Thursday 18 July 2019

20 microchanges to improve your life in 2018

Make the most of the new year by picking up some healthy habits, writes Alice Barraclough

Take small steps to improve you wellbeing in 2018
Take small steps to improve you wellbeing in 2018
Small, regular acts of kindness could help you live a longer, healthier life

While it's somewhat unlikely that 2018 will be the year you decide to run 20 miles every day, triple your salary, travel the entire world, and never touch chocolate cake again, you'll be pleased to know that however hectic your life may already be, you can make tiny tweaks in order to improve your health and wellbeing.

The microchanges that follow are designed to be relatively easy to bring into action. They don't require you to fork out silly amounts of cash, swap a social life for a gym addiction, or stick to such a restrictive diet that you start to view a glass of orange juice as a treat. But they should all result in healthy, positive results. Here's how to make a microchange for the better...


1 Fix your wake-up time - How much sleep did you get last night? Probably not enough. One in three of us suffers from poor sleep. And while those early starts may be inevitable, binge-watching Netflix until 3am is depriving us of the eight hours sleep we need to function properly.

Small, regular acts of kindness could help you live a longer, healthier life
Small, regular acts of kindness could help you live a longer, healthier life

Sleep expert Neil Stanley describes sleep as a biological necessity: "We know the more sleepy you are, the more you crave sugary and fatty foods," he says. "So if you're trying to diet, you optimise your chances if you get your sleep sorted."

Sleep is the foundation of good mental and physical health. It underpins everything we do, so if you're looking for a simple and effective way of improving your health, you need to prioritise sleep. "One of the biggest changes you can make is to fix your wake-up time," advises Dr Stanley. "Your brain and body start preparing to wake up approximately 90 minutes before you actually wake up. If you fix your wake up time seven days a week, your body then gets into a routine of waking up and being prepared to start the day, so you don't feel groggy and slow."

2 Walk to work - It's free, it can zap your stress, and all you need is a comfy pair of shoes. So why not walk to work? Or, if the office is too far, to your local supermarket? Exercise doesn't have to be a painful and sweaty event, all you have to do is commit to moving.

"My number one tip is to move more," says personal trainer and co-founder of the female fitness group #GirlGains, Tally Rye. "Moving doesn't necessarily mean working out, just aim to increase your steps every day. If you can walk instead of drive to work, or go for a stroll at lunch, it makes such a difference - especially if you've got a desk job." Time to lace up those trainers and start moving.

3 Swap coffee for the stairs - Are you guilty of using the lift all the time? Or standing on the right hand side of the escalator instead of walking up? Take the stairs instead. The journal Physiology and Behaviour revealed this year that 10 minutes of walking up and down the stairs has a more beneficial effect on energy levels than a 50mg shot of caffeine. So, next time you're feeling a little sleepy before a major meeting, leave a little earlier and substitute your coffee for the stairs.

4 Drink more (water) - "Make sure you're staying hydrated and drinking plenty of water," says personal trainer Rye. "I'm talking two litres every day - not soft drinks. Water.

"We often talk about exercise, but not recovery. In the new year people end up running themselves into the ground - they'll go to the gym 10 days in a row, and then just crash and burn because they can't sustain it. Your rest is just as important as your training, so make sure you're sleeping well, drinking lots of water and taking time off from the gym. Think quality of workouts over quantity of workouts."

Health experts advise that in climates such as our own we should be drinking around one to two litres of water every day to avoid dehydration. That's roughly six to eight glasses.

5 Recruit a gym buddy - Some things in life are just better in pairs, so if you're lacking motivation, ask a friend to work out with you.

"Make it a social event," says Rye. "Instead of meeting up for a coffee with your friends, why don't you go for a walk? Or instead of going for a drink, why not do a fitness class together and get a smoothie afterwards? I think a lot of people associate social time as time in the bar drinking. Try to change your mindset a bit."

6 Get burpee-ing - Equipment-free, these full-body, do-anywhere exercises are an intense workout. Used by both the military and elite athletes, burpees can be pretty gruelling. But if you're setting yourself a challenge to feel a little stronger every day, why not start off with a couple of minutes of burpees to release those feel-good chemicals?

Nike master trainer Faisal Abdalla says that burpees - in all their forms - are hated by most of his clients. "They are super tough," he admits. "But they are a fantastic, explosive full-body exercise which you can do anywhere to get your heart thumping and your body pumping. Getting active with even a minute's worth of burpees is a great stress reliever to get the endorphins flowing and is a simple way to boost your positive mental attitude."

