Advent calendar to a healthier you: 24 small tweaks to your lifestyle

The advent calendar to a healthier you: 24 small but ingenious tweaks to your lifestyle that can give you the gift of wellbeing

This year’s countdown to Christmas is unlike any other, so give yourself the gift of good health with this special advent calendar. Each day there is a simple but science-backed tweak to your life that could transform your health for the better, writes Libby Galvin.

1) Turn down the heating at home just a little 

If you lower the temperature at home by just a few degrees, you could boost your stores of brown fat.

Found in small amounts around the shoulders, spine and organs, this is activated when you’re cold and produces heat to help maintain body temperature. 

As a bonus, the boost in metabolism breaks down blood sugar and burns the unhealthy fat stored in your tissues that is linked with disease.

A study in the journal Diabetes in 2014 found that reducing the room temperature from 24c to 19c (75f to 66f) overnight was all it took to see more brown fat and an increase in metabolism after a month. The effect is reversible, so make this a permanent change.

If you lower the temperature at home by just a few degrees, you could boost your stores of brown fat [File photo]

2) Early to bed for a good night’s sleep  

Spending a little longer asleep could help your cardiovascular health, so why not retire half an hour earlier than usual.

A study last year in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology showed that getting less than six hours’ sleep was associated with a greater risk of heart disease and atherosclerosis, clogging of the arteries that can be life-threatening. 

This is possibly because a lack of sleep means vital repair processes are not occurring overnight.

Better sleep improves mood and concentration, lowers levels of inflammation and boosts immune function.

3) Start a digital detox today 

Take an hour away from electronic screens (including phones, laptops and TVs) every day, starting today. 

A study last year showed people who spent more time on screen-based activities are more likely to experience depression. 

One theory is that social media use fuels social comparison, and may make you feel worse about your life.

4) Write some more Christmas cards 

Loneliness is not only bad for your mental and emotional health, it also has a physical impact, according to a recent study by the University of British Columbia.

It found that women with smaller social groups were more likely to have high blood pressure. This is thought to be because loneliness is a form of stress, and the body’s stress response pushes up blood pressure.

So try contacting someone new each day from now on, whether it’s an old friend you want to reconnect with, or a new neighbour. Start by adding a few extra names to your Christmas card list.

Loneliness is not only bad for your mental and emotional health, it also has a physical impact, according to a recent study by the University of British Columbia [File photo]

5) Get on your bike for a quick ride 

Spend 15 minutes on a bike to hone your brain function. A recent study by the University of Geneva demonstrated that just 15 minutes of intense cycling — even a stationary bike indoors will do — improves memory.

The researchers even suggested that such activity could help reverse memory loss that can be a precursor to Alzheimer’s. If you don’t have a bike, any intense exercise that gets your heart rate up should have the same effect, say the researchers.

6) Have a lovely Sunday lie-in 

Don’t set your alarm, on doctors’ orders! ‘When you use an alarm clock, you are shocking the system, and the body will respond by increasing heart rate and blood pressure,’ says Russell Foster, a professor of circadian neuroscience at Oxford University. 

‘Cortisol, the stress hormone, rises in the morning in anticipation of waking, but if you’re woken too early, you can get a spike.’

So on days when you don’t need to get up, enjoy a stress-free snooze.

7) Reorganise your kitchen supplies  

You will need to make space for Christmas provisions, so while you’re at it, rearrange your produce to help you make healthier choices.

A study by Cornell University found that people who moved fruit and veg to a centre shelf in the fridge ate nearly three times more of these than usual — because they could see them better.

Research in the International Journal of Obesity in 2015 found that obese people tend to keep more food in easy-access places — so to avoid temptation, keep unhealthy snacks out of sight and in opaque containers. 

8) Make a start on a family tree  

If you’re catching up with relatives over the festive period, ask about their health, says Dr Mohammed Abbas Khaki, a GP in North London.

Try to get three generations’ worth of information — your grandparents, parents and their siblings, and your siblings and cousins. This can help you and your GP identify patterns that may be relevant to your own health and risk of certain illnesses.

