How to be physically and mentally healthier in 2022: 7 tips you can use now

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Working on your resolutions for the upcoming year? Add these seven to the list and you may reduce your risk of depression and heart disease, experience less stress, and even extend your life.

1. Eat mushrooms, lower your depression risk

Mushrooms are inexpensive and quick and easy to prepare, plus they have anticancer effects, but here’s another reason to enjoy them: they can lower your risk of developing depression, according to research by the Penn State College of Medicine in the United States.

This might be due to the presence of an antioxidant called ergothioneine, which protects against cell and tissue damage. High levels of this antioxidant, which also has anti-inflammatory effects, may lower the risk of oxidative stress in the body, which could also reduce symptoms of depression. Mushrooms are the highest dietary source of ergothioneine.

Results from the study were published in November 2021 in the Journal of Affective Disorders.

2. Take naps, but short ones

Daytime napping is considered healthy, but a study found that napping for longer than 60 minutes was associated with a 30 per cent greater risk of all-cause death, and a 34 per cent higher likelihood of cardiovascular disease, compared with no napping. The study was presented at the European Society of Cardiology Congress 2020.

When nighttime sleep was taken into account, long naps were associated with a higher risk of death only in people who slept more than six hours per night.

It’s unclear why long naps have this effect. Other studies suggest that they’re linked with higher levels of inflammation, high blood pressure and diabetes.

Long naps may also leave you feeling tired, says Dr Tony Wong from The London Medical Clinic in Hong Kong.

“Napping relaxes and recharges the body and mind, but keep your naps to 20 minutes,” he says. “Anything longer puts you in that deep-sleep phase and you may feel drowsy when you wake up.”

3. Go for regular health screenings – they could save your life

Health screenings facilitate early detection and management of disease, and can improve your quality of life and prevent premature death, Wong says.

Screenings can be personalised to suit your needs, so your doctor may discuss your medical concerns and take into account your age, gender and lifestyle choices to determine the appropriate tests for you.

“It’s worth getting blood work done annually, to check your liver and kidney function and cholesterol levels,” Wong says. “Women over 40 should get annual breast and pelvic scans and Pap smears as a minimum, while men under 40 should get annual testicular exams and men over 50, prostate exams.”

Mental health checks are just as important. During a physical health check, your doctor can clinically assess your mental health using evidence-based questionnaires. Patients can present with physical symptoms, which may just be a physical manifestation of psychological issues, Wong adds.

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4. Want less stress? Eat more fruit and vegetables

Chronic stress raises your risk of problems like anxiety, depression, digestive issues, cardiovascular disease, sleep issues, weight gain and muscle pain. But consuming at least 470g (16.5 ounces) of fruit and vegetables daily may help with stress, say researchers at Edith Cowan University in Australia.

Their study found that people who ate this amount had 10 per cent lower stress levels than those who consumed less than 230g a day (the World Health Organization recommends eating a minimum of 400g per day). These findings were published by the journal Clinical Nutrition in April 2021.

Besides being high in fibre, fruit and vegetables are packed with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, all of which can reduce inflammation and oxidative stress, problems that are thought to lead to increased stress and anxiety.

5. Sleep at this time every night for better heart health

Falling asleep between 10pm and 11pm might be most ideal for heart health, a study out of the United Kingdom found.

The research, published in November 2021 in the European Heart Journal – Digital Health, revealed that people who fell asleep between 11pm and 11.59pm had a 12 per cent higher risk of developing heart disease, and those who fell asleep at midnight or later had a 25 per cent greater risk. Meanwhile, nodding off before 10pm was associated with a 24 per cent increased risk.

Over the six-year study period, the incidence of cardiovascular events like stroke, heart attack and heart failure was found to be lowest among people who fell asleep between 10pm and 10.59pm – even when other risk factors, such as age, gender, sleep duration, smoking status and body-mass index, for example, were taken into account.

The body has a 24-hour internal clock called the circadian rhythm, which helps regulate physical and mental functioning. According to study author Dr David Plans from the University of Exeter, “the results suggest that early or late bedtimes may be more likely to disrupt the body clock, with adverse consequences for cardiovascular health”.

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6. Stay hydrated, lower your risk of heart failure

Keeping well hydrated throughout your life was recently found to reduce the risk of heart failure 25 years on. The research, which was presented in August at the European Society of Cardiology Congress 2021, suggests that maintaining good hydration can slow down or even prevent changes within the heart that lead to heart failure.

How much fluid is enough? The recommended daily amount varies, from 1.6 litres to 2.1 litres for women, and from two litres to three litres for men. However, many people don’t meet even the lower ends of these ranges.

According to the researchers, “serum sodium is a precise measure of hydration status: when people drink less fluid, the concentration of serum sodium increases. The body then attempts to conserve water, activating processes known to contribute to the development of heart failure.”

7. Avoid sitting for long periods – it’s bad for your mental health

Pandemic-related lockdowns and curfews made most people’s lifestyles more sedentary. And being sedentary made many of us more depressed, anxious, stressed and lonely, according to two American studies.

In the first study, published in 2020 in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health , it was found that participants who did 2.5 to 5 hours of exercise a week pre-pandemic reduced their activity by 32 per cent during lockdowns in March 2020. The same participants reported feeling more depressed, anxious and lonely.

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The researchers followed up with the participants between April and June, after the lockdown ended. During this period, the participants generally reported an improvement in their mental health.

However, “for people whose sitting times stayed high, their depressive symptoms, on average, didn’t recover in the same way as everyone else’s”, says lead author Jacob Meyer from Iowa State University. Results from the follow-up study were published in November 2021 in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry.

This isn’t to say that sitting for long periods causes depressive symptoms. Rather, even a little physical activity can improve our mood and mental well-being. Meyer suggests taking breaks when sitting for long periods and to find other ways to build physical activity into your day.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.

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