With summer nearly gone and a potentially challenging winter ahead due to the impending threat of not just Covid but flu and colds, most of us could do with a boost around now.
And here I have good news. Getting your body, brain and immune system in better shape doesn’t require a major overhaul — it may just take a few tweaks.
Recently I have been working on the second series of my podcast, Just One Thing. Each week I look into the science behind one small thing you can start to do to boost your health and happiness.
The things I recommend involve doing something positive, which most people find easier than practising restraint. Here is a sneak preview of some of the new measures I investigate, which you can try for yourself.
Exercise LITTLE & often
Short bursts of activity will boost your metabolism writers Dr Mosley
It’s called ‘exercise snacking’ and the idea is that instead of doing your daily exercise in one 30-minute blast you can get perhaps more benefit by breaking it down into a series of exercise ‘snacks’ lasting as little as a few minutes at a time. Short bursts of activity will boost your metabolism and make you less likely to spend long stretches being sedentary, which is bad for your blood sugar levels.
On an average day I go for at least one brisk 20-minute walk, pop down to the shops on my bike and fit in a few minutes of press-ups and squats. It all adds up.
I was delighted to come across research showing that eating just two squares of dark chocolate every day can have clinically significant effects on blood pressure and heart health. The beneficial compounds are flavonoids, but to be effective the chocolate has to be dark and made up of at least 75 per cent cocoa.
Burst into song
Singing also gives you a ‘high’ by boosting endocannabinoids, cannabis-like chemicals that your body naturally produces
I like singing, though I do it badly. But I’ve no doubt it is good for me. As Dr Daisy Fancourt, an associate professor of psychobiology and epidemiology at University College London told me, singing has been shown to not only reduce stress hormones, such as cortisol, but to reduce chronic inflammation, linked to depression.
Singing also gives you a ‘high’ by boosting endocannabinoids, cannabis-like chemicals that your body naturally produces.
Get more sunlight
Sunlight is a double-edged sword. It improves mood, lowers blood pressure, and gives us vitamin D, a hormone that plays a vital role in protecting us from viruses such as Covid-19. But too much exposure causes skin cancer.
However, briefly popping outside in the middle of the day, without sunblock, can maximise vitamin D production (which is made in the skin as a result of sun exposure).
If you are relatively pale-skinned like me, then you just have to roll up your sleeves and trousers and hang around for about ten minutes. If you are darker-skinned you may need about 25 minutes.
Get on with it, though, because you only have a few more weeks to stock up your vitamin D levels. By October the sun’s rays are no longer strong enough.
Dr Mosley (pictured) writes that people should be practising Time Restricted Eating (TRE)
Time restricted eating (TRE) — in other words, extending your overnight fast to at least 12 hours by having your breakfast a bit later and finishing your evening meal a bit earlier — has multiple benefits.
People generally eat less, which leads to weight loss and better sleep, and because you are not eating so close to bedtime your body is better able to process the food you have consumed.
Play video games
I’ve always thought video games were a waste of time, so I was surprised by the strength of the research pointing to benefits on our brains and vision from playing a few hours a week.
According to Professor Daphne Bavelier, a neuroscientist at Geneva University, computer games not only improve working memory (your ability to hold more than one thing in your memory at once) but your ability to multitask. Games with action and rapid decision-making seem to be best.
Bring nature inside
HAVING a few houseplants around can help clear air pollutants. These are released from building materials, furnishings, aerosol sprays and cleaning products, and have been linked to asthma attacks.
Eating? Drink Water
Singing has been shown to not only reduce stress hormones, such as cortisol, but to reduce chronic inflammation, linked to depression.
Headache, fatigue and woolly thinking are all signs of dehydration. For one episode we challenged a volunteer to drink a glass of water with every meal, and it really perked him up. One of the best ways to tell if you are drinking enough is to look at your urine. It should be straw-coloured and you should be going five or six times a day.
Stand up more
Sitting for long periods contributes to obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease. A few years ago I was involved in a study where office workers stood for an extra three hours a day. It raised their heart rates so much, over a year they would have burned the same calories running ten marathons!
And when they were standing, they cleared the sugar from their blood much more quickly. Even strolling around for a few minutes every half hour can really help.
You can listen to Just One Thing on the BBC Sounds app from Thursday and on Radio 4 at 11.45am on Sundays.
Do you have the stomach for the blue cake challenge?
When my oldest son, Alex, was three years old, my wife, Clare made him a birthday cake covered with bright blue icing, which he and his friends eagerly scoffed. The next day his poo was alarmingly turquoise.
I was reminded of this when I read about a recent research project where scientists from King’s College London asked more than 1,000 volunteers to eat muffins laced with blue food colouring. They then not only measured how long it took after eating the muffins for their poo to change colour, but also analysed the microbes therein.
They were really interested in finding out whether there was a link between the mix of microbes in the volunteers’ guts (their microbiomes) and their transit time — in other words how long it took between food being eaten and the remnants exiting the body.
In healthy people this can take anywhere between 12 hours and two days. With this group the average was 28.7 hours. The researchers found volunteers with longer transit times were more likely to be hosting undesirable bacteria and have more fat around their tummy than those with shorter times. My transit time was roughly 21 hours, which suggests my microbiome is pretty healthy.
To take the blue poop challenge, all you have to do is make some muffins with bright blue food colouring, eat a couple and note the time. When you see the first signs of blue poo, note the time again. There are some simple things you can do to speed things up and improve the quality of your microbiome. First, increase the amount of multi-coloured fruit and veg you eat. These foods contain lots of fibre, which speeds up bowel movements.
Also eat more fermented foods such as yoghurt, kombucha or sauerkraut. They are bursting with healthy microbes (called probiotics). And cut down on ultra-processed foods — snacks and ready meals with a long list of ingredients.