If your health could do with a refresh, you’re not alone. Abi Jackson runs through some key questions to ask as we enter 2022.
Covid still dominates the health agenda, but two years of pandemic living has taken a toll. So, with the new year, could it be worth checking in on our overall health?
Punishing cliched resolutions are really not the prescription we’re going for right now though. Instead, we’ve asked experts to talk us through seven key areas for a top-to-toe health roll call for 2022…
1. Are you sitting down too much?
Many of us are now more sedentary than ever – and that’s a big concern. “Too much sedentary time and sitting poorly leads to bone thinning and muscle weakness, which has a knock-on effect of lowering metabolism and interfering with blood-sugar regulation,” says psychologist and personal trainer Suzy Reading, author of new book Sit To Get Fit (published by Aster on Feb 3, £12.99).
“Sitting reduces circulation, decreasing availability of nutrients and oxygen and impeding the removal of waste products, leading to swelling, stiffness and pain in muscles and joints.” Then there’s the impact on our mood, digestion, energy, pain and tension from slouching and ‘tech neck’.
Reading says we “need an action plan that improves our posture while sitting, standing and moving” and to “break up sedentary periods with joyful movement. Take an inventory of all the places you sit and make sure you are well supported,” she suggests.
“Listen to your body – if you are uncomfortable, what can you do to improve your set up? Set the intention to get up every 30 minutes and have a ‘movement menu’ written down for easy inspiration. Even just getting out of your chair and having a shake-out can be enough.”
2. Are you due any routine check-ups?
Thousands of medical appointments have been cancelled since the start of the pandemic, and many of us have fallen behind with routine checks. But as Dr Stephanie Ooi, GP at MyHealthcare Clinic in London, says: “Routine checks and screenings are really important. In the case of smear tests and mammograms, they can catch abnormal cells early and before cancer has a chance to spread. If you have an illness that needs regular monitoring, such as diabetes, check-ups are key in preventing your condition leading to other problems.
“If you are invited for a routine appointment, please make sure you attend,” Ooi urges. “Or if you believe you are due a screening test, contact your GP.”
3. Have you been ignoring niggles?
Similarly, if you’ve been putting off seeing your GP and ignoring niggles, heed Dr Ooi’s advice: “The healthcare system is under huge strain, but GPs are still very much there. It can be easy to think, ‘Oh I don’t want to bother anyone’, but if you are worried, pick up the phone.”
This is especially important if you have any potential ‘red flag’ symptoms. “If you notice any changes that cause concern – such as lumps, bleeding, unusual pain, a persistent cough that isn’t Covid, unexplained weight loss, etc – don’t delay in making an appointment,” says Dr Ooi.
4. Could sleep be a bigger priority?
“We’ve grown into a culture of filling all the hours of the day with activities, with sleep being the first thing that’s sacrificed when short on time,” says Samantha Briscoe, lead clinical physiologist at London Bridge Hospital (part of HCA UK). The added anxiety of the past couple of years hasn’t helped – but sleep really does underpin our overall health.
“During sleep, we give our body and mind time to recharge. Good quality sleep also helps the body remain healthy, supporting the immune system,” says Briscoe. “Without enough sleep, the brain cannot function properly. Poor quality sleep can also affect our body weight, as changes in appetite-regulating hormones mean we are more likely to consume excess calories and exercise/burn less.”
Quality sleep is “the key for better physical and mental health”, Briscoe adds. “Consistency is vital – keeping a regular sleep schedule. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle, reducing caffeine and taking regular exercise can all help our sleep quality.”
5. Are you getting enough time outdoors?
Staying home has been a big part of the pandemic, but time outdoors really is a tonic. “Any form of physical activity is great, but I make the case for walking, because it has the potential to combine several wellbeing practices,” says Counselling Directory member Wendy Nicholas (counselling-directory.org.uk).
“You’ll find your brain loves fractals, the geometric shapes found in nature, so much so that they stimulate the parahippocampus, which is involved with regulating emotions and helps us produce more feel-good brainwaves,” Nicholas adds. “If you can manage your walk in the morning and make it anything over 20 minutes, you will be exposed to the sun’s rays, helping set key circadian rhythms and promoting better sleep. Finally, if you combine your walk with a friend, there’s a daily dose of connection, [which] contributes to overall physical and mental health.”
6. How are your coping strategies?
“When we are under pressure, we all have the potential to turn pretty much anything into an unhealthy activity,” says Nicholas – and the pandemic has certainly piled on pressure. Things like drinking, compulsive and disordered eating, gambling etc may have crept up. Checking in with yourself and seeking support – whether through your GP, paid-for therapy or helplines – is important. And even ‘healthy’ practices can have a tipping point, notes Nicholas.
“I was contacted during lockdown by someone who told me they had set up a schedule of activities,” Nicholas recalls. “They started with losing an hours’ sleep to rise early and exercise, meditate, cook a nutritious breakfast, and so their day went on – all whilst caring for children and working. When I asked why they’d engaged in what seemed to be a punishing schedule, I was mortified to be told they had heard me recommend these things! I now ensure I emphasise that compassion is the key ingredient in self-care.
“It’s natural to want to avoid discomfort or suffering at all costs, and that’s where many coping strategies turn sour. They become numbing activities, rather than compassionate responses to our needs. I often ask clients to practice stopping each day, perhaps two or three times, to put their hand on their chest and ask: what do you need right now? Sometimes that question will expose a very physical unmet need, for example to eat or drink. Sometimes the answer may be a deeper psychological need, for example to not feel lonely. When we ask the question and feel the answer, we have the choice to respond more effectively.”
7. Is it time to see a dentist?
Unless you had a dental emergency, seeing the dentist may not have felt like a priority over the past two years – but it’s important not to leave routine check-ups too long.
“Dentists are trained to look out for a range of health problems, including early signs of cancer in the mouth and jawbone,” says Dr Azad Eyrumlu, of leading private dental firm Banning Dental Group. “It is always a race against the time to identify, diagnose and treat oral cancers. The success of any treatment is dependent on how early it’s diagnosed.
“Meanwhile, gum disease may increase your risk of all kinds of other health complications, including stroke, diabetes and heart disease. These are just some of the reasons why visiting the dentist is important.”