What exactly is well-being? Is it physical health and fitness, mental health, happiness, feeling good about yourself, functioning well within the world? These are all elements of being well. It’s tempting to divide the concept into physical and mental but the human body is a complex meld of both, and doing something to improve your physical health may improve your mental state, and equally mental ill-being such as anxiety can be detrimental to physical health; so physical and mental elements are inextricably linked. Also, it’s worth pointing out that the absence of mental illness such as depression or anxiety does not signify peak mental wellbeing. Recently, the concept of ‘mental capital’ has evolved which has broad connotations including resilience, self-esteem, cognitive capacity and emotional intelligence. Having a good amount of ‘mental capital’ enables you to cope with what life brings to your door. Mental health is a sliding scale, from clinical illness at one end to flourishing mental health at the other, with anything in between.
What can you do for yourself right now?
Given the increased pressure at this time of year on that precious commodity time, a root-and- branch overhaul of your life-style is best left for the New Year( and more of that later) but certainly there are some simple damage-limitation steps that you personally can take to help yourself.
Quick tips for December
1) Get enough sleep.
Yes, your mother was right! Having a good nights’ sleep enables you to tackle almost anything, but a sleep debt (insufficient amount or quality of sleep) impacts on your short and long term health. A growing body of evidence from scientific studies shows that insufficient quality sleep, whatever its cause, can have profound negative consequences for health, including high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes, obesity, depression, heart attack and stroke, all of which develop insidiously over months and years. (Sleep Disorders and Sleep Deprivation). Do yourself a favour, don’t scrimp on sleep; put it at the top of your priorities.
2) Keep warm to avoid cold and flu, and wash your hands.
Yes, she was right again! Being cold will not cause you to have a cold or flu; you need to catch the virus first, but having a cold nose may hinder the ability of the nasal passages to mount an immune response against the virus, which replicates faster at lower temperatures. (Foxman EF 2015) The cold and flu viruses can be inhaled but they can also enter the body through the eyes, mouth and nose, from your hands after touching infected door handles, surfaces, coffee mugs etc. so do not touch your face, and wash your hands frequently. In the case of flu, have the vaccination; even if you’re not eligible for it on the NHS, you can pay for it at various pharmacies and supermarkets. And if you do have a cold, be a good Samaritan, try not to spread it; cough, sneeze and blow your nose into a disposable tissue, then wash your hands.
3) Eat your greens
(heard that somewhere before?!) If your diet is lacking in health, at this stage of the season, damage limitation really is the name of the game! It’s not the time to start a slimming diet, you won’t stick to it and will only end up feeling denied. That said, try to make sensible choices: do as your Mum said, eat plenty of vegetables, in a rainbow of colours. Think about portion size; a little of what you fancy probably won’t harm you as long as you eat plenty of good stuff as well. Try to choose food as close to its natural state as possible i.e not encased in pastry or doused in creamy sauce. Drink alcohol in moderation, alternating with soft drinks, water preferably. Your brain will thank you tomorrow.
4) Trip the light fantastic.
If you exercise regularly, then of course, try to keep it up. But if you don’t, or find that it slips under time pressure, don’t think all is lost. Dance at every socially-acceptable opportunity, after all it’s the party season! More mundanely, try to stand more during the working day, whilst on the phone or talking to a colleague or listening to a presentation. Avoid the queues at the escalators in the shopping centre by using the stairs, the same at work. Park the car a little further from your destination so you have to walk (but keep warm!) Hoover vigorously! All of these small changes add up.
5) Choral singing is good for you, it’s official.
Throughout history and across all cultures, mankind has enjoyed and been uplifted by singing in groups, and indeed as a leisure activity it has been popularised by Gareth Malone’s 2012 TV series Sing While You Work. Anecdotally, people have reported all manner of positive emotional and physical benefits ranging from release of stress and tension, increased energy, concentration and memory to reduction in pain. Now researchers are measuring physiological changes to explain these effects, such as decreased blood pressure and heart rate, reduced levels of the stress hormone cortisol and increase in mood-enhancing endorphins (Prof. Stephen Clift et al ) So while you’re out and about doing your Christmas shopping at the market square or the shopping centre, seek out the carol singers and invest 15 minutes of your time to belt out a song for the good of your wellbeing-it could be the start of something beautiful!
6) It’s the season of goodwill so learn from Scrooge.
‘Share’, my mother taught me. ‘If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all’. Giving has a positive effect on the giver’s wellbeing. (Prof. S Stewart-Brown;Huppert 2008; Lyubomirsky 2008). And it doesn’t just mean giving money, gifts or time; small acts of kindness that show you have thought about another human being, such as helping someone across the road, or a person struggling with bags or a pushchair; asking a colleague or relation how they are and listening with care. Smile and show gratitude.
