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Take Charge Now: Immediate Steps Towards A Healthier You

It’s never too late to start making positive changes in this new year, starting with the three pillars of Rest, Exercise, and Diet.

Remember that the benefits of quality rest, sufficient exercise, and a balanced diet work holistically to improve your general health and wellbeing. Picture courtesy of IMU.

KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 15 – “If I had only known, I would have done something to prevent it.” All too often, this is the reaction when someone receives a health prognosis that is less than favourable.

Ironically, many health problems take years to develop, but advice for leading a healthier lifestyle is often ignored, allowing a lifetime of poor habits to surface in the form of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and more.

To start making a difference, Dr Chow Suet Yin, family medicine specialist and Dr Serene Tung, programme director, nutrition and dietetics, at International Medical University Malaysia call for Malaysians to take a serious look at Rest, Exercise and Diet.

Consider this a RED alert on taking immediate steps in 2024 to simple but meaningful improvements to your overall health.

Remedial Qualities Of Rest

If you pride yourself on being able to keep going even when your body is screaming for rest, you should think again because important physiological processes take place during sleep, explains Dr Chow.

You should aim for at least seven hours per night. During healthy, restorative sleep, your heart rate and breathing grow progressively slower, while the muscles continue to relax.

Sleep allows cell regeneration, tissue repair and growth to take place while the immune system strengthens itself.

These adjustments can mean the difference between sound sleep and a restless night:

  • Avoid using electronic devices like mobile phones 30 minutes before sleeping.
  • Create a consistent sleep schedule. You should wake and go to sleep at the same time every day, even on weekends and public holidays.
  • Manage stress and anxiety, which increase levels of adrenaline and cortisol that make it harder to fall asleep.
  • Watch what you eat and drink — caffeine is a stimulant, alcohol disrupts REM sleep, and large, heavy meals before bedtime contribute to acid reflux or heartburn.
  • Keep your sleep environment dark, cool, and quiet to support melatonin production, create a comfortable sleep environment, and reduce the risk of noise-related sleep disruptions.

You can also speak to your family doctor. Some medications may affect your sleep, such as alpha and beta blockers, antidepressants, diuretics, and steroids.

They can also advise you on sleep disorders like insomnia, restless leg syndrome and sleep apnoea, or refer you to a sleep specialist if needed.

Elevate Your Exercise Routine

The thought of exercise after a long day of work or caring for young children may feel overwhelming, but being physically inactive creates a cascade of health consequences, explains Dr Chow.

It increases the risk of cancer, metabolic disorders such as diabetes, high cholesterol, and hypertension, as well as knee pain and osteoporosis.

In contrast, regular exercise can have a positive ripple effect, releasing endorphins and reducing stress-related hormones like cortisol, which can improve sleep and support mental health.

Moderate to intense exercise also stimulates cellular immunity, increasing the circulation of immune cells in the body and helping to fight off infections.

Dr Chow advises simple things to get moving, instead of seeking spare time for exercise.

The trick is to find something that you enjoy doing, be it morning walks, dancing in front of the television while listening to the news, or taking the stairs instead of the lift.

It can also help to trade childcare time with a friend who also has young children, and make daily activities part of family life such as evening walks and bicycle rides, with more challenging excursions as the children grow older.

Lastly, a gym membership is not the only way to get fit. Here are more tips to make exercise part of your regular routine:

  • Start slowly and work your way up to more challenging activities.
  • Make it part of your daily schedule.
  • Join a neighbourhood group to practise tai chi or line dancing.
  • Rope in your friends or family members to motivate one another.
  • Use free apps, sign up for newsletters, or go online for more ideas or to add variety to your routine.

Dietary Do’s And Don’t’s

Food options in a food heaven like Malaysia are plentiful, flavourful, convenient, and very hard to resist. However, not all foods are the same.

Food may be broadly categorised into whole foods and processed foods. For example, wheat and other grains are whole foods which are processed into flour and made into bread, noodles and pasta, while pasteurised milk allows us to enjoy milk and cheese safely at our convenience.

Historically, foods were processed to prevent spoilage, with little impact on its nutritional value, explains Dr Tung.

With advancements in food sciences, we now have a wide range of ultra-processed foods, or foods that cannot be recreated in our home kitchens.

Some of these are high in sugar, salt, and fat, with additives and preservatives to extend their shelf life, while others contain added nutrients that heighten its nutritional value.

This makes it very important to check the nutrition labels when deciding what to buy.

To get the most out of your food and cut back on empty calories, Dr Tung advises eating more whole and minimally processed foods, which are generally higher in nutrients.

Citing the Malaysian Food Pyramid, she reminds us that consuming food from all food groups in the correct proportions are important, with the Healthy Plate breaking it down into a simple Quarter-Quarter-Half concept.

This means filling half your plate with fruits and vegetables, with protein and carbohydrates occupying a quarter each.

Lastly, don’t underestimate the importance of hydration and drink lots of water.

Get the ball rolling with simple changes you can make to your daily meals, which include:

  • Plan your grocery shopping to include more whole foods.
  • Cook ahead and freeze meals so you can have fast yet nutritious meals on busy days.
  • Eat a more varied and well-balanced diet and incorporate more fruits and vegetables of different colours as these represent different nutrients.
  • Snack wisely with healthier options like fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grain cereal-based foods without added sugars and yoghurt.
  • Swap white bread and rice for wholemeal bread and brown rice for more fibre and vitamins.
  • Use healthier cooking methods that use less oil, such as baking, boiling, and grilling.
  • Choose food products with low salt, sugar, fat, additives, and preservatives by reading the nutrition label on the package.

In essence, all three components – Rest, Exercise, and Diet – are deeply intertwined and equally important.

As you move towards a healthier you in 2024 and beyond, remember that the benefits of quality rest, sufficient exercise, and a balanced diet work holistically to improve your general health and wellbeing.

In turn, this will help to prevent the development of chronic health conditions, and improve and preserve your quality of life for longer.

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