Increasing numbers of people are realising the importance of maintaining and developing theirand eating a healthy balanced diet; they recognize that being fit and well nourished helps them to cope with the stresses and strains of today’s living and to protect their body from disease. More people are prepared to take responsibility for their own health and the health of their family; instead of waiting until they become ill and visiting a doctor, they are recognizing that by making certain choices with regard to diet and levels of physical activity, they can delay or prevent the onset of many health problems and improve their quality of life. This Health and Fitness section provides a complete guide to exercise and nutrition throughout life so that each individual can make informed choices about personal fitness and dietary needs.
The human body is so resilient that it can survive for many years on a diet high in fat, sugar and salt, and low in fibre and many essential micro-nutrients. But, eventually, the body breaks down. A typical Western high-fat, low-fibre diet increases the risk of many serious diseases, including heart disease, stroke, obesity, diabetes, hypertension and some cancers.
These same deadly diseases are also linked to a sedentary lifestyle. As hunter-gatherers, ancient humans were on the move all day long, and it is only in very recent times that machinery, cars, domestic appliances, telephones, computers and televisions have so radically reduced activity levels. In the mid 1990’s, the American College of Sports Medicine reported that 250,000 US citizens die each year as a result of inactivity. And a study of Harvard graduates found that people who are active roughly halve their risk of suffering a heart attack.
When we begin taking regular exercise, our body responds by becoming fitter. Our energy, strength and stamina improve, so daily tasks, such as lifting and carrying heavy items, become far less tiring. Gradually, we lose excess body fat; our mood improves; we look better; we enjoy sex more; we sleep better. In addition, we gradually reduce our risk of serious disease, and so feel less anxious about the future. Improving fitness by eating the right kind of food and increasing activity levels can dramatically improve our overall wellbeing. Improved fitness enables the body to function at its best, so that we can live life to the full. And maintaining fitness into later life promotes longevity and improves quality of life.
MAXIMUM BENEFITS FOR MINIMUM EFFORT
Making lifestyle changes is not easy. A person who has a sedentary lifestyle may find taking more exercise to be a challenge that, at first, makes her feel more tired. But the body rapidly responds to increased levels of activity, the tiredness soon passes and the individual notices how expending more energy actually makes her feel more energetic.
You do not need to run a marathon to improve your fitness. Simply incorporating a brisk 20-minute walk into your day helps to improve the fitness of the heart and lungs, strengthen the legs, promote bone-building, burn body fat and improve general health levels. Gradually, you can reduce your risk of many major diseases, including heart disease and stroke.
Brisk walking is excellent aerobic exercise. But for all-round fitness, muscular fitness andshould also be improved. It is important to exercise in ways that build all three components of fitness – for instance, running for aerobic fitness, weight-training for muscular fitness and Yoga or Tai Chi for flexibility.
Combining activities in this way helps you to achieve maximum health benefits in the minimum amount of time. This approach also reduces boredom, so you are more likely to adhere to your exercise routine. For exercise to be effective, it should not be taken up and then abandoned; it must be practised regularly throughout life.
TAILORING ACTIVITY TO YOUR LIFESTYLE
It can be daunting to organize and adhere to an exercise programme. However, according to the US Center for Disease Control, the important point is that we try to accumulate 30 minutes or more of moderate to intense physical activity most days of the week. The basic principle is simply to become more active – taking the stairs instead of the lift, getting off the bus early and walking further to work or performing some floor exercises or stretches while watching television. Every little helps, and shorter periods of exercise can be added together to make the overall total.
If you choose activities that you enjoy and are able to fit into your way of life, you are more likely to maintain an appropriate level of physical activity. There are many routes to fitness and a wide range of activities to suit the interest, lifestyle, personality and fitness goals of different individuals. Possibilities include team games, solitary activities, outdoor sports and a great variety of classes where you can practise activities as diverse as aerobics and the martial arts. The Eastern approach to exercise can be uniquely satisfying because it unites body and mind, incorporating a spiritual dimension into physical discipline.
