Planning your health beyond 2023

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January is never the best time for goal setting – and we need to think far wider than our diet, says nutritional therapist Karen Geary

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It seems counterintuitive to me to set new year resolutions or goals in January. I like to work with the natural rhythm of the earth, and given it has poured with rain for most of January, I have remained in hibernation mode as long as possible, enjoyed it immensely and am not feeling remotely guilty. I slept an extra hour a night too.
For me, the spring equinox is the time to start implementing new health goals – when the earth begins to wake up. I have been giving them quite some thought while catching up with a few health-related podcasts when out walking.
I recently listened to two longevity experts with two very different perspectives on nutrition; one advocating high quality protein intake from good quality meat sources, coupled with a high plant intake (but not grains) and supplements (nutraceuticals), as the way to go. The other advocated a mostly plant-based diet, with beans every day. It was a respectful discussion and actually they have much in common. They both said that a high plant intake, time-restricted feeding, good sleep, a sense of purpose and strong social connections are all supported by science.
All true.

Work backwards
Then I listened to a third longevity expert who, in my opinion, made the most sense of all. He challenged his listeners to think about how long they wanted to live, what they hoped to be doing, and then to work backwards in order to achieve those goals.
This approach may differ depending upon how old you are now and how long you want to live! If, for example, you want to be playing with your grand/great grandchildren in your 90s, you need a particular level of fitness to be running around, so it might not be a bad idea to get a better handle on how fit you are now (you can be checked by a fitness professional who can calculate your bio-age from a few well-known exercises and put a plan together for you). For this speaker, fitness was more important than nutrition. What he meant by that is that you can have a fabulous diet, but if you are not physically fit, what’s the point if you can’t lift yourself out of your armchair?

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A consistent plan
There are five things we should be aiming to do every day to maintain both our physical and mental health. There is no replacement for these things. How many of these do you already do and where do you need to put the work in?

• Sleep
I have written about sleep on these pages before (‘three surprising ways to sleep better’ The BV, Apr 22) and my website has lots of tips on how to optimise it. Most people need between six and eight hours a night. Teenagers more. Coupled with sleep is sunlight, sometimes known as circadian light therapy. Get out in the sunlight, ideally in the morning. Exposing your eyes to sunlight helps to align your circadian rhythm and produce serotonin, which in turn helps to make melatonin, the darkness hormone. This helps you feel more tired in the evening, improves sleep and helps you to feel more awake in the morning.

• Hydration
It is not that well known that we need to increase our hydration as we get older. It plays an essential role in many health issues. Good hydration plays a key role in mental health, sleep quality and cognitive ability.
Dehydration in the elderly is very common. Between the age of 20 and 80 years, there is a 15% reduction in water volume in our bodies, which is why the elderly get dehydrated faster. Lower water volumes mean a poorer response to temperature regulation and an increased strain on the heart.

• Movement
Ideally an hour a day. Learn about NEAT (non exercise activity thermogenesis – spontaneous activities that occur every time you perform some sort of physical exertion, such as standing up from a seated position, running to catch the bus or even simply fidgeting). Try to do something every day that gets your breathing rate up. You will live longer and you will feel better. Get assessed professionally if you can to get focused.

• Nutrition
Try and get 75 to 80 per cent of your food from minimally processed foods. As we age, the need for protein increases. This is because we are less efficient at using protein compared to younger adults. If we don’t meet these increased needs we can lose muscle and lean mass and have a lower immune function, all of which play a role in increased risks of frailty and illness. Consult a professional for personalised goals or where you have specific health concerns.

• Social connection
Do what you can to make the interactions that you have with friends, family, as well as online, as healthy as possible. Some people are more introverted than others, so do what is meaningful for you to maintain high-quality social connections.
I guarantee that if you do these five things, your health will benefit.
Now set your long term goals!

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