DR. MICHAEL MOSLEY reveals small changes to transform your health
DR. MICHAEL MOSLEY reveals small changes to transform your health
Feeling better about yourself, getting up and moving more—even being healthier—doesn’t have to involve changing your daily routine.
Here, in the final installment of his compelling series, Dr. Michael Mosley reveals more simple, science-based changes to your daily habits that will change your life.
Dance for five to ten minutes every day
I’m not one of the world’s most natural movers, but I do enjoy the occasional salsa night with my wife, Clare. And if you like to get in a few moves, you’ll be glad to hear that dancing has been shown to be more effective in improving muscle, balance and brain health than traditional fitness exercises.
Vigorous dancing can get your heart rate up to more than 140 beats per minute while giving you a great combination of low and high intensity exercise.
It can relieve depression, reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke, boost memory and protect against dementia.
Brain imaging studies reveal that it can increase the volume of the hippocampus (the area of the brain involved in spatial memory) and improve white matter (the number of nerve cells) in areas associated with memory and processing speed.
The great thing about reading fiction is that it acts as a ‘whole brain’ exercise. When researchers at Stanford University scanned the brains of people who read Jane Austen, they found a dramatic increase in blood flow throughout the brain.
Apparently we’re all (even me!) natural dancers. ‘Humans,’ says Dr Julia Christensen of the Max Planck Institute in Germany, a former dancer who retrained as a neuroscientist, ‘are the only species with a specific connection between the ear and the leg, which means we are wired to adapt to the rhythm of our movements.’
She told me that relaxation is key to getting the most out of dancing. So just enjoy yourself and dance like nobody’s watching (probably not).
And, if you can, dance with others. Inclusive bonding has a stronger stress-reducing effect. Enthusiastically dancing with others can even help us cope with pain, as it stimulates the release of endorphins—powerful hormones that, in addition to relieving pain, can induce positive feelings.
Devote 20 minutes every day to new skills
I recently tried oil painting. It was the first time I had drawn something since childhood and the first time with oil. When the model walked in and sat back on the chair, I was terrified. I had no idea where to start.
The art teacher taught us the basics and then left us to do it for a few hours. I was surprised by how captivating it was. I got the model’s hands wrong and her feet ended up as ugly pink splotches, but I was quietly pleased with the end result.
Taking on new activities like this is very challenging, especially when you’re my age (65); but that is precisely why they have such a powerful effect on the aging brain.
Trying to learn new skills later in life can mean making new brain cells, according to Alan Gow, professor of psychology at Heriot-Watt University.
The process of approaching something new, especially in a group, can change the way you think and feel. If the skill is challenging enough, your brain will be forced to forge new pathways and develop new connections, increasing your brain power.
Professor Gow’s studies show that after three months of working on new skills, people show improvements in thinking skills – particularly in the areas of the brain most affected by ageing.
“Processing speed and thinking are usually among the first areas of brain function to begin to decline with age, but we believe that these are the areas that benefit most from learning new skills,” he explains.
‘It can reverse that feeling of ‘slowness’ you get with age, and if you continue to master the skill, this benefit could extend to other thinking skills and improve memory.’
As Professor Gow says: ‘It’s never too late to try new things, and the longer you stick with them, the more benefits you’ll accumulate over time.’ People who maintain their skills, he adds, ‘generally live longer, healthier lives — so it makes sense to embrace the opportunity to improve them.’
One of the best things you can do for your brain is to learn a new language, because juggling sounds, words, concepts, and grammatical and social rules improves blood flow and connections throughout the brain. It can even improve intelligence. But for maximum benefit, you need to exercise five hours a week.
Soak in a hot bath before bed
A relaxing warm bath is one of those rare pleasures in life that not only feels great, but is also good for you by reducing blood sugar levels and the risk of heart disease.
And a hot bath an hour and a half before bed could help you fall asleep faster and improve the quality of your sleep.
When you take a hot bath, your core body temperature rises. But only when you go outside and start to cool down, you will feel the benefits that encourage you to sleep.
‘As your core temperature drops, it mimics the onset of sleep, triggering the release of the sleep hormone melatonin and sending a strong signal that it’s time to sleep,’ says Jason Ellis, director of the Northumbria Sleep Centre.
A relaxing hot bath is one of those rare pleasures in life that not only feels great, but is also good for you by lowering blood sugar levels and the risk of heart disease.
Count your blessings
On the last night, write down three things you are grateful for. There is solid science that getting into the habit of regular gratitude can make you feel happier, lower your blood pressure, improve your sleep, relieve pain, and even retrain your brain.
‘Think of three things you can be grateful for that day,’ recommends Fuschia Sirois, a professor of psychology at Durham University who specializes in researching gratitude and its role in health.
‘Maybe someone treated you well or you managed to get outside and enjoy some fresh air.’ The goal is to develop what she calls a ‘grateful mindset’.
“Gratitude opens your perspective, allowing you to appreciate the positive instead of focusing on your worries,” she says. ‘It reduces stress by helping us see things beyond the narrow view we adopt when our fight and flight mechanisms are activated.’
In her studies, patients with chronic health conditions who spent three weeks counting their blessings reported significantly less pain and better sleep than those in the control group.
There’s solid science that getting into the habit of regular gratitude can make you feel happier, lower your blood pressure, improve your sleep, relieve pain, and even retrain your brain.
Read fiction for half an hour a day
I love to read – from a young age. I was often seen walking down the street, reading while trying to avoid other pedestrians and lampposts.
These days I grab reading moments when I can, but I’m also a member of a book club and don’t need convincing that reading fiction is good for empathy and social skills. Nor that it can improve memory and protect against depression.
The great thing about reading fiction is that it acts as a ‘whole brain’ exercise. When researchers at Stanford University scanned people’s brains while reading Jane Austen, they found a dramatic increase in blood flow throughout the brain.
That’s because when we’re engrossed in a good book, our brains are busy imagining the settings, sounds, smells and tastes described, and this activates many different areas of the brain that process these experiences in real life. Words such as ‘lavender’, ‘cinnamon’ and ‘soap’, for example, will elicit a response not only in the language processing areas of our brain, but also in areas dedicated to dealing with smells.
dr. Raymond Mar, a neuroscientist at York University, says reading fiction can improve your empathy and interpersonal skills, because the parts of the brain we use to understand stories overlap with those we use to understand other people. ‘Reading helps our brains get better at creating accurate models of real people and predicting what they might think, feel or do,’ he told me.
Studies show that reading is also one of the best ways to escape the pressures of modern life.
‘Anxiety is about turning our attention inward,’ says Dr Mar, ‘but reading forces us to focus on the words and the story, and that can take our mind off us and help us relax.’
Research from Yale University showed that those who read 30 minutes a day lived an average of 23 months longer than those who did not.
Adapted from Just One Thing: How Simple Changes Can Transform Your Life by Dr Michael Mosley, published by Short Books priced £16.99.
© Dr Michael Mosley 2022 To order a copy for £13.99 (offer valid until 15/11/22; UK P&P free on orders over £20), visit mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937.
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