The key to better health is in taking small steps
Are you one of the many people who want to prioritise their health this year but are sick of the pressure of having punishing – and largely unachievable – goals? Here are half a dozen wellness-enhancing steps we could all embrace
:: TALK ABOUT YOUR WORRIES
We will all face challenges and low periods (no matter how glittering things look on social media). Rates of anxiety and depression have risen; some 70 million work days a year are lost due to mental illness (including stress) according to the Mental Health Foundation, and suicide remains the biggest cause of death in men aged under 49 – in fact, men account for three-quarters of all suicide deaths, yet they're still less likely to talk about their mental health or seek support than women. Whether it's a chat with a friend, your GP, opening up to a stranger on a helpline, or finding solace with people going through similar experiences on an internet forum – find the space that works for you and simply talk about it.
:: DITCH DIETS
We all know that diets can be a vicious cycle, setting you up for mood swings and often greater weight gain – and just recently, a US study found women who yo-yo dieted had a higher risk of sudden cardiac death and coronary heart diseases. Obviously, it's not a good idea to dismiss healthy eating and pay no attention to your weight, but it doesn't have to be complicated and punishing. Pay attention to guidelines (they are based on research!), eat like you care, enjoy the good stuff in moderation, and relax.
"You can guarantee that as soon as you ban a certain food, you will get cravings for it," says Shona Wilkinson, nutritionist at SuperfoodUK.com. "It's worth bearing in mind that most foods have some health benefits (except the processed, sugary types). You can therefore still have most foods, but save some for occasional treats. For example, it isn't beneficial for health to eat red meat every day, but certainly the occasional steak with vegetables is great. By limiting your intake of a particular thing, rather than cutting it out, you can save yourself the torment of cravings. Eat sensibly, practice 'mindful' eating and you can't go wrong."
:: EXIT THE OFFICE CAKE TRAP
Barely a week goes by in our office when somebody isn't slicing cake and offering it round. Unless you have willpower of steal it can be hard to resist (even when you don't want the cake, you'd rather cram it down than cause offence), and apparently it's contributing to our obesity epidemic and poor dental health, which is why the faculty of dental surgery (FDS) at the Royal College of Surgeons is urging employers to help tackle workplace 'cake culture'.
There's nothing wrong with enjoying the occasional slice of cake, but this is a very real example of how easy it can be to lose control of good intentions when you're in a group, or your environment doesn't support them. Chances are you're not the only one in the office concerned about the repercussions of scoffing cake and biscuits on a daily basis, so why not make a pact with colleagues to bring in healthy snacks and limit treats? And nobody's allowed to ask the dreaded, 'Oh, are you on a diet?' if somebody says no to a red velvet cupcake...
:: MOVE YOUR BODY
If you haven't already, make 2017 the year you fall in love with moving your body. It's a solidly established fact that people who are regularly physically active have a significantly lower risk of major diseases like type 2 diabetes, many cancers and heart disease – and there's a wealth of evidence that exercise supports mental health too. Aside from that, it feels good to feel fit. You're more awake, motivated, life's more fun and manageable and you and your body are working together. Find the 'thing' that feels like a joy, rather than a chore – whether it's country walks, dancing, skipping in the garden or ultra-marathons – and just do it. Do it for you, make it a habit and keep at it.
:: CURATE YOUR SOCIAL MEDIA
Does browsing Facebook leave you on a bit of a downer? Battling fomo (Fear Of Missing Out) attacks, questioning why everyone else's life looks better than yours? Or maybe it brings out a mean streak and you succumb to tutting and judging others' over-sharing or bragging. Newsflash: You're in the driving seat here. Nobody's forcing you to look at Facebook or Instagram, or feel bad afterwards. If it's impacting your self-esteem and moods, do something about it – 'un-follow', 'hide', or just have a break entirely, even if it's just for a week. Social media should enhance your life, not zap the joy out of it – but that's only going to happen if you take control of how you're using and engaging with it.
:: DON'T PUT OFF SEEING YOUR DOCTOR
Hassle, waiting time, embarrassed about making a fuss or fearing the worst – there are tons of reasons we put off seeing the doctor (and statistics back up the cliche that men are worst for this). And of course, certain things – colds, flu and standard sickness bugs, primarily – don't warrant a trip to the GP (you'll just be wasting your time and spreading germs), but most of the time, if it's worrying you, if you're in pain, find any unusual lumps or bumps, and especially if symptoms are worse or still there after a week, just make an appointment.
Dr Martin Saweirs (www.drmartingp.com), who's also a GP for the medical helpline Dr Morton's (www.drmortons.co.uk), is well aware that some people have a habit of not going to the doctor. "The trouble is, what happens is they either don't go for one or two little things, which then become bigger things and more difficult to deal with. Or they come along with their one little thing and they're really embarrassed – but generally, anybody who comes to the doctor with anything they're embarrassed about has such self-awareness that I can assure them there's always someone with something far more embarrassing," he stresses.
A chat with the doc will help prevent you from falling down the Dr Google rabbit-hole of dread too – whatever the symptoms, "one of the things that always comes up is cancer", notes Saweirs. Although, if you do have something that could be cancer, getting it properly checked ASAP is always a good idea.
:: MAKE 'ME TIME' A RULE
Stress is the 'modern plague', and don't we know it. Yes, we're more privileged than ever before, but sensory overload, long working hours and always being 'connected' (thanks smartphones) is leaving us frazzled and on the brink of burn-out. So banish the guilt, and accept that 'me time', 'down time' – whatever you want to call it – is a necessity. Read books, do crosswords, potter around the house with your phone switched off...