H₂O

Although it virtually goes without saying that water is crucial for health and survival, many of us don’t drink enough. 

Just to remind you of why it’s so important:

  • If you find yourself getting tired or unable to perform at your best, particularly during physical activity, dehydration could be a contributor. Adequately rehydrating can even reduce the oxidative stress caused by exercise and dehydration. 
  • Consuming adequate water may help your mood and cognition. In some cases, mild-to-moderate dehydration has been observed to reduce concentration, short-term memory, information processing and other indices. 
  • Water may reduce the duration and intensity of headaches. Staying adequately hydrated may also prevent headaches, but there is a lack of rigorous research into this nugget of conventional wisdom
  • Amongst the elderly and very ill, dehydration can contribute to delirium or delirium presenting as dementia
  • Dehydration can contribute to or exacerbate constipation
  • Adequate water (not too little or too much) is required to help the kidneys process and excrete waste from the blood. This waste would otherwise harm the body. 
  • Water intake can affect the regulation of your cardiovascular system. It both influences blood volume, and consumption can even have an acute effect via the sympathetic nervous system
  • There are also links between dehydration and some chronic diseases. For example, exercise-related asthma and kidney stone disease are associated with low levels of water intake

Ideally, you’d drink a lot of water (see below for what that actually means). If you don’t, you can begin to reap benefits by gradually increasing your intake to the desired level. Perhaps start by drinking one or two extra glasses per day for the first week, and then gradually adding to it. Yes, you may find yourself needing to visit the bathroom more often. But given the above-mentioned benefits, that’s a small sacrifice. You could even think of it as a good sign. 

You’ve probably heard of the age-old advice to drink 6-8 glasses of water a day (or 1.5-2L). This guideline has actually been updated by many health bodies- but the precise amounts that are recommended depends on who you ask. They often vary according to age/life stage and gender. For example, Australia’s Nutrient Reference Values suggest males over the age of 19 years consume 3.4L, while women consume 2.8L… however, this total water intake can be sourced from your total intake (i.e. it includes water contained in food/other beverages as well as plain water. Many fresh fruit and vegetables contain decent amounts of water). 

We can’t be certain that the recommendations out there accurately reflect your needs though. They are based only on surveys of how much populations actually consume and some measures of urine concentrations. This is because it’s proven difficult to make precise, scientifically rigorous assessments of what is required for peak hydration status. 

I’m not sure if, or when, we’ll have such precise data for everyone in the population… so we need to use a bit of art and science to work out what is ideal for us. That is, you can aim for the recommendations, and play around with taking more or less, and monitor how your body responds. You’ll most likely need to consume more if you’re quite active, consume diuretics (eg: caffeine, alcohol) or live/work in hot conditions. One thing you should remember: if you feel thirsty, you’re already dehydrated. So aim to drink regularly, before you reach that point. 

Including some deuterium-depleted water into your total water intake could potentially provide you with even more benefits. 

Up your exercise

It’s true that beginning and maintaining a more active lifestyle can be challenging. But, doing so will make your whole body- and mind- work better. This is because, quite simply, we are made to move. Exercise greatly improves heart and metabolic health, reduces the risk of some cancers, helps keep the muscles and bones strong (which is increasingly important to avoid morbidity as we age). Being fitter also gives us more energy and stamina, which helps us in tackling daily life, and can help improve mental health. 

Australian recommendations are that 18-64 year olds are active on all or most days, performing a minimum of 2.5-5 hours of moderate activity per week, or 1.25-2.5 hours of vigorous activity, or a combination, that they perform strength training at least 2 days a week, and minimise sedentary time. Older adults are recommended to perform 30 minutes or more of moderate intensity activity on most/all days, and incorporate strength, balance and flexibility activities. 

Are you meeting these levels? If not, don’t fear. While you should definitely aim for these in the medium-to-long term, there’s no reason not to start with a more modest goal. Moreover, you’ll likely begin obtaining some benefits before you even get to these levels. We’ve long had evidence that 10-minute bouts of exercise are beneficial. (These benefits are even greater if you do several 10-minute bouts throughout the day). More recently, some research has suggested that exercising for as little as 5 minutes can be beneficial- possibly even increasing someone’s sense of being full/satisfied throughout the day- if it’s done at a high intensity. 

So the moral of the story is that doing almost any exercise will provide you with some health benefits, if you’re currently not in a routine. So start with something that seems achievable and un-intimidating to you. Maybe that’ll be doing ten minutes of exercise each day, or 30 minutes a day or two per week. 

The key then is to build up gradually. A good rule of thumb is to increase activity levels (either in terms of duration or intensity) by no more than 10 percent per week. This applies if you are just beginning to get active, or you have long been but want to take your training up a notch. Such graded increases give your body the time it needs to adapt. 

Eat more fruit and vegetables

Most of us could make some improvements to our diets for the sake of our long-term health and feeling better now. Just what adjustments would be beneficial would vary from person to person, and obviously I can’t tell what would help you from my position behind my computer screen- in your past. But… 

Eating more fruit and vegetables is one simple dietary change that could provide significant benefit to a lot of us, even improving our gut microbiome. Eating 2 serves of fruit and 5+ serves of vegetables a day (where 1 serve is 0.5 cup of cooked vegetables or 1 cup of salad) contributes to optimal wellbeing. I don’t know about you personally, of course, but a lot of us are not getting this. The stats vary depending on who collects it, from whom, and when. But they all come to that same conclusion. A 2018 survey from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare said that only 7% of adults (and 5% of kids) get enough daily veg. We fared better with fruit- 50% of adults and two-thirds of kids eating the recommended amount. But this still leaves a significant amount of people who are going without. 

