by Anita Cheung
Healthy living. For most of us, those words immediately draw images in our minds. of sunshine, exercise, fruit and vegetables and a little time to do what we want with whom we want when we want. Should we speak to a doctor about the subject then probably a few more things such as plenty of water, regular sleep, reduced alcohol and reduced smoking will be mentioned. But do these things really sum up the total picture of healthy living? I personally believe that these things represent some of the ingredients for a healthy lifestyle, but that there are a few more that are frequently overlooked. Don’t get me wrong, I am a bit of a health fanatic and each year as I realise I am one year older and not one year younger, a few more health kicks are added to the list.
No one can dispute that doing regular exercise is one of the best ways to immediately feel better and be more energised. However, we’ve all heard this so many times that perhaps we process a conversation about exercises something like this…
‘You should do 20 minutes of exercise each day.’
‘Yep. I should.’
‘You could join the gym or find a dance class.’
‘Gyms are expensive and impersonal. Neither does a dance class take my fancy. This conversation is really boring.’
What is lacking? We all acknowledge that the advice is good, but how do we turn the good advice into a healthy habit? The answer is actually quite simple. Find something that you enjoy doing and set time aside to do it. I don’t think that I am ever going to be a kickboxer although when I’m sitting on the sofa watching my action movies, I do believe that anything is possible. I’m not going to join a dance class (even though I would really like to) as the constantly changing hours of being self-employed means I rarely have time free on the same day each week. And if I’m honest, I’m not likely to find a yoga class or a zumba class on Youtube and have my own personal session at home. During our lockdown period, I had many friends who tried to sell me the benefits of an online exercise programme. It did work for them, but it definitely didn’t grab my attention. What does work for me is long walks in nature and in my current location, these take me along by the sea. I will frequently (at least three times a week) go out and walk 10-12kms and breakfast by the sea is often incorporated into this. Now that the weather has warmed up, it is also possible to factor in swimming, which I do as much as possible. For someone else with a more regular timetable and who lives in a cooler climate, visiting the gym two - three times per week (now that pandemic conditions and restrictions are easing) might fit perfectly into the weekly schedule. And for another, it might be taking the dog on slightly longer walks around the park or neighbourhood. Whatever we do though, it has to fit our busy, chaotic lifestyles otherwise we will maintain it for as long as we remember that we have made a decision to change our habits. In the moment that we forget, have a sleepless night, a stressful day at work or with the family, any original plans to become healthier and fitter are relegated to the bottom of the list. So the priority is to find something that interests you and that fits into your lifestyle.
I have always been one of those fortunate people who hasn’t had to worry too much about weight for most of my life and this has meant that I have never really paid much attention to what I eat. However, following our lockdown period during which I treated myself to a bottle of wine, a packet of crisps, some cheese and hummus every weekend and my change in lifestyle from visiting students in their homes to working from home, I cannot deny that I have a few more kilos in various places which I am determined to shift! One doesn’t need to be Sherlock Holmes to figure out that the answer to my problem lies in changing my habits as opposed to going on a crash diet.
A long time ago (or perhaps it was last year whilst we were in lockdown!), I learnt that if I have something in the house (such as cake, chocolate, biscuits, chips and sweets) then although my plan is to save them for a moment when I’m watching a film or have friends over, invariably I will have a moment of weakness (often triggered by unforeseen stressful circumstances) and I can easily dine on the concoction of sugar and junk that I find in my cupboards. In order to conquer this habit, temptation has been banned from my shopping trolley, and should I feel the need to binge then my options are pumpkin seeds and fruit. If it’s not there, I’m not going to reach for it. Let’s be honest. We all have our days when we are strong, determined and focussed and those days are not the problem. The problem arises when we have a stressful conversation, receive some bad news or have an additional financial problem to resolve. Then, before we know it, the hand goes into a packet of whatever and that packet somehow disappears within a relatively short period of time…
When it comes to our sleeping habits, how many of us can say that we get the sleep that we need at least five nights out of seven? Regular sleeping habits are so important for our general sense of wellbeing so if we shortchange our bodies in this area, then our bodies and brains do not have the time required to recover in order for us to recuperate and be refreshed. So why is it so hard for us to achieve? For all of us, sometimes the pressures of work and family take over and tasks and responsibilities increase to the point that we believe the natural response is less sleep. As a society, how did we get to this point? The amount of sleep required differs for each person, but each of us knows what we need in order to be refreshed and restored for the following day. I have friends who are fresh as a daisy after six hours of sleep and I have others who need a full nine hours sleep. Whichever group you fall into, you will know that should you have the required length of sleep that you need, then the following day it is easy to take everything in your stride. However, reduce your required total by three hours and suddenly the following day has an edge to it. Sensitivity sets in. Patience seems to have gone on holiday and left you behind. Small issues suddenly take on tsunami-like proportions and conversations are often misunderstood.
As well as all of the above, I would say that maintaining social contact with friends and loved ones adds something very special to life. Not only do we need to maintain contact with them, but we also need to make time to enjoy being with them. That may be in the form of having a coffee every other week, going out for a drink or pursuing a favourite activity together. More often than not, our lives are crammed full with things that we believe are important as well as our responsibilities and the network of relationships that sustains us in our time of need is frequently overlooked. One of my personal goals is to live in such a way that I have time to share with those who I care about, but very frequently, my life ends up being complete madness with no time for the people who really matter to me. I know that when I make them a priority, the balance shifts, it feels good and I feel happy.
Often a part of our social lives in meeting up with our friends and family is a glass of wine, a bottle of beer or a favourite cocktail such as a Bloody Mary or a Piña Colada shared over conversation during moments in which we can relax. Alcohol lends itself to relaxed moments, conversation and chilled tones and in our busy lifestyles, we all crave these moments. Some of the most magical moments I have had with friends have been over a drink in moments when there was time to sip and enjoy both the beverage and the company. When we are relaxed we are able to forget our busy lives for a few moments, have more interesting conversations, times of better communication and often lots of laughter. However, we all know that there is a line between these social benefits of a glass or two and tipping the balance and having a few too many. I personally believe that a shared glass adds something special to life, but should that turn into a shared two or three bottles, then often the magic disappears and the memories - should there be any - become blurred.
It is obvious that we can all follow our doctors’ advice regarding exercise, sleep, drinking water and diet, but unless we find a way for those things to become a stable part of our lives, they will remain information on a list of things to be done at some point in the future. No-one can tell us what to put in our shopping trolleys, how much alcohol we should or shouldn’t drink, whether we should give up smoking or when or how we should do exercise, but it is our personal choice to incorporate good habits into our lifestyle. Every year I add a few more healthy habits to what I do in the knowledge that if I don’t, I can’t expect to get the best from life or to have the energy to take advantage of all of the wonderful opportunities that come my way. I don’t need to train for a marathon, but I do need to remember that whatever I do - be it five minutes or sixty minutes - it all makes a difference. Life is for living and healthy habits enable us to get the most out of every moment. :-)