While some aspects of your health and wellbeing remain out of your control, there are plenty you can have a say in.
CHOICE runs through some of the simple and achievable ways you can become active in preventing long-term health problems, to help you take the smart approach to good health and longevity.
For more information on healthy living see our Diet and exercise section.
The Dietary Guidelines for Australian Adults takes an evidence-based, whole-diet approach to disease prevention. There are few surprises in the guidelines, with the main advice being:
- Eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, legumes and wholegrain cereals.
- Include lean protein and low-fat dairy foods.
- Moderate total fat intake.
- Limit saturated fat, salt, alcohol and sugar.
The importance of plant foods can’t be overstated. Studies of populations around the world have consistently found that people who have diets high in fruit, vegetables and legumes have substantially lower risks of coronary heart disease, stroke and several major cancers.
And if Atkins-type diets have scared you off all carbs, there’s evidence that a diet rich in high-fibre, wholegrain cereals protects against coronary heart disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes and colorectal cancer.
Regular exercise mitigates against coronary heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, colorectal and breast cancer, osteoporosis, obesity and high cholesterol. It’s also good for psychological wellbeing, and can help prevent dementia.
A good starting point is 30 minutes or more of moderate exercise at least five days per week. Adding some more vigorous activity will improve fitness and burn more kilojoules. For stronger bones, make sure at least some of your exercise is weight-bearing, like walking, jogging or ball sports.
Strength or resistance training will help prevent loss of muscle mass which could lead to decreased independence and increased risk of falls. Yoga can help with balance – again, important when you’re older – and suppleness.
You should also sit less: the amount of sitting a person does during the day can adversely affect health, regardless of whether they’re otherwise healthy and regularly hit the gym or go for a run.
The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans contains evidence-based recommendations for the amount and type of activity required for good health. This advice applies equally to Australians.
Keep a healthy body weight
With more than half of Australian women and about two-thirds of men overweight or obese, excess body weight has overtaken smoking as the leading cause of reduced life expectancy.
Obesity is associated with a range of diseases and conditions mediated through changed metabolic functioning and the physical burden of excess kilos. These include insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes, gall bladder disease, hypertension, high cholesterol, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, coronary heart disease, stroke, gout, certain cancers, osteoarthritis, sleep apnoea and other respiratory issues, not to mention psychological problems.
Healthy eating and regular exercise will help maintain a healthy body weight, preventing obesity and the diseases it causes. Measure up is the federal government’s healthy weight – and waist – campaign.
Current guidelines recommend drinking no more than two standard drinks per day for reduced long-term risks of alcohol-related disease or injury, and no more than four on any one occasion to reduce risks of injury.
Effects from excessive alcohol consumption include cardiovascular disease (high blood pressure, arrhythmias and other circulatory problems), some cancers; malnutrition; being overweight or obese due to added kilojoules, increased appetite and metabolic changes; liver diseases, long-term cognitive impairment, dementia, depression, anxiety and self-harm. Alcohol is an addictive drug, and regular use can result in alcohol dependence.
While there are some health benefits – including for mental health – from moderate alcohol consumption, it’s important to weigh up the risks too.
Slip, slop, slap and wrap
Wear a hat, clothing and sunscreen to protect your skin against the ageing and cancer-causing effects of the sun, and sunglasses to help prevent eye damage and diseases such as cataracts. Two in three Australians will get skin cancer, and melanomas kill more than 1000 people each year.
The health risks are numerous and well-publicised. If you’re ready to quit, see your doctor about your options, including subsidised nicotine patches.
Get a life
Studies of centenarians have revealed that social and mental activity is critical for health and longevity. This includes engaging in intellectual stimulation, learning new things, having good family ties, a supportive social network and community links.
Turn it down
It’s estimated one in six people suffers some form of hearing loss, with exposure to noise partly responsible. Occupational health and safety requirements do much to ensure workers are protected against occupational noise. However, recreational noise still poses a problem, with excessive music volumes at nightclubs and live music venues.
Australian Hearing recommends you wear ear plugs at concerts, motor races and fireworks displays. Australian research found that 25% of people surveyed using headphones are listening too loud for too long, so keep the volume low. Australian Hearing has more information about hearing loss and hearing aids.
Get enough sleep
Sleep refreshes the mind and repairs the body, and adults need about 7-8 hours a day. Lack of sleep can result in short-term problems such as poor concentration, mood disturbances and accidents. Long-term sleep deprivation can cause physical illnesses such as heart disease and obesity, possibly mental illness (it’s not clear whether mental illness is a cause or result of lack of sleep), and maybe even some cancers.
Visit your dentist regularly
There is increasing evidence of the link between poor oral health and cardiovascular disease, diabetes, poor nutrition (if you’re limited to eating certain foods) and oral cancer. There are cases of life-threatening infections where dental infection has spread to the eye or brain, or into the neck or chest cavity. And the loss of teeth causes psychological impacts resulting from appearance issues and difficulties speaking, including lack of self-esteem and social isolation.
Regular check ups can prevent small problems becoming bigger and more expensive ones later.