Dr Zoe Williams
Dr Williams is a well-known and respected media medic who also has experience in health, fitness and wellbeing, alongside her role as a GP. She is a national advisor to the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities (OHID) GP clinical champion network and also leads on work to promote physical activity and healthy lifestyle with The Royal College of General Practitioners.
Ageing is something to be celebrated, not dreaded. It is not a time for winding down, but a time for revving up with the things that you always wanted to spend your time, money and energy on. As we approach retirement, and children have matured, there is an opportunity for a shift in responsibility, and that shift should be towards nurturing the most important person in your life… Yourself!
Here are 10 tips on how to get started with taking good care of ‘wonderful you’.
The word exercise can put people off, especially those that haven’t been particularly active over the course of their life, but the good news is that just moving our bodies, in whatever way we choose all counts as physical activity. Gardening, looking after young children, walking, carrying shopping bags, cleaning the house and dancing in the kitchen – are all activities that could count towards the target of 150 minutes per week for physical activity. What’s more, moving the body alters the chemicals that are released in the brain which can improve mood, alleviate pain as well as boost energy. It doesn’t have to be a lot – just 5 additional minutes of movement each day could make a big difference to your mood and your health.
2. Gut Health
The microbiome is the population of good bacteria and other microbes that live in our large intestine. If we take care of them, they look after us in return.. Some simple dietary changes can really give your microbiome a boost, such as switching to high-fibre foods. Try switching white rice, bread or pasta to the brown/wholemeal alternative, or maybe add tins of lentils, beans or chickpeas to soups, stews, curries and Bolognese. These friendly microbes also like a diverse range of different fibres too, and we should be aiming for 30 different plant species in the diet each week. 30 sounds like a lot, but some simple swaps, like switching out red kidney beans for a tin of mixed beans, and switching your bag of cashew nuts to a bag of mixed nuts can really boost the numbers. Ready prepared bags of stir fry mix, or mixed leaf salads are another great way of adding multiple different types of plants to the diet.
It is a common misconception that older adults need less sleep than when they were younger.. In general, adults should aim to get between seven and nine hours of sleep each night. As we get older we tend to go to sleep earlier and get up earlier than we used to, due to changes in our body’s circadian rhythm (internal clock), that actually shift forward in time as we get older. The part of the brain that controls our body clock receives information from the eyes, and light is one of the most powerful cues for maintaining circadian rhythms. Things that can help you sleep better include getting enough natural daylight during the day, spending time outdoors, reducing bedroom distractions such as TV and phones, minimising substances such as alcohol and caffeine, and implementing a bedtime routine.
4. Learn something new
Learning a new skill, craft, sport or activity can support mental wellbeing and also protect against dementia and memory loss. So whether it’s golf, knitting, photography or hip hip dance classes, learning stimulates brain cells and even encourages the brain to create new neural pathways. In addition to this, achieving goals that you’ve set yourself can increase your confidence and help you feel more optimistic about the future.
5. Stay connected
Having a network of good relationships improves your wellbeing and can keep your mind active too. Spending time with other people can prevent you from feeling lonely or anxious. Many people find that their network gets smaller as they get older, especially following retirement and if younger family members move away. Human contact and human connection is something that almost all of us need in order to thrive. Try to develop new hobbies and interests to meet like-minded people who you have something in common with. Be it joining a walking football team, taking up cookery classes or joining a book club, you’ll likely find there are many others out there in a similar situation, and you’ll be helping them out just as much as they might help you. Volunteering is another great way of meeting people, having positive interactions and acts of giving and kindness can help improve our mental wellbeing, give a sense of purpose and reduce stress. Use Skype to make video phone calls to friends and family who don’t live nearby and if you are single, divorced, or bereaved and would like to meet someone, I guarantee there are many people out there in the same position and dating websites and apps can be a great tool for finding friends as well as partners.
6. Muscle Mass
Did you know that we start to naturally lose muscle mass, strength and function from the age of just 30. Muscle mass decreases approximately 3–8% per decade after the age of 30 and the rate of decline is even higher after the age of 60. Maintaining strength is important for maintaining health, mobility and independence. We should do strengthening activities that work all the major muscle groups (legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders and arms) at least 2 days a week. Some examples of muscle strengthening activities include carrying heavy shopping bags, yoga, pilates, lifting weights, working with resistance bands or doing exercises that use your own body weight, such as push-ups and sit-ups. Linking these to existing habits can mean we are more likely to remember, so ten squats every time the adverts come on during your favourite daytime TV programme, or 10 push ups on the kitchen work bench each time you boil the kettle. Balancing activities are important too, so how about balancing on your right leg when you brush your teeth in the morning and the left leg at night.
