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The five pillars of health and how to keep them strong

Taking care of ourselves can often feel overwhelming. Especially when we are constantly bombarded with information from so many conflicting sources. All giving health advice that is often reductionist and, most confusing of all, contradictory.

It’s little wonder that so many of us lose our way. When confronted with so many options and rules, the temptation to push back and, well, give into temptation can feel impossible to resist.

Fortunately, it’s not really that difficult to get back on track.

At its heart, good health simply comes down to taking care of five key things each day. Staying mostly on track, most days should keep your general health strong for years.

1. Food

If ever there was a reductionist science, it’s nutrition research. We know plenty about cholesterol, trans fats, gluten, salt, sugar, lactose… and not enough about what we should actually eat. However, when a more holistic approach is taken, most experts agree on three important eating principles.

  1. Eat mostly plants – this can be a tough one for a dedicated carnivore to stomach, but the evidence is clear. For optimal health, reduce meat consumption (especially red meat) and eat a wide variety of plants. That means more fruit, vegetables, legumes, pulses and grains.
  2. Eat food that is as close to nature as possible – think apples over apple pie; oranges over orange juice; homemade bread over the plastic-wrapped supermarket variety; and dried beans you soak yourself instead of a can of beans with added sugar and salt.
  3. Avoid ultra-processed foods – there is debate about what exactly constitutes an ultra-processed food, but generally the NOVA classification system is accepted as the authority. It defines ultra-processed foods as snacks, drinks, ready meals and many other product types “formulated mostly or entirely from substances extracted from foods or derived from food constituent”. In other words, most things that arrive in packets.

2. Movement

The Australian physical activity and exercise guidelines are clear: adults up to age 64 should be moderately active for at least 2.5 hours or vigorously active for 1.25 hours a week. That’s the bare minimum. If you tally that out over seven days (and the guidelines prefer you to move every day), that works out to be at least 22 mins or around 12 minutes a day. If you’re over 65 it’s recommended that you are moderately active for 30 minutes most days. That’s achievable, right? 

Another important thing to note is that sitting for long periods has overwhelmingly been found to increase your risk of everything awful. Instead of sitting, try doing some strength training (body weight, bands or weights) at least three times a week, because that’s been found to make everything better

3. Sleep

The fact that getting enough sleep is critical for health should be news to precisely no one. So, if you know the quality of your sleep is anything less than excellent, why aren’t you doing something about it? 

Prioritise it, stick to a routine and follow some simple rules like avoiding screen time in the hour before bed; avoiding naps during the day; cutting back on caffeine and alcohol; and improving your overall ‘sleep hygiene’. If that all fails, talk to your GP, who can refer you to a sleep clinic. 

4. Connection

There is growing evidence that social connectedness plays a fundamental role in wellbeing and longevity. It’s not entirely known why, but people with strong, supportive social networks have a lower risk of developing cardiovascular diseases, improved immune system functioning and better overall mental health

It couldn’t be clearer that staying actively social throughout life is critical. So reach out to family and friends for weekly get-togethers; join a club or group; get to know your neighbours; chat with people in queues - whatever it takes to regularly bring more people into your life.

5. Stress

The list of reasons to reduce stress in our lives is ever-growing. The latest is that stress can lead to cognitive impairment, another compelling reason to keep your stress levels under control as you get older. Sticking to all of the points above is a very good start, plus try to get out into nature as often as you can. ‘Green time’ has been found to have myriad good benefits (you can find them here), all of which will make you feel amazing.