9) See the light- sit by a window

Office workers next to a window slept, on average, 46 minutes longer each night than those who didn’t, the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine reported in 2014. 

‘Exposure to natural light helps the body clock stay in tune with rhythms of daylight and darkness,’ says Jim Horne, an emeritus professor of psychophysiology at Loughborough University.

Office workers next to a window slept, on average, 46 minutes longer each night than those who didn’t, the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine reported in 2014 [File photo]

10) Check out your moles  

Spend ten minutes inspecting your body for moles — and photograph them. A 2015 study in the British Journal of Dermatology found that having more than 11 moles on your right arm could be a sign you have more than 100 across your body — putting you at risk of melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer.

Dr Andrew Birnie, a dermatologist and skin cancer lead at East Kent Hospitals, says: ‘Plenty of clinics offer this mole mapping, but you can do it yourself with your camera phone. Take shots of each part of your body to act as a baseline and monitor for changes.’ Check every three months. If you notice new or changing marks, see your GP. 

11) Set a timer to wriggle  

A 2015 study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine concluded that fidgeting ‘may reduce the risk of all- cause mortality associated with excessive sitting’.

So today, introduce the 20/20 rule, recommended by personal trainer Eliza Flynn. For every 20 minutes you spend sitting down, move for 20 seconds. This could be as simple as fetching a glass of water, standing up to stretch or tapping and wriggling your feet. Set a timer to remind you.

12) Smile at a stranger

Even faking a smile can make you feel genuinely happier, science suggests.

An analysis of 138 studies in the journal Psychological Bulletin earlier this year found that smiling makes people feel happier, scowling makes them feel angrier, and frowning makes them feel sadder — so choose to smile at a stranger and spread some joy.

The theory is a smile — even a forced one — tricks the brain into releasing ‘happy’ hormones.

This year’s countdown to Christmas is unlike any other, so give yourself the gift of good health with this special advent calendar. Each day there is a simple but science-backed tweak to your life that could transform your health for the better, writes Libby Galvin.

An analysis of 138 studies in the journal Psychological Bulletin earlier this year found that smiling makes people feel happier, scowling makes them feel angrier, and frowning makes them feel sadder — so choose to smile at a stranger and spread some joy [File photo]

13) Count to 25 before a treat  

Wait 25 seconds before reaching for a sweet snack — it could help you make healthier choices. A study by researchers at Rush University in Chicago in 2017 showed that when people were forced to wait 25 seconds for an unhealthy snack from a vending machine, 5 per cent picked something healthier.

‘Having to wait for something makes it less desirable,’ said Dr Brad Appelhans, a clinical psychologist who led the study.

14) Make a Christmas spiced coffee  

‘Add a quarter of a teaspoon of mixed spices (ground cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg) to your coffee,’ says psychologist Kimberley Wilson.

‘This is one of my favourite ways to get a regular dose of powerful plant polyphenols — chemical compounds said to improve blood flow to the brain, inhibit inflammation and slow brain ageing.’

A study this year in the Journal of the Endocrine Society also showed that cinnamon could slow the progression of type 2 diabetes.

But drink your coffee after breakfast: a report by the University of Bath showed that drinking coffee before breakfast can cause your blood sugar to spike by 50 per cent.

15) Imagine it’s summer

Apply sunscreen and wear sunglasses before you leave the house.

Yes, the days are short and dreary but studies have shown a link between exposure to the sun’s damaging UV rays — which still get through on overcast days — and developing skin cancer and cataracts (where damage to proteins in the eye make the lens cloudy).

Regular use of sunscreen all year round reduces your risk of developing melanoma by 40 per cent, revealed a 2018 study in the journal JAMA Dermatology. 

16) Put a plant in your bedroom

Houseplants don’t just brighten your home, they can have health benefits, too. As well as absorbing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen, many also improve indoor air quality.

Nasa scientists found some plants removed up to 87 per cent of benzene, ammonia and formaldehyde in just a day. Breathing these in over time can worsen conditions such as asthma. 