ESTABLISHING REALISTIC GOALS
If you have not exercised for some years, it is vital to assess your current health status honestly so that you can establish realistic goals and monitor your progress. Expert guidance is essential for any individual embarking on a new exercise programme. It is also important to understand that building fitness takes time. After all, you did not lose your fitness overnight: it disappeared gradually due to years of inactivity. Start slowly and take pride in gradual improvements. If you begin with an overly energetic session, you may feel so exhausted and sore afterwards that you are deterred from further activity. Beginning gently and taking pride in each small achievement promotes a positive attitude and improves adherence to exercise.
Learning all there is to know about exercise can help you to maintain your commitment and to perfect your skills. Find out about exercising at the correct intensity, performing exercises safely, using equipment properly, wearing suitable clothing, eating and drinking for energy and avoiding accidents and injury.
EXERCISE THROUGHOUT LIFE
Exercise is beneficial throughout life. If a child learns to enjoy regular physical activity, there is a greater likelihood that she will maintain activity levels throughout life. Teenagers may need special encouragement to stay active.
Girls in particular, may become sedentary as they reach their teens. This can lead to weight gain, which some young women may try to combat through dieting. In some cases, the desire to be thin can lead to unhealthy or extreme eating habits or even eating disorders. Men and women in early adulthood are also prone to neglecting exercise. This often happens because they feel that they are too busy developing a career and raising a family to make time for exercise.
Our aerobic fitness, muscular fitness and flexibility all decline over the years, unless we take active steps to maintain them. When fitness levels are lost, a person may find that she is unable to walk upstairs without stopping to catch her breath, lacks the strength to lift heavy bags, and is too inflexible to tie her shoelaces. Early midlife is often the time when people take stock of their deteriorating bodies and decide to try to improve them. Training for all-round fitness can begin at any age – important fitness gains can still be made by very elderly people who start a programme of exercise. In fact, some experts say that exercise is more important in later life than at any other time because it can yield enormous benefits in terms of mobility and resistance to illness. There are other times in life – during and after pregnancy, illness or injury, for example – when the body benefits from specific types of exercise.
EATING FOR OPTIMUM HEALTH
Working out your optimum diet can be difficult when nutritionists often seem to contradict each other. One month we are told not to eat butter, for instance, and the next month we are told not to eat margarine. This confusion often occurs because nutrition is still a relatively young and rather inexact science.
But although there may appear to be areas of confusion, there is, in fact, a consensus on the best food for health. The diet eaten by people who live in the Mediterranean regions is considered to be ideal. It includes plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, olive oil, fish, pulses, nuts and seeds, bread, rice, pasta and potatoes. The key to this diet is that it contains plenty of unrefined carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants – antioxidants are thought to play a crucial role in preventing damage to body cells, thereby preventing disease and deterioration.
By following a balanced diet based on these foods and cutting back on red meat, high-fat dairy produce, hamburgers, pies, cakes, biscuits, crisps, confectionery and other manufactured foods, we can have more energy, we are able to lose excess weight and we can reduce our risk of developing several major killer diseases. Extensive research shows that people who live in Mediterranean regions have low levels of heart disease and cancer. Feeding your family on Mediterranean-style food does much to protect their health.
Frequent food safety scares involving genetic modification, irradiation, pesticides, nitrates, additives, antibiotics and food poisoning can leave consumers feeling helpless, anxious and angry. However, a person who is armed with the background information she needs to make sense of media reports of such scares can begin to feel more empowered.
An understanding of the relationship between food hygiene and disease is also essential. For example, many cases of food poisoning can be prevented by knowledge about how to store meat and poultry safely, how to cook foods thoroughly, and how to keep the kitchen free from disease-causing bacteria.
FOOD AS MEDICINE
Choosing the right foods to eat can make a substantial difference to the way a person feels and looks. If the body receives food that provides all the necessary nutrients, minor problems, such as cracking nails, peeling lips and dry skin, often clear up.
Mounting evidence suggests that a person’s risk of developing potentially fatal diseases is reduced when her diet improves – eating plenty of oily fish and nuts has been shown to protect against heart disease; eating oats for breakfast every day has been shown to reduce high cholesterol; certain substances found in soya beans and soya products seem to protect against menopausal symptoms; and some herbs can soothe digestion, promote relaxation and encourage sleep. In addition to fresh foods, an ever-increasing range of food supplements may also enhance health.
Having the necessary nutrition facts to hand enables you to make informed decisions on how to shop, cook and eat wisely, so that your health and well-being can be enhanced and maintained throughout life.