It feels good to close the door on 2020 and welcome a fresh start.
Most of us will probably admit spending a little more time in front of the TV and less time exercising – unless you count trips to the fridge.
And all of us would likely acknowledge the toll that 2020 has taken on our mental and physical health.
As a general practitioner, I’m keenly aware of the health issues that can result from changes in eating patterns, limited physical activity, lack of sleep and stress.
I also know how important it is for patients to get regular health check-ups with the doctor – something many may have put off during the pandemic.
But 2021 is a new start and a good opportunity to make small lifestyle changes that will make a big difference to your overall health.
When we talk about maintaining good health, we all talk about diet and exercise but often forget about sleep and stress. So, let’s start there.
Getting enough sleep is crucial. Stick to a regular bedtime and wake up time (hopefully at least eight hours apart!). Create a bedtime routine.
Put down the screens at least 30 minutes before bed and do something quiet instead, like reading a book or some gentle stretching.
Avoid alcohol – that extra glass of wine might make you sleepy, but it won’t help you sleep. You’re more likely to toss and turn through the night, not sleep as deeply and wake up feeling lethargic. And while we’re on the topic of beverages, keep the coffees to one or two before lunch time.
Lastly, incorporating some physical activity into your day will also help you sleep, as well as offering other huge health benefits – but more on that later.
The next big contributor to physical and mental health issues, including weight gain, is stress – and what a year for that it’s been! Our collective stress level is through the roof. Acknowledging that it’s been tough is step one – and it’s important to cut yourself a bit of slack. Then, make some small tweaks to start feeling better. You’ll be pleased to hear that the same tips for improving your sleep will reduce stress.
Once you’ve nailed those, adding in some more focused relaxation time might help. For some people, that’s a mindfulness podcast or app. For others, it’s yoga. Or perhaps running or swimming is your way to zone out and refocus the mind?
When we’re stressed, often the first things we stop doing are the things that replenish us. So, when you start feeling a little off, remember to reconnect with loved ones, fuel your body with nutritious food, keep up your exercise routine, and do things you normally enjoy.
Now, let’s talk about diet. If you’ve found yourself at home more and the fridge is mere footsteps away, then it’s important it’s stocked with nutritious snacks – not full of tempting treats. Eat real food, but not too much of it. For more specific advice, see your GP who may refer you to a dietitian for support and guidance, particularly if you’ve got other health issues like diabetes, polycystic ovarian syndrome or irritable bowel syndrome. If you’re trying to shift a few kilos or want advice on the best foods to fuel your new weightlifting plan, get some professional advice to help navigate the overwhelming amount of dietary advice out there and separate fact from fad.
And last but certainly not least, exercise. I must say that of all the people I see through my clinic, those who have a generally active lifestyle tend to do better in many aspects of their health. Not all of us love getting sweaty in the gym, and that’s OK. Let’s reframe it as ‘activity’ not exercise. It doesn’t matter what you do, just get moving. Walking is great for your heart health. Some more intense cardio activity to get your heart rate up is recommended at least three days per week. And don’t forget about resistance training.
Building lean muscle mass can help with sleep, mood and appetite. Many people also find it an easier way to get into the habit of regular training. You don’t need to be a body builder, but adding pilates, body weight work, or some weight training can be a fun way to build muscle. Remember that incidental exercise is important – if you’re at the office, park further away or walk if you can. At home, a lap of the block before and after your workday is a great way to separate work from home. And regardless of where you are, regularly finding a few minutes throughout your day to get moving is important.
While you’re thinking about health as we head in to 2021, check in with your GP to talk about lifestyle and make sure your screening is up to date – for women that’s cervical screening (pap smears) and breast screening. For men, a discussion about prostate cancer. And for everyone over 50, remember to do the bowel screening kit that comes in the mail – it’s not as tricky or gross as it sounds and could save your life. Everyone aged 45-49 should see their GP at least once in that time for a comprehensive check-up of physical and mental health, particularly a heart disease risk assessment. Your GP can then point you in the direction of other team members who can help you make the changes you want to.
You don’t need to achieve “perfection” in all of this all at once – making some small adjustments to your lifestyle can make a big difference to your health and will make further changes easier. Take it one step at a time and see your GP to help along the way – and remember we can talk to you about mental health too!
2021 is a great time to get your health on track.
Originally published as Top health tips and how to reset your body clock in 2021