health and wellness special report

There is no shortage of information on how to improve your health, maximise brain power, boost creativity and performance at work and pump up your energy levels fuelled by green smoothies and 15-minute workouts. Business leaders can be forgiven for dismissing such advice as fluffy nonsense for twentysomething Instagrammers. However, to ignore all of it is to underestimate the power of lifestyle medicine.

The traditional model of medicine — with treatment by doctors — will always be needed, but lifestyle medicine is a field of health science offering significant benefits. Dr David Katz, past president and board member of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine, sums it up powerfully: “Lifestyle as medicine has the potential to prevent up to 80 per cent of chronic disease. No other medicine can match that. In addition, it is potentially inexpensive and even cost-saving; free of all but good side effects; and safe and appropriate for children and octogenarians alike. It is, quite simply, the best medicine we’ve got.”

Most importantly, lifestyle medicine is evidence-based, meaning science shows us it works. Taking on board its key messages has the power to make a real difference to how you feel, your performance and energy levels for work and leisure, your mood and mental health, and, of course, your long-term health.

Eat well

Never before has the question of what to eat been more confusing or more controversial. With an abundance of nutrition advice freely available from celebrities, bloggers, personal trainers, dietitians and nutritionists with qualifications varying from an online course to a tertiary degree, it is no wonder it’s a challenge to sift the wheat from the chaff.

We know what the key foundations are for the optimal human diet. We certainly don’t know everything yet — nutrition science is still young — but research is now focusing on the intricacies since the big picture is pretty clear.

In a nutshell, humans do best on a plant-rich, wholefoods diet, with sufficient variety to get all the nutrients we need in appropriate quantities to match our energy requirements.

The term “plant-rich” means vegetarian or vegan. Purely with my science hat on, including animal foods in your diet makes it easier to meet your nutrient requirements, but you can also do so fairly easily with a vegetarian diet. It just takes more planning and care. A vegan diet completely lacks some nutrients and is low in others, meaning supplementation is advised. What is clear is that whether or not you choose to eat animal foods, we must eat lots of plant food if we want the best health.

Wholefoods refers to what we do to foods harvested from nature. It is wrong to say all processed foods are bad because sometimes processing makes foods safer, makes some nutrients more available and often makes food taste better — cooking is a form of processing. What we know to be harmful is the modern phenomenon of ultraprocessing foods — products on supermarket shelves that bear little resemblance to foods found on a farm and which probably have ingredients created in a lab to alter their flavour, shelf life or appearance. Variety in diet is key because no single food can provide every required nutrient. Although the idea of superfoods is nice — they may be nutrient-rich or provide especially high levels of an antioxidant or other protective plant compound — but if the rest of your diet is poor, even the most amazing superfood cannot make up for it. Think of foods as a team in which individual players may be shining stars, but they cannot win unless every player is a solid performer.

One of the most exciting areas of new research is linking diet, the gut microbiome and the brain. It seems extraordinary, but the bacteria and other microorganisms in your gut are influencing how your brain functions. Fortunately, a plant-rich diet is not only good for fuelling us, but also good for fuelling a healthy microbiome. Plant foods are rich in diverse fibres that are fermented by our gut bugs, producing a range of bioactive compounds that benefit our health.

I have not mentioned diets high in macronutrients — carbohydrate, protein and fat. You may have friends or colleagues who swear by keto, low-carb, high-protein, low-fat and every other “macro” diet variation, but there is no single macro distribution that serves us best. It is the actual foods you eat that count.

If you are eating wholefoods, including lots of plants, you don’t have to worry too much about macros. No one diet fits all, which is the beauty of healthy eating. Trying to stick to a particular macro diet is unrealistic and, at the extremes, can be harmful.

Hungry for success

The top five foods for brain health and performance.

  1. Legumes They might not be the sexiest foods, but they are brilliant for your brain and heart.
  2. Green vegetables The more vegetables you eat, the lower your risk of dementia and the slower your rate of cognitive decline as you age.
  3. Berries Berries are shown to improve memory and other aspects of cognitive function.
  4. Oily fish The richest source of long-chain omega-3 fats that concentrate in the brain, anti-inflammatory and mood regulating.
  5. Wholegrains Ditch refined products made with white flour and/or added sugars, and focus on eating wholegrain to get the benefits of fibre and unique phytochemicals.

