Time to focus on your health

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To help improve your health in the New Year, doctors, academics and health organisations offer up their top resolutions

Be a quitter

TV doctor Hilary Jones points out that quitting smoking is one of the most effective ways a person can improve their health. When people give up tobacco, their circulation and respiration improve within a month and, depending on how heavy a smoker they’ve been, the risk of heart disease and lung cancer become similar to that of a lifelong non-smoker within just a few years: “If you haven’t already, this is the year to quit smoking. It’s the greatest single step you can take to ensure future good health, and hundreds of thousands of other smokers have now successfully done this,” he says.

:: Visit www.nhs.uk/smokefree to find out more about the NHS Quit Kit.

Out from the desk

It can be a struggle for office-bound workers to find time to exercise, say experts, and as a result, fitness levels can suffer. The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) suggests both employees and employers resolve to make health in the workplace a priority in the New Year.

Professor Mike Kelly, public health director at NICE, points out that physical activity is essential for good health, contributing to both physical and mental wellbeing. It also helps to prevent or manage conditions including heart disease, diabetes, some cancers and obesity.

“Workers aren’t always active enough to benefit their health, so we’re recommending ways that employers can encourage staff to increase their levels of physical activity on their way to work, or during the day.”

These include providing information about walking or cycling routes and encouraging employees to walk or cycle some or all of the way to and from work, and also putting up signs to encourage staff to use the stairs.

Becoming more active is also recommended by Arthritis Research UK, who have funded research exploring the connection between healthy bodies and pain-free joints.

“This year we’re recommending that instead of relying on painkillers, people with back pain try yoga,” says Professor Alan Silman, medical director at Arthritis Research UK, who points out that 80% of the population suffer from back pain at some point in their lives.

“Yoga provides real, positive benefits for people with chronic low back pain, plus there are no side effects.”

:: For more information on the Yoga For Healthy Lower Backs programme, visit www.yogaforbacks.co.uk

Food for thought

Feeding your body a nutritious diet goes hand in hand with maintaining physical fitness. But it can be easier said than done. One way to maintain healthy eating resolutions is by keeping a food diary, suggest MEND (Mind, Exercise, Nutrition... Do it!), who run family healthy eating and fitness programmes.

They suggest writing down everything you eat and drink after it’s consumed, and then you can begin identifying your dietary strengths and weaknesses. For example, you might notice a tendency to snack at certain points in the day or recognise there’s not enough nutritional variety in your diet.

“Only once we identify the factors impacting on our food choices and patterns - and see when and why we’re doing things the way we are - can we work on breaking any habits contributing to them,” says Lucy Hannagan of MEND.

“Whether you’re trying to lose weight in the New Year, or just get healthier by increasing your five-a-day of fruit and vegetables, keeping a food diary can help.”

In addition, dehydration can be a reason people choose to snack, as they mistake thirst for hunger. Dr Roger Henderson points out that dehydration can also lead to more severe symptoms such as fatigue and headaches, and is a more common problem than many realise.

“Drink more water,” he stresses. “I’m aiming to make sure I always have a glass by me when working during 2012.”

Check it out

As well as taking steps to improve your health at the start of 2012, it may be an idea to check your current physical condition. Adults who have not seen their GP for three years are entitled to a general health check-up. This will usually include height and weight measurements, a blood pressure check, and cholesterol and blood sugar tests.

In addition, the British Dental Health Foundation (BDHF) suggest an oral examination.

“There’s an increasing body of clinical evidence of the systemic links between poor oral health and some of the biggest causes of serious poor health and death in the UK,” stresses chief executive Dr Nigel Carter. Gum disease, he explains, may contribute to a furring of the arteries, which can cause heart disease. Also, those with gum disease are nearly twice as likely to develop diabetes.

A resolution to maintain good oral health, he suggests, should include brushing teeth with fluoride toothpaste for two minutes twice a day, cleaning in between your teeth using interdental brushes or floss, cutting down on sugary foods and drinks, and visiting the dentist regularly.

Another area that people can overlook is their skin, say the British Association of Dermatologists (BAD). The organisation suggests people resolve to check their skin regularly (at least once a month) for any new moles, or a mole that’s changing rapidly, as well as changes to patches of skin.

Parents are also advised to send their children for regular eye tests by the Childhood Eye Cancer Trust. This will not only pick up any problems with vision, but also signs of more serious eye conditions.

Finally, resolve to check your medicine cabinet, suggests Leyla Hannbeck of the National Pharmacy Association (NPA). A recent survey found many people never check their medicines are still in date, she points out.

“The New Year can be a good time to have a clear out of your cabinet. Medicines can become increasingly less effective once they pass their expiry date,” she says.

:: Visit www.bad.org.uk/sunawareness for information on checking your skin.