If you follow the above suggestions, after the festivities you may be in a better state than you were before you began, or at least you won’t be in a worse one! Hopefully you will be motivated to move up a gear and consider a longer-term plan for improving your wellbeing, the ‘root-and-branch’ overhaul.
Below is a list of things that you can do, all based on evidence from the medical profession, that will have a positive impact on your wellbeing. They are not separated according to benefit for mental or physical wellbeing because there is some much crossover.
- Connect with the people around you; family, friends, neighbours, acquaintances, from all areas of your life. Strengthen and in particular broaden your relationships. Chatting doesn’t come easily to everyone so learn the art of small talk and you’ll be amazed how you soon stumble upon common ground.
- Be Active, even if you are a healthy weight. This really is a no-brainer; physical activity has well documented benefits for body and mind; it is now known that moderate physical activity three to five times a week, will significantly reduce symptoms of depression (Dunn et al 2005). If you currently do no physical exercise, this may seem daunting and put you off completely, so it’s pleasing to note that even single bouts of exercise of less than 10 minutes have been shown to improve mood (Acevedo et al 2006). The most important thing is to find something that you enjoy, that you can incorporate into your routine and do for the rest of your life. It doesn’t have to be a formal exercise class or session at the gym. Explore the NHS Choices Livewell website, where there are numerous initiatives to inspire you; Couch to 5K, 10000 steps a day challenge, 10 ways to get fit, gym-free exercises. The possibilities are endless, you just need to move.
- Give. As mentioned above in the quick tips, giving of yourself to others has the positive side effect of the feel good factor for you. A systematic review of 87 relevant health studies (Casiday R 2008) concluded that volunteering can increase volunteers’ longevity, improve their mental health, keep them fitter, and enable them to cope better with illness when it occurs. But if you don’t have time to volunteer, even small acts of kindness such as donating blood or letting someone into the traffic queue on your commute, can leave you with a warm glow. Note though, giving is beneficial to the giver only if it is done willingly, not as a matter of duty.
- Take notice. Now this is an interesting one, akin to the process of mindfulness which is becoming very popular. It has been shown that training to be aware of sensations, thoughts and feelings for 8 to 12 weeks enhances wellbeing for several years (Huppert F 2008 p13). Be aware of the world around you and of what you are feeling. Be curious. It could be summarised as a combination of ‘wake up and smell the roses’ and ‘celebrate success’.
- Keep learning. Try something new or rediscover an old interest. Learn a language, how to cook your favourite dish, a new card game, to play the harmonica! Adult learning has been correlated with positive effects on wellbeing, including self-esteem, life satisfaction, optimism and much more(Hammond C 2004)
- Don’t smoke. If you smoke, stopping would bring the greatest benefit to your well-being of any other change. If you need convincing, check out the ‘10 health benefits of stopping smoking’ on NHS Choices. It’s never easy to stop but maximise your chances-go to ‘stop smoking treatments’ for all the latest up-to-date advice and support. Bear in mind that improving your lung function will enable you to be more physically active, which has the knock-on effect of improving mood. It really is a win-win situation.
- Maintain or reduce to a healthy body weight with a healthy eating. This is such a hot topic but if you have been living in a cave, go to Public Health England for the alarming list of serious health conditions that are associated with too much body fat. The tip of the iceberg is increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes, heart disease, certain types of cancer, and mental problems such as depression. Are you a healthy weight? Don’t guess, step on the scales and use the NHS Choices healthy body weight calculator to find out. If you form part of the 62% of adults who are overweight, you know what to do; eat less and move more. But we all know it’s easier said than done. So much has been proposed and written about weight loss plans over recent decades that it’s impossible to summarise it in less than a tome, so yet again refer to NHS Choices. ‘Lose Weight’ and ‘Eating a Balanced Diet’ for excellent advice and support. As a starting point:
- Sleep. As mentioned in the quick tips, insufficient sleep has short term effects that we are all familiar with, such as reduced concentration, brain ‘fogginess’ and general physical sluggishness, but there are longer term consequences that are potentially very serious, including mental disorders. There are many sleep disorders that require clinical intervention but the majority of people who do not wake refreshed have insufficient sleep because of modern lifestyle behaviors, such as using communication and technology devices into the evening.For advice on simple changes to improve your sleep, go to NHS Choices, Better Sleep. A good night’s sleep prepares you to face whatever the day throws at you.
