Taking care of yourself is essential to stay fit and healthy as Michelle Higgs explains
If you have a busy working life, it’s all too easy to neglect your own health. This is especially true if you have a family to look after or you’re a carer for someone who relies on you. But self-care is vital to everyone – we all matter and we’re all entitled to the best possible physical and mental wellbeing.
Self-care is all about taking positive steps to maintain your health. It isn’t selfish; in fact, it’s your responsibility to look after yourself. If you feel fit and healthy, you’ll be better prepared to cope with life’s challenges whenever they arise.
So what can you do to look after yourself more effectively? There’s no ‘one size fits all’ solution. What works for your partner or your best friend may not work for you, and vice versa. But these five tips will set you on the right track.
1 Get plenty of sleep
Whether you’re an early bird or a night owl, it’s vital that you get sufficient uninterrupted sleep. It’s a myth that everyone needs eight hours’ sleep a night because we’re all different. But if you’re regularly getting less than six hours, you’re likely to be suffering from sleep deprivation. The cumulative effects will lead to tiredness, changes in mood and lack of focus. Sleep allows your body to rest and repair itself, and if you don’t get enough, you’re at greater risk of coronary heart disease, diabetes and obesity.
Luckily, there are lots of things you can do to increase your chances of a good night’s sleep. Try to keep to the same times for getting up and going to bed. If you find it hard to wind down, getting into a regular bedtime routine may help, for instance, by having a hot drink, running a bath or reading a book. Keep your bedroom restful and clutter-free, and make sure the temperature isn’t too hot or too cold. Turn off your smartphone or tablet; better still, don’t take them into the room at all! For optimum sleep, the room should be completely dark so use thick lined curtains with a blackout blind to block early morning light or illumination from the street.
2 Eat healthily
What you eat has an enormous impact on your overall health. If you regularly have lots of processed foods, you’re likely to feel sluggish and lacking in energy. Think of your food as the fuel and your body as the engine. It makes sense to fuel up with a healthy, balanced diet that’s rich in fruit and vegetables, starchy carbohydrates, protein and unsaturated oils.
That doesn’t mean you have to stop eating your favourite foods altogether – far from it! The ratio of having 80% healthy and 20% less healthy foods most of the time works for most people, unless you’re overweight.
For good mental health, eat more foods that contain high amounts of tryptophan, an essential amino acid that the body converts into serotonin, the ‘happy hormone’ that controls your mood naturally. Try bananas, pineapple, plums and tomatoes, as well as oats, tofu, eggs, fish, poultry, beans, and nuts and seeds.
3 Stay hydrated
Making sure you’re drinking enough fluids is just as vital for your wellbeing as eating healthily. You may be dehydrated if you suffer with headaches, constipation, dizziness or muscle cramps. Ideally, you should drink about 2 litres of liquid or between six and eight glasses and cups a day to stay healthy. Water, fruit tea, plain tea and coffee (without sugar), and lower fat milk all count.
While you might think fruit juice is a healthy choice, it can be very high in sugar. The same is true of soft drinks such as fizzy drinks and energy drinks, so they are best drunk in moderation to avoid potential tooth decay. Drinking plain water is the best way to quench your thirst. If you’re not a fan of water, try adding lemon or lime juice, or no-added sugar squash for extra flavour.
Remember that you should drink more in hot weather, when you exercise, and if you’re ill. If you often forget to drink regularly, set a timer on your phone and take a water bottle with you when you’re out and about.
4 Keep active
If you feel physically fit, you’ll feel healthier too. That’s why it’s important to add some regular exercise to your routine. Being more physically active means you’ll have a lower risk of developing long-term conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and osteoarthritis – plus you’ll live longer too! Exercising is also great for your mental health because it reduces stress levels, boosts your mood, increases your self-esteem and improves the quality of your sleep.
The key is to find something you enjoy doing so that it can become a part of your regular routine. For some people, that simply means going for a brisk walk, cycling to work instead of driving, having an invigorating swim or going for a run. For others, fitness classes, at home or at the gym, are more suitable. Bear in mind that if you haven’t exercised for a long time, you need to take it slowly. There’s lots of advice on the NHS Live Well page (https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/exercise/). If at all possible, try to get outside for some of your exercise so that you can benefit from sunlight, fresh air and being in nature. Get moving!
5 Find time for yourself
Modern life can be hectic but it’s important that you listen to your body. Recognise when you’re feeling stressed and tired, and when you need to slow down and take time out from your everyday routine.
One of the best forms of self-care is to identify time in your schedule when you could do something just for you. This might only be 10 or 15 minutes once a day, but it could also be an entire evening once or twice a week. When you’ve decided on a time slot, think about what you would really look forward to doing. What makes you feel happy and relaxed?
Again, this is different for everyone but the possibilities are endless: reading a book, winding down in a bath, watching a film, listening to an audiobook, going to a yoga class, practising mindfulness, having an evening of pampering, dancing around your living room or just putting your feet up. Do something just for you, not for anyone else’s benefit. You might need peace and quiet, or you might prefer to be with other people. Whatever you do, don’t do it half-heartedly. You need to be present in the moment to benefit the most from self-care.
Remember, if you would like support to lose weight or to quit smoking, your local, friendly pharmacy has lots of tools and advice to help you stay on track.