A group of researchers led by Per Ladenvall (University of Gothenburg in Sweden) have looked into the relationship between physical capacity and health. They studied 800 middle-aged men over a period of 45 years. Physical fitness was measured by VO2 max. The results showed that low physical fitness is a greater risk of death than high blood pressure or cholesterol. It was second only to smoking as a risk of death.
Several studies have linked prolonged sitting with increased risk of mortality. A meta-analysis of data from over a million people was recently conducted by Ekeland et al. They wanted to find out if physical activity could attenuate, or even eliminate, the detrimental association of sitting time with mortality. They found that “high levels of moderate intensity physical activity (about 60–75 min/day) seem to eliminate the increased risk of death associated with high sitting time. However, this high activity level attenuates, but does not eliminate the increased risk associated with high TV-viewing time”.
Once again, the benefits of physical activity and physical fitness are clear. It’s up to us to make it a priority to move more, whether it’s through structured exercise or simply through the activities of daily living.
Would you like to live longer? Of course! I can remember as a child having what could initially appear as a morbid fascination for cemeteries. I used to drag my parents into each and every cemetery we walked or drove by…just so I could calculate how long people had lived! Perhaps my curiosity in longevity led to an interest (some may say obsession) in health.
Having just read “The Blue Zones” by Dan Buettner, I’d like to share some of his insights. Blue zones represent regions of our planet where people generally live significantly longer. For years, Buettner and his collaborators have searched the globe for those treasured blue zones in the hope of learning how to improve our health and increase our longevity.
So far, five blue zones have been identified: the mountainous regions of Sardinia, the island of Okinawa in Japan, Loma Linda in California, the Nicoyan peninsula in Costa Rica and the island of Ikaria in Greece. The first striking characteristic is that these regions are isolated by geography, culture or religion. This seems to be crucial because it means the people living in these regions have been able to continue living a traditional lifestyle until very recently. Most have grown up leading physically active lives and eating mainly plant-based diets (due to the cost of meat). Family and socialising is central to their lives. Although a lot have lived through hardships, they lead relatively stress-free lives primarily because they place little importance on money, material possessions, job status, etc.
Buettner has identified common factors that are associated with longevity and distilled them down to 9 lessons. He stresses that these practices are only associated to longevity but don’t necessarily increase it. As we know association isn’t the same as causation. The 9 lessons are:
- Move naturally. Walk, cycle, garden, enrol in enjoyable classes
- Eat until you’re 80% full. Don’t stuff yourself
- Plant-based diet. Avoid meat and processed foods
- Alcohol (in moderation)
- Purpose. Have a reason to get out of bed in the morning
- Downshift. Take time to relieve stress
- Belong. Participate in spiritual community
- Loved Ones First. Make family a priority
- Right Tribe. Be surrounded by those who share Blue Zone values
He recommends introducing one or two of them at a time. It may be easier to start with the lessons we have a greater affinity for or simply those we find easiest to adopt. It’s not even necessary to try to follow all the steps. There you go…no rocket science or witchcraft required!
Positive psychological states have been linked to better health and longevity. It’s believed to be partly due to the effect of positive emotions and moods on behaviour. Nancy Sin and her colleagues from the university of Penn State evaluated 5-year associations between positive affect and health behaviours in patients with coronary heart disease.
At baseline, they found that subjects with higher positive emotions and moods tended to have better health behaviours such as: physical activity, sleep quality, non-smoking and medication compliance. However, the baseline measurements of positive affect were not predictive of health behaviours at follow-up. Instead, it was increases in positive affect over the 5 years that were linked to improved physical activity, sleep quality and medication compliance.
The authors conclude that “efforts to sustain or enhance positive affect may be promising for promoting better health behaviours”. Although this may be easier said than done, positive psychology does offer methods and techniques to help achieve this aim.
Scarlett McNally, a Consultant Orthopaedic surgeon, and her colleagues have spent 2 years analysing more than 200 separate pieces of research. The effect that regular exercise could have on our health is amazing. Exercise could:
- prevent type 2 diabetes
- reduce the risk of getting breast cancer by 25%
- decrease the risk of bowel cancer by 45%
- reduce the risk of having a stroke by 30%
- reduce the risk of developing dementia by 30%
- cut the risk of developing heart disease by over 40%
- as well as improvements to mental health
Exercise doesn’t have to be vigorous but it should be regular. Simply start by increasing your physical activity in whatever way you can: walk more, take the stairs, do some gardening, ride a bike…the possibilities are endless!
Since 1979 Professor Peter Elwood and his team of researchers from Cardiff University School of Medicine have tracked the lifestyle habits of 2500 men aged 45-59 (at the start of the study). They found that men that followed 5 habits had 70% less chance of developing diabetes, 60% reduced incidents of heart attacks and strokes, 40% fewer cancers, and a reduction of 60% in cases of dementia. Incidentally, less than 1% of the study group followed all 5 habits! These 5 habits have the potential to reduce illness and chronic disease and so promote longevity…what are they?
