Did you wake up to 2011 vowing to cut down on your drinking, eat less and exercise more? All good basic principles, but research published in the past year has suggested that living a healthier lifestyle isn’t quite so straightforward — and we needn’t be quite so abstemious, either. There are plenty of less obvious, even counterintuitive, ways we can extend our lives and improve our health this year.
Don’t diet too much: being slightly overweight is good for you
Until last year, the commonly accepted marker of a healthy weight-for-height was the body mass index, or BMI: your weight in kilograms divided by the square of your height in meters. BMI charts originally identified 20 to 25 as the target range for the lowest risk of future ill health: below 20 and you were too thin; above 25 and you were overweight; above 30 and you were obese.
But that universally accepted standard changed in 2010. It seems a higher BMI score, of 25 to 27.5, is at least as healthy in terms of cardiovascular risk as one of 20 to 22.5. You really don’t need to worry if you are a little overweight — provided you aren’t more than around 5kg from the ideal weight for your height. The new emphasis is on waist measurements: men can be content if their waist is less than 38 inches (96.5cm) and women should be happy with a waist of 34 inches or less. Keeping our waist measurements lower than those of our hips is a practical aim for everyone.
Exercise only in moderation
The two key terms for energy researchers in 2010 were brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF): BDNF stimulates the formation of new connections between brain cells; and VEGF produces new blood vessel-lining cells, potentially keeping the arteries free of flaws that are the potential sites of clots, and therefore preventing heart attacks and strokes.
Regular exercise increases levels of both, so it should be good for you — but there’s a snag: too much exercise lowers BDNF levels. Does that have a damaging effect on brain cells? We don’t yet know, but anecdotal evidence of the breakdown in health of athletes and enthusiasts who train to near-exhaustion every day tends to suggest that it does.
The main message, then, is to give your body time to recover after exercise. The current advice is to exercise to breathlessness (it doesn’t matter what you do — anything you continue to enjoy) for around 30 minutes, and avoid exercising more than three or four times a week.
It’s not how much fruit and veg you eat, but which type
According to American, Chinese and Finnish studies, eating lots of green, leafy vegetables helps to prevent type-2 diabetes, even if you don’t lose weight in the process. Eating plenty of fruit and vegetables as part of a healthy diet also helps you avoid obesity, which has knock-on protection against heart attacks, strokes, diabetes and cancer. However, the big finding for 2010 was that particular foods can lower the rates of specific diseases. For example, alliums such as chives, leeks, shallots, onions and garlic are linked with much reduced rates of stomach and colon cancer, and it is claimed on good evidence (in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute) that tomatoes help to protect against prostate cancer. It seems cooking tomatoes, especially in olive oil, or eating them in ketchup, is even more effective than eating them fresh.