7. Say ‘goodbye’ to fad diets
Every year we are faced with a new fad diet which promises weight loss. But we now know that for most people restrictive, fad diets do not support long-term weight loss, and in fact may be doing the opposite and encouraging our bodies to gain more weight in the longer term. A better, safer and more sustainable way to eat more healthily is to focus on what we SHOULD eat, rather than cutting things out. Focus on the nutrients that your body needs and deserves. The Mediterranean diet is widely accepted as ‘healthy’ but if you’re looking for a more simplified approach to fit with your existing lifestyle then you can’t go wrong by focusing on increasing the three F’s; more fibre, more fluid and more fruit and veg. Fibre is important for good gut health, and makes you feel fuller for longer. The brain can often mistake thirst for hunger, meaning we reach for snacks when hydration is all we actually need. All non-alcoholic drinks, including tea and coffee, can hydrate us, but plain water is a good choice as it provides us with fluid without any sugar or acids that can harm teeth. Fruit and veg are full of nutrients, high in fibre and low in calories for how filling they are. Make sure you get at least 5 portions a day, but ideally aim for 8 or more.
8. Learn the art of ‘saying No!’
Helping out with grandchildren, running errands for neighbours and looking after partners are all things that can bring us joy, and be good for our mental and physical health in their own right. However, we must first start with fulfilling our own needs. If you’re working part-time or retired and find yourself unable to take up the hobby or activity that you’d always intended to, whether that be learning to play golf or taking up painting, then you may need to consider setting up some boundaries and mastering the art of saying ‘No!’. In fact, saying no some of the time, can make people more grateful for the help that you give, and more appreciative of the sacrifices that you make when you do make them. Please make sure that there is something in your life, that is for you and only you.
9. Say “hi” to the sunshine
It has been established that almost one billion people worldwide have low levels of vitamin D and approximately 20% of the UK population have a vitamin D deficiency. We get about 90% of our vitamin D from a reaction that takes place in our skin, when it’s exposed to sunlight. So, people with white skin should try to get outside at lunchtime for about ten minutes each day to get the correct dose of vitamin D. People with dark skin need about 25 minutes each day to get the same dose. This figure assumes that people would be in shorts and t-shirts for June to August, while only having their hands and faces exposed from March to June and for September. Vitamin D can also be found in food such as eggs and oily fish but we can’t get enough from the diet to make up for a lack of skin exposure to the sun. The UK Department of Health advise that all people living in the UK take a vitamin D supplement between Oct-March, as the sun does not get high enough in the sky in winter for the skin reaction to occur. Some people are advised to take a vitamin D supplement all year round – this includes people who are housebound or rarely get out, people who usually wear clothes that cover most of their skin and people with black or brown skin should also consider it. However, as NHS guidelines state, always remember to cover up or protect your skin if you are out in the sun for long periods to reduce the risk of skin damage and skin cancer.
10. Get yourself checked
From the age of 40 the NHS will invite you for a health check every 5 years – the purpose of this is to identify diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and high cholesterol early so that treatment can start before any damage is done to the body. It’s important to also complete all cancer screening tests (bowel, breast and cervix) when invited to do so and make sure you take advantage of vaccinations which are offered. A free flu jab is available to all those aged 50 and over each year, the pneumococcal vaccine, which protects against pneumonia, sepsis and meningitis if offered at age 65 and then the shingles vaccine is for over 70s. It’s also important to get your eyes checked every 2 years and then annually if you are aged 70 or over. This means that changes in your vision can be corrected and any problems can be picked up before they seriously affect your sight. Eye tests are free if you are over 60. Hearing loss is common in older people so if you have to have the TV on loud or you’re having trouble tuning into conversations you should get your hearing checked. Many high street opticians offer hearing tests as a service too.
This is general information only and does not constitute specific professional medical advice. If you have any medical concerns or issues you're worried about, and before you engage in any new exercise activity, please talk to your own GP or Health Care Professional for advice.