This is a summary of five major choices that you can make to help stay healthy. The main benefit of these lifestyle choices is that in the future you are less likely to develop heart disease, stroke, diabetes, liver problems, lung problems and certain cancers.
What can I do to help stay healthy?
You should not smoke
If you smoke, stopping smoking is often the single most effective thing that you can do to reduce your risk of future illness. Smoking causes lung cancer and other cancers, and increases your risk of heart disease and stroke. The benefit to health occurs rapidly as soon as you stop smoking (but takes a few years before the increased risk reduces completely). If you find it hard to stop smoking, then see your practice nurse for help. Medication may be advised to help you to stop.
Do some regular physical activity
Recent research has shown that a sedentary lifestyle is very bad for your health. Even small amounts of activity, such as moving around doing light tasks, probably have benefits to health compared with being completely inactive. Research suggests that the greatest benefits of exercise are seen in those who change from an inactive lifestyle to a slightly active lifestyle. So doing even a little bit is worthwhile.
However, it is thought that the more vigorous the activity, the better. Physical activity that gets you mildly out of breath and a little sweaty is fine - for example, jogging, heavy gardening, swimming, cycling, etc. Taking a brisk walk each day is something that many people do. To gain most benefit, you should do at least 30 minutes of physical activity on most days. Two shorter bursts are thought to be just as good - for example, two 15-minute bouts of activity at different times in a day.
Eat a healthy diet
Briefly, a healthy diet means:
- Fruit and vegetables are very important. Current recommendations in the UK are to eat at least five portions of different vegetables and fruit each day; however, the advice in other parts of the world recommends up to ten portions a day. A portion is about a handful.
- A third of most meals should be starch-based foods, such as cereals, bread, potatoes, rice or pasta. Wholegrain cereals or wholemeal bread are more healthy than lower-fibre foods.
- Not too much fatty food, such as fatty meats, cheeses, full-cream milk, fried food, butter, etc.
- Include 2-3 portions of fish per week, at least one of which should be 'oily' (such as herring, mackerel, sardines, kippers, pilchards, salmon, or fresh tuna).
- If you eat meat it is best to eat lean meat, or poultry such as chicken.
- If you do fry, choose a vegetable oil such as sunflower, rapeseed or olive.
- Try not to add salt to food, and limit foods which are salty.
Watch your weight
You don't need to get to a perfect weight. If you are overweight you can gain great health benefits by losing 5-10% of your weight. This is often about 5-10 kg. (10 kg is about one and a half stone.)
The way to lose weight is usually a combination of eating less and exercising more. There are many different weight loss plans to choose from: you are more likely to lose weight successfully if you follow a plan that suits your lifestyle. Changing to a healthier eating pattern which you can maintain once you are happy with your weight is a good way to keep the weight off.
Don't drink too much alcohol
Keep an eye on the amount of alcohol you drink. Men should drink no more than 21 units of alcohol per week, no more than four units in any one day and have at least two alcohol-free days a week. Women should drink no more than 14 units of alcohol per week, no more than three units in any one day and have at least two alcohol-free days a week. Pregnant women should not drink at all.
One unit is in about half a pint of normal-strength beer, or two thirds of a small glass of wine, or one small pub measure of spirits. Most bottles and cans have the number of units of alcohol printed on the label.
Do you want more detail?
See your practice nurse if you want further advice or help on any of the above. Also, there are more detailed leaflets on each of the topics listed above. See also the separate leaflet called Preventing Cardiovascular Diseases for more details.
Dr Tim Kenny
Dr Jan Sambrook
Prof Cathy Jackson