Another important consideration; set realistic targets. Changing your lifestyle will very likely involve altering habits (automatic behaviour), possibly habits you have had all of your life. So it’s critical to be realistic about the amount of effort and time required to swap one habit for a more desirable one. For many years, a myth was circulated that it took 21 days to change a habit but recent research by Lally et al 2009 has shown that it takes much longer, an average of 66 days in fact. As expected, there was wide variation between people (one person took 254 days to reach automaticity) and depending on the type of behaviour they were trying to change. Also, occasionally forgetting to carry out the new behaviour did not significantly affect eventual success. These points are very important to bear in mind: if you are trying to change your afternoon snack from a donut to an apple, but one day you succumb to temptation, don’t beat yourself up, just climb back on the wagon the next day. And making it a habit to reach for the apple rather than the donut may take longer than you thought, so don’t assume you’ve failed at day 21! Dig in and keep going. It’s a lifetime plan, and you want it to be a long plan!
Employment in itself is good for you; in addition to providing a living, it promotes a sense of self-worth and provides social contacts. Employers can help in many ways. Apart from obvious factors such as reasonable working hours, supportive management, comfortable working environment, there are numerous practical steps that employers can take, from the top down, to facilitate staff wellbeing; offering healthy food options in the canteen; providing bike racks and showering facilities to encourage cycling to work or physical exercise at lunchtime; allowing time at lunch for people to do a physical activity; encourage people to eat away from their desk in a communal area where they can ‘connect’ with others; reduce time spent sitting by promoting standing meetings and presentations; provide ongoing training to improve work-related skills so people ‘keep learning’; set an example by having a chosen charity and organising sponsored events; organise social events to ‘connect’ more; organise blood donation; have an office choir; allow time for celebrating and reflecting on achievements. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Why would your employer do any of these things? Because it’s the right thing to do? Hopefully. Because healthy employees are good for business? Absolutely (Bevan S, 2010). Although it may seem common sense, quality data are building to support the views that healthy employees mean reduced absence from work, reduced accidents at work, improved retention, higher employee commitment, higher productivity (Tscharnezki 2008) and employee resilience (Business in the Community 2009). Your health impacts on your family, the wider community, your employer, and society. Do your bit and hopefully others will follow.
Acevedo EO, Ekkekakis P (2006) Psycho-biology of physical activity. (Champaign, II: Human Kinetics)
Bevan S. The Business Case for Employees Health and Wellbeing-A report prepared for Investors in People UK . April 2010.
Business in the Community (2009), The emotional resilience toolkit, London: BITC
Cassidy R. 2008. Volunteering and health: what impact does it really have? A report for Volunteering England.
Centre for Mental Health, 2010. The economic and social costs of mental health problems in 2009/2010. London.
Clift S et al. Music in Our Bones. July 2011. Sidney de Haan Research Centre for Arts and Health
Dunn AL, Trivedi MH, Kampert JB, Clark CG, Chambliss HO (2005) ‘Exercise treatment for depression: efficacy and dose response’ American Journal of Preventative Medicine 28:1-8
Foresight Mental Capital and Wellbeing Project (2008). Final Project report. The Government Office for Science, London.
Foxman EF, Storer JA, Fitzgerald ME, et al 2015. Temperature-dependent innate defense against the common cold virus limits viral replication at warm temperature in mouse airway cells. PNAS 5 Jan 2015.
Hammond C (2004) ‘Impacts of lifelong learning upon emotional resilience, psychological and mental health: fieldwork evidence’. Oxford Review of education. 30.551-568.
Huppert F (2008). Psychological well-being: evidence regarding its causes and its consequences (London: Foresight Mental Capital and Wellbeing Project 2008).
Lally P, van Jarrsveld CHM, Potts HWW and Wardle J. ‘How habits are formed: modelling habit formation in the real world.’ European Journal of Psychology. 40. Issue 6. p 998-1009
Lyubomirsky S, Sheldon KM, Schkade D (2005) ‘Pursuing happiness: The architecture of sustainable change’ Review of General Psychology 9: 111-131.
NHS Choices. Better Sleep. http://www.nhs.uk/LiveWell/sleep/Pages/sleep-home.aspx
NHS Choices. 5 steps to mental health. http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/Pages/improve- Foxman EF, Storer JA, Fitzgerald ME, et al. Temperature-dependent innate defense against the common cold virus limits viral replication at warm temperature in mouse airway cellsmental-wellbeing.aspx
NHS Choices. Lose weight. http://www.nhs.uk/livewell/loseweight/Pages/Loseweighthome.aspx
Public Health England. http://www.noo.org.uk/NOO_about_obesity/obesity_and_health/health_risk_adult
Stewart-Brown S. Prof of Public Health, University of Warwick-Five steps to mental wellbeing. NHS choices.
Sneed RS1, Cohen S. A prospective study of volunteerism and hypertension risk in older adults. Psychol Aging. 2013 Jun; 28(2):578-86. doi: 10.1037/a0032718.
Tscharnezki, O. (2008), Presenteeism: Business Case & Missing Link, Unilever EfH Management Conference, October 2008
Waddell G, Burton AK 2004. Concepts of rehabilitation for the management of health problems. London TSO.