If you do get your recommended serves of fruit and vegetables, you’ll tap into an excellent source of vitamins and minerals, and many other biologically active phytochemicals. These components are crucial for the chemical reactions that occur within our body, thus helping us to release energy from food… and basically to function at our best. They also contain fibre, and many are low in energy and contain good amounts of water… all of which are helpful when it comes to satiety and weight management, among other things. 

If you want to improve your diet overall, I’d also recommend increasing fruit and vegetable intake as a good start, as some people find it easier to add good foods to their diets than removing or reducing their intake of their favourite ‘unhealthy’ foods. 

As in other areas, a sensible approach can be to increase your fruit and vegetable intake gradually. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and long-term healthy habits are rarely either. 

If you’d like more information on what a balanced diet looks like overall, take a look here. These are basic and reliable guidelines for an ‘average’ person, however they do not take into account any individual health or dietary needs, or restrictions, someone may have. If you do have unique dietary requirements, speak to your doctor and consult with a dietitian. 

Don’t sacrifice rest

It’s well known that sleep is essential to good health. However, getting adequate sleep is not enough. Although it’s given less attention in the research (and media), we also need rest in our waking hours to function optimally. You might call it active rest, non-sleep rest, having a break, relaxing, chillaxing or anything else… but all these forms of rest are crucial to allowing your body, brain and spirit to recover from stress, and may boost creativity. How you choose to rest is really up to you- it can be anything from lying down or meditating, to doing some gentle exercise (eg: a stroll or gentle yoga), to reading for pleasure, to forest bathing, or anything else- as long as it is restful for you. 

As I said, this area unfortunately hasn’t been given a lot of research attention yet, however a small study has shown restful time in a garden significantly reduced the stress of people visiting family members in ICU. 

The Verdict

To make this year healthy, it is worth optimising the basics. Ensuring you drink enough water, get enough exercise, eat enough fruit and vegetables, and get enough rest (waking rest as well as sleep) will put you in good stead for functioning well in daily life… and reducing your risk of long-term illnesses. Such measures often provide greater benefit than any more specialised strategies, interventions or hacks… If you really want the edge in health I’d recommend starting with the basics before moving on to these.

What would help you optimise your health?

References

Australian Government: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2018, June 20). Australia’s health 2018. https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/australias-health/australias-health-2018/contents/indicators-of-australias-health/fruit-and-vegetable-intake

Australian Government: Department of Health. (2021, May 7). Physical activity and exercise guidelines for all Australians. https://www.health.gov.au/health-topics/physical-activity-and-exercise/physical-activity-and-exercise-guidelines-for-all-australians#summary-by-age

Australian Government: National Health and Medical Research Council. Eat for Health: The Five Food Groups. (2015, 27 July). https://www.eatforhealth.gov.au/food-essentials/five-food-groups

Australian Government: National Health and Medical Research Council and Ministry of Health (Manatu Haoura) (2014, April 9). Nutrient Reference Values for Australia and New Zealand: Water. https://www.nrv.gov.au/nutrients/water

Barry M Popkin, Kristen E D’Anci, Irwin H Rosenberg, Water, hydration, and health, Nutrition Reviews, Volume 68, Issue 8, 1 August 2010, Pages 439–458, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1753-4887.2010.00304.x

Focht, B.C. (2013). Affective responses to 10-minute and 30-minute walks in sedentary, overweight women: Relationships with theory-based correlates of walking for exercise. Psychology of Sport and Exercise. 14(5):759-766. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psychsport.2013.04.003

Holmstrup, M.E., Fairchild, T.J., Keslacy, S., Weinstock, R.S. and Kanaley, J.A. (2013), Satiety, but not total PYY, Is increased with continuous and intermittent exercise. Obesity. 21: 2014-2020. https://doi.org/10.1002/oby.20335

Loprinzi, P.D., and Cardinal, B.J. (2013). Association between Biologic Outcomes and Objectively Measured Physical Activity Accumulated in ≥ 10-Minute Bouts and < 10-Minute Bouts. American Journal of Health Promotion. 27(3):143–151. https://doi.org/10.4278/ajhp.110916-QUAN-348

Mullur, R.S., and Ames, D. (2016). Impact of a 10 minute Seated Yoga Practice in the Management of Diabetes. Journal of yoga & physical therapy. 6(1), 1000224. https://doi.org/10.4172/2157-7595.1000224

Petrella, Andrea F.M. (2018). A 10-Minute Single-Bout of Moderate to Very-Heavy Intensity Aerobic Exercise Improves Executive Function in Older Adults. Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository. 5890. https://ir.lib.uwo.ca/etd/5890

Ulrich, R. S., Cordoza, M., Gardiner, S. K., Manulik, B. J., Fitzpatrick, P. S., Hazen, T. M., & Perkins, R. S. (2020). ICU Patient Family Stress Recovery During Breaks in a Hospital Garden and Indoor Environments. HERD: Health Environments Research & Design Journal, 13(2), 83–102. https://doi.org/10.1177/1937586719867157

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