7 Stretch it out - Tired of waking up in the morning feeling sluggish or constantly tight? Chances are you're not stretching - something which not only helps prevent your body from injury, but also adds mobility.

International yoga teacher and influencer Patrick Beach says he does little stretches almost daily while watching TV. "Roll up a yoga mat, place your shins on the ground (preferably on the carpet), setting up for hero's pose, place the rolled up yoga mat on your calves and sit back on it," he explains. "This is very intense and great for relieving muscle knots in the legs and releasing the hamstrings."

And if you don't have a yoga mat, Beach suggests simply sitting in a yogi squat position. After all, sculpting your legs with squats doesn't have to mean hitting the weights.

"This is great for relieving low back pain and opening up the hips," he says. "Make sure the toes and knees are pointing in the same direction to protect the knees. If it is too challenging to sit the hips all the way towards the back of the Achilles tendon, sit the hips as low as possible and support them with a prop."

8 Work out in the adverts - Glued to the TV? Keep making excuses about it being too cold to go for a run? "Do push-ups during the breaks of your favourite TV programme," says Beach. "It's one of the quickest ways to get strong without even noticing it. If there are four commercial breaks or adverts during any programming and you do 25 push-ups during those breaks, magically you are doing 100 per day."

9 Improve your balance - Better balance can improve your fitness levels. The more stable your feet and leg muscles are, the more strength and power you'll be able to produce throughout the rest of your body. Try standing on one foot and just closing your eyes - perhaps when waiting for dinner to finish cooking in the oven, or even when brushing your teeth.

"This is a great activity to do barefoot," says Beach. "We often neglect our foot strength because the majority of us wear shoes 24 hours a day, but it is key to balance and stability. Try standing on one foot with your eyes closed for 30-45 seconds and feel how challenging balance can really be."

10 Go green - Medical doctor turned science and health writer Dr Stuart Farrimond says, "If you can't get out for a stroll at lunchtime, then put a pot plant in your office".

"A grey, air-conditioned workspace can sap the spirit and may damage the body," he says. "Flu-like symptoms, headache, dizziness, eye, nose or throat irritation, dry cough, itchy skin, fatigue and difficulty concentrating have all been attributed to indoor living.

"Simply inhaling the vapours given off by soil bacteria boosts levels of the 'happy hormone' serotonin, research has shown, and there is evidence that the natural hues of plant life have their own inherent soothing effects."

As for the type of pot plant, "the bigger and bushier, the better," says Dr Farrimond.

"Not only will the air quality improve, but providing it is in your line of sight, it has been shown to lower anxiety and improve concentration."

11 Ditch the fad diets - "Evidence shows that they almost never work," says Rye. "It's like anything - slow and steady wins the race. If you're looking for quick fixes, they don't exist, and they shouldn't exist. So, if you do get a supposed result, it won't last."

If you're looking for lasting impact with your health and fitness journey, think small steps every day, little changes and tweaks to your habits and eventually it all becomes part of your lifestyle and you won't think twice about it.

"'Alkaline', 'whole30', 'raw food', and the Dukan diet are tipped to be the next smoking hot foodie trends - but crucially, all are skinny on the science," explains Dr Farrimond.

"Diets that exclude a food group, or insist you focus on a 'superfood' can be lacking vital nutrients, leaving you undernourished and feeling washed out. Almost all fad diets are unsustainable, and research shows that these dieters typically end up weighing more in the long run."

12 Detox your kitchen - Make healthy eating easier by clearing out all the junk food in your kitchen - if it's not there, you can't eat it. We're talking about ice cream, alcohol, chocolate, sugary granola (all the good stuff, basically).

Set aside one hour to purge your kitchen - schedule it in your diary if you need to - and chuck out all the processed foods.

Registered nutritionist and author of The Runner's Cookbook, Anita Bean, says: "Keep worktops clear of all foods and keep only healthy food on view. Seeing healthy food like fruit makes it more likely that you'll eat it.

"Conversely, you'll be less likely to eat treats and snacks if they're out of sight. Organise your fridge shelves so that fruit and veg are at eye level and easy to grab rather than hidden in the bottom salad drawer, and keep healthy snacks like nuts in clear containers on the worktop."

13 Eat the colours of the rainbow - Is there anything more unappealing than beige food? Colourful plates of food not only look delicious, but eating a variety of different fruits and vegetables will feed your body all the essential nutrients. It's an easy route to a healthy diet.

