Spring clean your health
Longer days and better weather give you the perfect opportunity to refresh your family's bodies and minds, writes Arlene Harris
Spring is in the air and while many of us will associate this with flinging open the windows and shaking out the winter cobwebs, it should also be a time to make some positive changes to our health and wellbeing.
This may mean getting rid of old medicine, visiting the GP with any concerns or taking a long hard look at how healthy your lifestyle is.
Dr Mark Murphy of the Irish Association of General Practitioners (IAGP) advises a medicine cabinet spring clean but says while many see the onset of spring as a time to be checked out from head-to-toe, there is little need unless you are experiencing symptoms.
CLEAN OUT YOUR CABINET
"All regularly prescribed medicines have a best-before date and pharmaceutical companies cannot guarantee that the medication or active ingredient is effective beyond this best-before date," he says. "If someone is taking their medication regularly this is usually not an issue, but some medications may only be required on an 'as needed' basis so it's important to be aware of expiry dates."
"There is no evidence regarding a need for 'check-ups' to screen for conditions in children," says Dr Murphy. "But if parents have a concern regarding a physical or psychological symptom or development it's important they bring their child to their GP.
"There is also very limited evidence for 'health checks' in adults. People may want to get checked for cancer or cardiovascular disease, but in truth there is little evidence that this contributes to a person's health and may even cause harm through increasing anxiety and over-testing."
"Most women would be familiar with the cervical smear test, breast cancer screening is up and going and recently bowel cancer screening has been rolled out with test-kits being posted to people's houses," says Dr Murphy. "Otherwise there is no recommendation for any specific cancer screening. However, if someone has a symptom - such as trouble passing urine, passing blood per rectum or the presence of a lump - it's very important to seek medical advice.
"And if someone has a strong family history of stroke or heart disease in younger family relatives (under 60), it would be prudent to attend their GP after the age of 40 to get a full cardiovascular risk assessment (including exercise, smoking, diet, alcohol consumption, testing for blood pressure, diabetes and cholesterol). For other people it's sensible to start getting this checked after the age of 50."
Dr Murphy says prevention is better than cure.
"It is always worth restating that exercising every day, cessation of smoking, eating healthily and moderate alcohol intake are the most important measures a person can do to reduce their future risk of cancer or cardiovascular disease.
"A healthy, varied diet, with fruit and vegetables, is all that families require to stay healthy. Vitamin and mineral supplementation is not recommended apart from certain situations such as folate supplementation in women of child-bearing age, attempting to conceive.
"Basically exercising well, having a healthy diet, avoiding smoking (particularly around children) and maintaining a stress-free environment is the best way to a healthy family."
Dr Cliodhna Foley Nolan of Safefood says children need a healthy diet and there are some tried and tested ways to ensuring this happens.
1 Offer a varied diet to children.
2 Give them age-appropriate portion sizes.
3 Don't force children to finish all food on their plate.
4 Include more fruit and vegetables in their diets.
5 Offer less processed foods.
6 Eat together as a family as often as possible.
"We also need to try and get children involved in food at home - whether it's setting the table for dinner, washing things like potatoes, vegetables or salad leaves, measuring out ingredients, mashing foods or tidying up, there is plenty that children of all ages can do," she says. "This makes food part of the family routine and also gives them a sense of responsibility and self-worth. These tips may sound very ordinary but there's lots of evidence to say that they work."
The nutrition expert says because lunch provides a third of our daily nutritional needs, it's important to put some planning into it. Parents should try to include the following in their child's lunch box every day:
• One or two portions of starchy foods like bread, bagel or wrap (wholegrain or brown ideally).
• One or more portions of fruit and vegetables like apple, orange, banana or berries and vegetables sticks.
• One portion of dairy foods like milk, cheese or yoghurt.
• Small amounts of foods high in protein, for example, lean meat and chicken, tuna or salmon or vegetarian options like egg or hummus.
• A small bottle of water instead of fruit juice drinks or fizzy drinks.
PRACTICE WHAT YOU PREACH
"The saying about the apple not falling far from the tree is really appropriate - if parents set a positive example in what they eat themselves, children will do the same," says Dr Foley Nolan. "Changes to routine can be a challenge so it's important for parents to create routines which suit their family and to try to do it gradually.
1 Don't have treats every day, just once or twice a week.
2 Reward with non-food treats like a favourite activity.
3 Give age-appropriate sized meals and snacks and drink water or milk rather than sweetened drinks.
4 Make family meal-times technology-free and lead by example.
5 Focus on enjoying healthier options and don't remonstrate too much about any unhealthier choices.
6 The key thing to remember with any changes is to try and persist with them - it can take up to 10 times before you succeed. The more frequently children can try healthier foods, the more likely they will eat them.
SPEND TIME TOGETHER
Child psychologist, Dr David Carey says the simple gift of eating together as a family without distraction is vitally important to emotional wellbeing.
"Dinner time is a social time," he says. "Nothing is more important to family life than a time to sit, eat and chat. It's difficult enough for working parents to find the opportunity to sit with their children as everyone is too busy, but I can't recommend strongly enough that a family should sit and eat at the table without needless distractions.
"On a similar note, all children want to be close to the warmth of the sun and the parent(s) is the sun. Finding a few minutes with each child to have a chat or just sit and cuddle is the best gift a parent can give."
"A positive state of emotions is one of the best preventive medicines imaginable - it boosts the immune system and strengthens the psychological wellbeing of the individual," says Dr Carey. "Life can throw difficulties and upset at us so trying to find time to reflect on the good things is important. I urge people to sit and spend five minutes each day remembering the many gifts and blessings that have been visited on them. It is the best thing you can do for your mind and spirit."