The 5 habits of highly healthy people are:
- regular exercise
- no smoking
- a healthy bodyweight
- a healthy diet
- a low alcohol intake
Not rocket science by any means…and definitely within everyone’s grasp!
The word ‘stress’ has become ubiquitous, but what exactly does it mean? It’s probably in the 1920s that it was first used in its present context. Walter Cannon used it to describe the process where external factors disturbed the body’s natural equilibrium. Around the same time, Hans Selye described stress as the non-specific response of the body to any demand placed upon it. Still confused?
Let’s put things a little more clearly. To ensure our survival we must either be in ‘protection mode’ or in ‘growth mode’. Protection mode ensures our short-term survival i.e. running away from or slaying a sabre-toothed tiger, moving out of the way of an oncoming car, etc. Growth mode ensures our long-term survival i.e. taking in nutrients by eating and digesting a meal, recharging our batteries by sleeping, wound-healing, having sex and reproducing, etc. Protection mode is more commonly known as ‘fight-or-flight’ and growth mode as ‘rest-and-digest’. They are like two sides of the same coin…it’s either one or the other…we’re either in ‘fight-or-flight’ or we’re in ‘rest-and-digest’. You may be more familiar with ‘fight-or-flight’ or the stress response as it’s also known.
The stress response kicks in as soon as we sense a threat. Things start off in the amygdala deep inside our brains. Other areas of the brain (hypothalamus, pituitary gland) also become involved as does the sympathetic nervous system. The adrenal glands then release adrenaline and cortisol. The aim is to quickly prepare the body for vigorous muscle activity by releasing fats and glucose into the blood stream, increasing the heart rate and breathing rate, dilating blood vessels in muscles, increasing blood pressure and increasing muscle tension. All this helps get us immediately primed for action without having to go through any mental preparation or physical warm-up! It sounds too good to be true and it’s helped us survive and thrive through time. Fortunately nowadays, we don’t often face the type of physical emergency the fight-or-flight system was designed for…but our brains still perceive lots of threats out there…traffic jams, time pressures, bad bosses, financial worries, difficult partners, noisy kids, not to mention 24/7 connectivity, contactability and accountability with the advent of new technology! All this ends up firing off our stress response in a completely different context than that for which it was designed. Rather than a sporadic short blast, it’s now more of a constant slow simmer…without the physical activity required to reset the system. Almost like preparing for a battle that never arrives…revving a car that never goes anywhere.
This ongoing low-level stress response has negative consequences. According to the Mayo Clinic, if left unchecked, “stress can contribute to health problems such as high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity and diabetes”. They cite the following common effects of stress:
What’s the solution? The key is to find a way of getting ourselves back into ‘rest-and-digest’ mode. In 1968 Herbert Benson, a cardiologist from Harvard Medical School, fortuitously stumbled across something whilst studying blood pressure. He had been approached by a group of transcendental meditators claiming they could lower their blood pressures through the use of their minds! Initially sceptical and reluctant to study them, he eventually succumbed and discovered what he called the ‘relaxation response’. Benson described the relaxation response as the opposite of the ‘fight-or-flight’ or stress response, it’s essentially the ‘rest-and-digest’ mode mentioned earlier. He characterised it by:
- Decreased metabolism, heart rate, blood pressure and rate of breathing
- A decrease or calming in brain activity
- An increase in attention and decision-making functions of the brain
- Changes in gene activity that are the opposite of those associated with stress
Research has found that the relaxation response can be effective in treating the following complaints:
Additionally, research shows that mind-body techniques can also be effective in treating the following:
In summary, any symptom or disease caused or exacerbated by stress can be helped by relaxation. Happily, there are lots of ways to evoke the relaxation response such as relaxation techniques (progressive relaxation, passive muscular relaxation, Mitchell method, breathing exercises, etc.), meditation, prayer, yoga, tai chi, exercise, cognitive behavioural therapy and hypnosis.
Hypnosis is a personal favourite of mine. It can combine the immediate relaxing effects of relaxation techniques with a change in thinking, mood and behaviour such as can be obtained using CBT. Better still, because it uses the power of the unconscious mind, these changes take place effortlessly…as if by magic!
Give it a go (click on the icon to go directly to the shop)!
Relax and enjoy better physical health and mental well-being.
Today BBC News published an interesting article on work done by Mathew White from the European Centre for Environment and Human Health at the University of Exeter. He recently conducted a study looking into the benefits of green spaces on health and well-being. The findings of a previous study showed that people living in greener urban areas were showing fewer signs of depression or anxiety.