A study by Exeter University also found having a plant on your desk can improve productivity and job satisfaction.

Houseplants don’t just brighten your home, they can have health benefits, too. As well as absorbing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen, many also improve indoor air quality [File photo]

17) Buy a 2021 diary- then start writing  

Your 2020 diary might still be a sea of blank pages but writing up the day’s (even lacklustre) events before you go to bed is a surefire way to sharpen your memory.

In a study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, 109 people kept a daily diary for five days. A month later, those who had written their entries in the evenings had much better recall of events than those who had written their diaries in the morning.

The researchers said memories recorded in the evening are better consolidated during sleep.

18) …and fill it with gratitude

Write in your diary again this evening — but this time make a point of noting down any high points of your day.

Not only will the feelings of gratitude help you sleep better, according to research from psychologists at Manchester, Nottingham and Warwick Universities, but having a positive outlook will give an additional boost to your memory.

A study published last month in the journal Psychological Science showed that people with a positive outlook were likely to have a better memory.

19) Go outside for 20 minutes  

Walk to a nearby park or simply sit out in the garden. Just 20 minutes is all you need, according to a study published last year in the International Journal of Environmental Health Research, which found that those who did this reported a 64 per cent improvement in life satisfaction scores afterwards.

Another 2019 study showed long-term exposure to green spaces was linked with a lower risk of psychiatric disorders. The theory is that green space lowers stress. And if you walk in the morning, you will also get a greater drop in blood pressure than at other times, a study by Appalachian State University found.

This is possibly because morning exercise lowers levels of cortisol (the stress hormone, which peaks in the morning) which contributes to high blood pressure.

20) Cook with new ingredients

Use teff, an East African grain, instead of rice or couscous — or bake with teff flour (both available in supermarkets).

Recent research showed that teff affects our gut bacteria (microbiome) and improves the absorption of the immune-boosting mineral zinc.

Meanwhile, data from the British Gut Project shows that the number one factor for a healthy microbiome is eating different plants. The more variety, the healthier our microbiome, says Tim Spector, a professor of genetic epidemiology at King’s College London. We should eat 20 to 30 different plants — which includes fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, herbs and spices — a week. On average we are now eating around five.

Even if you don’t think you need one, book a hearing test — it could help you stave off dementia.

Hearing loss is thought to be responsible for one in ten of the 47 million cases of dementia worldwide (possibly because sound and memory processing occur in the same part of the brain, so it could be an early sign of decline in this area).

A study in the journal Neuron showed how memory centres deep in the brain are also involved in processing sound. The scientists, from Newcastle University, believe that tackling hearing problems early may help to prevent dementia. 

22) Learn to limber up

It Is well known that yoga and stretching can ease aches and pains, help you move better and even alleviate anxiety. Now there is evidence it’s good for your heart.

A recent study in the Journal of Physiology showed that a 12-week programme of passive stretching — using a wall, the floor or a band to help you stretch — improved blood flow, lowered blood pressure and decreased the stiffness of arteries.

It could be as simple as touching your toes, or find guided exercises on YouTube. Search for ‘guided stretch’.

Wait 25 seconds before reaching for a sweet snack — it could help you make healthier choices [File photo]

23) Ditch your slippers

When indoors, stay barefoot. A number of studies show the benefits can be felt at any age.

Research last year in the journal Nature noted that wearing shoes ‘diminished perception of walking surfaces, alters gait and impairs balance control, which may result in an increased risk of falling’ compared with going barefoot.

And a 2018 study showed that habitually barefoot children are noticeably better at jumping and balancing compared with children who wear shoes all the time. 

24) Give a gift

It’s Christmas Eve — so sign up to give blood in 2021.

Being altruistic like this can actually be good for your health, as well as for the patient who receives your transfusion. According to studies, donating may lower the risks of heart attack and certain cancers.

It is thought that it has this effect because it lowers iron levels. You can donate between the ages of 17 and 70. Sign up online at blood.co.uk. 

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