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Six simple lifestyle changes which could help you feel better and live longer

Doctors have discovered a new generation of ‘medicines’ that will prolong life and prevent – or in some cases, reverse – diabetes, heart disease, cancer, stroke and other killers.

They will also reduce the risk of life-limiting conditions such as dementia, arthritis, depression and COPD.

There are no nasty side-effects, no major shortages – and they will even be able to help protect against viruses like Covid-19.

It may sound too good to be true, but there really is a proven prescription for a healthier, happier and longer life –
and it’s based on six simple ‘lifestyle medicines’.

Dr Shireen Kassam, consultant haematologist at King’s College Hospital in London and an expert in lifestyle medicines, explains: “Around 80% of the illnesses we deal with could be prevented by a lifestyle approach.”

The evidence is so overwhelming that earlier this year the Pharmaceutical Journal – the bible of the medicines industry – backed this approach with a special series on lifestyle medicine.

However, research for Puressentiel, which makes health-enhancing essential oil products, found 70% of consumers had not heard of lifestyle medicines – although two-thirds said they would give them a go.

Dr Rob Lawson, a GP who founded the British Society of Lifestyle Medicine says the benefits will depend on your age, general health and the personal ‘prescription’ you adopt – but gains are guaranteed.

here are six strands to lifestyle medicine – a healthy diet, regular physical activity, getting enough good quality sleep, minimising stress, building strong community ties and supportive relationships, and reducing your exposure to toxins.

“It’s all common sense stuff,” says Dr Kassam. “But we have become so removed from what is healthy, most of our focus is on sick-care, not healthcare.”

So, how can we put this prescription for health and happiness into effect? Dr Lawson says the key is to make sustainable changes and turn them into habits.

“It doesn’t take that much to go from being completely inactive to being a little more active, but in six to eight weeks you will notice real improvements.”

There will be knock-on benefits, too – for instance, getting more exercise will reduce stress, improve sleep and aid weight loss – so the positives soon add up. Here’s how you can start writing your own prescription for health and happiness.

1.Food for thought

A fridge full of fruit and veg won't hurt

Everyone knows we should eat at least five servings of fruit and vegetables a day, and one study estimated that it will add a year to your life – yet only 28% of adults are hitting this target.

Make the effort to eat just one more serving a day and go for different colours to ensure a variety of nutrients.

Dr Kassam and Dr Lawson both advise against eating ultra-processed foods. These are manufactured foods with ingredients such as colourings, artificial flavourings, preservatives and sweeteners you wouldn’t add if you were cooking them at home.

There is increasing evidence fibre is important, too. In 2015, the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition advised we should increase our intakes to 30g a day – 50% more than average consumption – to reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes and bowel cancer. Wholegrain cereals are a good source of fibre, and switching to wholemeal pasta and brown rice is another way to increase intake

2.Work it out

Exercise for all ages is important
Exercise for all ages is important

Just 15 minutes of exercise a day could add three years to your life, research involving more than 400,000 adults estimated. Another study in the British Medical Journal estimates walking an hour or more a day will add 1.4 years for men and 1.2 for women.

The official advice is we should all get at least 150 minutes of moderate-
intensity activity, or 75 minutes of intense activity, every week.

This should include at least two workouts that include strengthening exercises to work the major muscle groups.

“Anything is better than nothing,” says Dr Lawson. One step in the right direction is to avoid sitting for more than an hour at a time.

Being sedentary for an hour or more activates metabolic changes that raise the risk of diabetes and heart disease.

Researchers at the University of Leicester calculate middle-aged adults who sit for more than nine hours a day double their risk of an early death.

Stand up for phone calls – this will burn 50 calories an hour more than if you were sitting.

And do stretches while boiling the kettle – one study found 20 minutes of stretching cut blood sugar by 16% and increased heart rate by 17%.

3. Sleep sound

Getting plenty of sleep is vital
Getting plenty of sleep is vital

Getting less than five hours’ sleep a night doubles the risk of death from heart disease or stroke, according to one large study, and others have shown it accelerates ageing. But don’t nap for too long.

A study of 1.1 million adults found those who slept 8.5 hours or more were 15% more likely to die within six years than those who got six or seven hours shuteye.

Apart from giving the body time for rest and repair, sleep helps regulate glucose metabolism and blood pressure.

Insufficient sleep has been shown to raise the risk of obesity, in part because it suppresses production of the hormones ghrelin and leptin, which curb appetite.

Sleep plays a big part in our mental health, too.

Significant UK research found 80% of people with depression also suffered sleep problems – twice the number who had no mood issues. Routine is the key to a good night’s sleep. Avoid screens and bright lights for an hour or so before bedtime. Make a conscious effort to unwind with gentle stretches and deep slow breaths.

You can also search the NHS website for free sleep apps.

4. Stress less

Working in a stressful environment can take 33 years off your life, say researchers at America’s Harvard University. Closer to home, a Department of Health report estimated having a positive outlook adds between four and 10 years.

Constantly raised levels of stress hormones, such as cortisol, fuel
inflammation. Stress has also been shown to impair immunity and slow wound healing.

MRI scans show positive changes in brain activity in people who have meditated regularly for two months.

Exercise is another effective way to unwind – one UK study in 20,000 adults reported that a 20-minute workout or brisk walk reduces the risk of anxiety and stress by 40%.

5. Friends for life

Dozens of studies confirm people who have strong bonds with family and friends have fewer health problems and live longer than those who don’t.

Firm friendships actually alter our body chemistry, reducing blood pressure and C-reactive protein – a marker for inflammation.

Try not to let the Covid-19 lockdown cut ties – pick up the phone, or connect via Skype and other video calling software. See if there is an online game you can share with a friend or family member.

6. Toxic habits

Smoking has to be given the boot
Smoking has to be given the boot

People who smoke 20 or more cigarettes a day cut their lives short by an average of 13 years, and one in four smokers will die before their 65th birthday, one large study reported.

There has never been a better time to quit – data from China shows more
men than women have died from coronavirus because men are far more likely to smoke.

A study in the British Medical Journal showed quitting before the age of 35 eliminates almost all the extra risk, and stopping before 45 avoids most of it.

Drinking too much could cut five years off your life. Researchers who investigated the drinking habits of 600,000 people in 19 countries found having 10 or more drinks a week will shorten your life by one to two years.

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