Various things such as job promotions, pay rises, winning the lottery, etc. can make people happier but the effects last for only 6 months to a year. These things don’t lead to long-term happiness. Dr White examined data from the British Household Panel Survey (about 40,000 households). What he found was that living in an area with green spaces, like parks, has a lasting beneficial effect on mental health (happiness, depression, anxiety).
As the mind and body are entwined, I’m sure there must also be physical benefits to living near green spaces.
Steven Cole et al. from UCLA have recently shown that having a deep sense of purpose and meaning in life can lead to positive genetic changes such as lowering the levels of inflammatory gene expression and strengthening the expression of antiviral and antibody genes. Theoretically, this could mean that those with a strong sense of purpose and meaning have a more efficient immune system and are less susceptible to inflammatory diseases.
Parallels can be drawn with Viktor Frankl’s influential book ‘Man’s Search For Meaning‘. In it, he relates his experiences of life in concentration camps during WWII. He believed that finding a meaning to life was crucial to survival in those terrible circumstances. After the war, he continued his work as a psychiatrist with logotherapy (a form of existential analysis) and became convinced that happiness was to be attained by finding meaning and purpose in life.
Last year I wrote an article on hydration, the signs of dehydration and how much water we need to drink each day. We now know how much water to drink but what water is best? I found a great little book called “Healthy Water for a Longer Life” by Martin Fox. It reviews an extensive body of research carried out on the effects of the quality of water on health. Although it was published in 1986, I don’t think there exists a more comprehensive book on the subject. What follows is a summary of the main points.
High levels of water hardness and total dissolved solids have been linked with decreased cardiovascular disease. Hard water is water that has high levels of calcium carbonate or magnesium carbonate. In areas with hard water, you’ll notice your kettle fur up pretty quickly and in areas with soft water you’ll find it harder to wash off soap when showering. British studies have suggested hardness of at least 170 mg/l for health benefits. In the north of England, the neighbouring towns of Scunthorpe and Grimsby drank the same water for years. Scunthorpe then softened its water from 448 mg/l to 100 mg/l and Grimsby continued with the same water as before. This led to a striking increase in cardiovascular disease in the town that softened its water!
No correlation between sodium levels in water and hypertension or mortality has been found. This is probably because only 10% of our sodium intake comes from water and the rest comes from food. So avoiding processed foods and not salting our food has a bigger impact on our health.
Increased water hardness, increased total dissolved solids, increased pH and increased silica (SiO2) are each linked to decreased risks of cancer.
Fluoride is thought to prevent caries but its use is controversial due to the risk of cancer, genetic damage and birth defects. Water fluoridation has been abolished in most of Europe but continues in some parts of North America. High levels of water hardness and total dissolved solids can negate the deleterious effects of naturally occurring fluoride. Studies of dental caries in primitive groups have found that a healthy unrefined diet leads to healthy teeth.
Chlorination of water has saved countless lives by killing harmful bacteria but it has also led to an increase in atherosclerosis, heart disease and cancer. This is thought to be caused by a release of free radicals.
Animal experiments have shown that hard water provides protection from potentially harmful agents such as cadmium, lead, chlorine and dietary fat. An interesting calcium-chlorine relationship has been found. Pigeons were fed a diet that contained only 80% of the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of calcium. Half the birds were given unchlorinated water and the rest drank water that contained 10 mg/l of chlorine. Three months later the pigeons that drank chlorinated water had blood cholesterol levels that were 50% higher than the group that drank unchlorinated water. Further tests showed that pigeons given a normal diet show no differences in cholesterol levels between those that drink chlorinated water and those that don’t. When 10% lard is added to a calcium deficient diet, pigeons that drink unchlorinated water only have a minor increase in cholesterol but those that drink chlorinated water have cholesterol levels that increase about 3 fold!
Some people claim that demineralised water is better for health but there is no rationale or scientific study to support its benefits. In fact, the reverse is true…soft water is hazardous to health. Minerals with beneficial effects are: silica, magnesium, chromium, lithium, vanadium, calcium and zinc. Interestingly, mineral absorption is greater from drinking water than from food and protein enhances the absorption. If essential elements are present in water, there is less absorption of non-essential (toxic) elements.
Finally, which water is best? It has to have a presence of essential minerals and an absence of harmful minerals and compounds. Tap water may be suitable but one would have to verify its composition with the water company…a water filtration system may be required to remove harmful compounds (inorganic and organic)…the quality of filtration systems varies widely…and one has to be careful to avoid a build up of bacteria within the filtration unit…
By far the easiest option is to select bottled mineral water that satisfies the following criteria:
- approximately 300 mg/l of total dissolved solids
- around 170 mg/l hardness (calcium carbonate)
- an alkaline pH (over 7)
An article in today’s BBC News Health discusses recent research published in Science Translational Medicine. Dr Orfeu Buxton et al. have shown that “prolonged sleep restriction with concurrent circadian disruption alters metabolism and could increase the risk of obesity and diabetes”. This has implications to people performing shift work.