"Try to eat at least 20 different fruit, vegetables, whole grains and pulses a week," says Bean. "Diversity is key because each contains different nutrients that the gut thrives on.

"Boosting your gut health by eating more plant-based foods is not only good for your physical health but could also benefit your mental health. Plant-based foods increase the number of 'good' gut micro-organisms, which produce and regulate hundreds of mood-controlling chemicals - an imbalance in your gut flora is linked to anxiety and depression."

14 Go nuts - "Add a small handful of nuts to your daily diet," says Bean. "Studies have found that people who eat at least 20g of nuts daily lower their chances of getting heart disease by 30pc, cancer by 15pc and type 2 diabetes by 40pc. They also have a 22pc lower risk of premature death. The type of nut you eat doesn't matter - they are all protective against heart disease, thanks to their high content of fibre, magnesium and unsaturated fats."

So, unless you're allergic, nuts - whether almonds, walnuts or pistachios - are a healthy addition to your diet.

15 Get lean over a big brunch - Ditch the limp toast for breakfast and Tupperware boxes filled with leftovers for lunch, and fuel up at brunch instead. While most of us wait until the evening to eat the biggest meal of our day, health experts say that eating the bulk of your calories earlier in the day means you're more likely to have a lower BMI than those who eat their biggest meal at lunch or dinner.

16 Rub your heart - Meditation has been found to drastically reduce high stress levels and anxiety. Wellbeing influencer, meditation expert and inspirational speaker Jody Shield says a really simple way of meditating for five minutes is by "just placing one hand on your heart's centre - the space in the middle of your chest - and just rubbing. Just rub it to get that connection to yourself. Close your eyes and take some deep breaths and get lost in that experience."

Another simple and short meditation you can do, is to find somewhere really comfortable, close your eyes and take some really nice, deep breaths. "Imagine breathing into your cells," says Shield. "Just gently notice which part of the body you're breathing into - usually the chest - and notice how it rises and falls."

There are three times to meditate in the day (you don't have to do this every day, but there are three opportunities): morning, lunch time and evening. "Lunch time is more of a re-charge," she explains. "Just set aside five minutes to close your laptop and focus on your breath because it completely re-sets your whole system."

17 Unwind before bed - It's important to give yourself at least half an hour to switch off before you go to bed. "Try to keep the bedroom free of technology," says Shield. "When you're lying in bed just find a couple of things which you're really grateful for - these should be things that don't prompt any emotion - so neutral things such as 'I'm really grateful for this pillow which is supporting me while I'm sleeping' or 'I'm really grateful for this cosy duvet, it's so warm'. Of course, these are things you're grateful for anyway. Gratitude is a really transformational energy - try to be grateful for the not-so-great things in your life."

18 Write it down - While some may argue keeping a hand-written diary is a lost art, there is something emotionally empowering about writing a to-do list and ticking each item off, once completed. "Write down the one thing you want to achieve today," says Shield. "So if you have a long to-do list for the day, extract the one most important thing and write it at the top of the page. Just focus on that one thing. It's so simple and it's really changed my life."

19 Give a little more - Small, regular acts of kindness could help you live a longer, healthier life. While the festive gift-giving season will be over as soon as January rolls round, it doesn't mean you can't add some selflessness into the daily grind.

"Generosity and an outward-looking attitude have more health benefits than there are types of greetings cards: better sleep, lowered levels of stress hormones and reduced blood pressure, less anxiety and depression, a reduced risk of heart attack, less pain, better relationships, and an overall happier and longer life," says Dr Farrimond.

"When you perform an act of kindness that comes at a costs to you (in time, money or possessions), there is a release of the 'happy hormones' serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin. They wash through your brain and bloodstream to you with a warm glow that just keeps on giving."

20 Unfriend social media - If Ed Sheeran can do it, so can you. We are all guilty of mindlessly scrolling through Instagram, just because. Or spending hours in front of a screen chatting to mates, instead of actually seeing them in person. So why not unsubscribe and take a digital detox?

"Research is streaming onto the newsfeed to show that unfriending your favourite social media platform could be one of the best decisions you make in 2018," says Dr Farrimond. "It is supposed to make communication easier, but unlike face-to-face interactions, social media technology usually strips away the nourishment of the relationship. Social media use is linked to increased rates and depression and anxiety, while encouraging a more negative self-image (courtesy of constant comparisons with others' beautiful lives)."

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