Exercise regularly

Forget about exercising just to lose weight; it is not terribly effective — at least in the short term — but also grossly underestimates the true power of exercise to influence your overall health and wellbeing.

The most impressive and generally underappreciated impact of exercise is on your brain. Exercise increases the level of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that supports brain health. It protects neurons (brain cells) from damage, encourages the growth of new neurons and connections between neurons, and improves long-term brain function including memory and a reduced risk of dementia. While our brains tend to shrink with age, exercise levels correlate with brain volume. Staying fit and active helps prevent ageing of the brain.

In the short term, exercise fires up your brain and can help you to think more effectively and creatively. An exercise session can improve work performance and concentration once you’re back at your desk.

How much exercise do you need? Try to accumulate 2.5–5 hours of moderate-intensity exercise each week, or go harder for less time with 1.25–2.25 hours of high-intensity exercise. Aim for at least half an hour of some sort of exercise on most days. Ensure you include some strength training on at least two days. This helps prevent loss of muscle with age and keeps your metabolism firing, which contributes to long-term weight control and improves your insulin sensitivity and blood glucose control, which reduces your risk of type 2 diabetes.

Move more, sit less

Equally as important as exercise is how active or sedentary you are during the other hours of the day. Estimate how many hours on average you spend sitting, including time at your desk, in the car or on public transport, in meetings or restaurants, watching TV or other leisure activities. It’s not hard to reach eight hours or more a day.

Research shows that eight or more hours of sitting a day raises your risk of chronic disease. Never before in history has life been so sedentary. In the past, we didn’t have to think about moving our bodies because life did it for us. In the modern world, life for most of us makes it hard to move enough. We have to think about it and plan for it.

Look for opportunities to move and grab them: take the stairs over the elevator; invest in a standing desk and ensure you stand to work for at least five minutes every hour; stand up and pace when you’re on a long phone call; schedule a walking meeting; and walk or cycle part of your commute. All these little things add up and make a real difference.

Quality sleep

Until relatively recently, sleep was largely ignored as a health issue. In fact, surviving on a lack of sleep is often worn as a badge of honour, as if sleeping less somehow implies you get more done. The truth is the reverse — a lack of quality sleep contributes to mental health problems, irritability, weight gain, an inability to cope with stress, reduces brain performance and increases the risk of chronic disease.

It sounds obvious, but a lack of sleep causes fatigue. It is astonishing the number of times people have asked me what they can eat to gain energy, but upon questioning reveal they’re not sleeping well. The most recent sleep survey of Australians showed up to 45 per cent of us are not getting enough sleep. That number is rising and the belief is our modern lifestyles are to blame — busy lives, long working hours and technology encouraging us to be connected 24/7. Reading emails on your smartphone in bed before turning out the light is a sure-fire route to a night of tossing and turning. The blue light emitted from such devices reduces the brain’s levels of melatonin (the hormone that regulates our sleep-wake cycle).

How much sleep do we need? Most adults require between seven and nine hours a night. While we can cope with one or two nights of reduced sleep, if they happen too often you will inevitably suffer. Unfortunately, you can’t just catch up on the weekend; it doesn’t work to bank sleep hours. Try it for yourself — how do you feel when you get a minimum seven hours for at least a week?

Heart health

If you’re 45-plus (30-plus for Indigenous Australians) and haven’t had a heart attack or stroke, then you’re eligible for a heart health check under Medicare from your doctor. This will help you evaluate your heart disease risk.

The Heart Foundation says the best way to look after your heart is with a healthy lifestyle:

  • Don’t smoke
  • Manage your blood pressure, cholesterol and diabetes
  • Be physically active and maintain a healthy weight
  • Maintain a varied and nutritious diet
  • Look after your mental health.

More information at heartfoundation.org.au

Men are more likely than women to suffer from sleep apnoea. This is when your airways close while you sleep, preventing you from breathing, and your brain wakes you up to force a breath, meaning you wake hundreds of times a night. If your partner says you snore badly, or you repeatedly wake up feeling exhausted despite thinking you’ve had enough sleep, see your doctor to test for sleep apnoea.

To help you get a good night’s sleep, experts recommend “good sleep hygiene” — no screens for at least an hour before bed, turning off your smartphone overnight and rather than watching a screen in bed, read a novel. The principle is bringing back a wind-down routine — have a bath, a cup of chamomile tea, read a book, get into a comfortable bed in a dark room. Peace and quiet — it sounds simple, but it works.

Manage stress

A little stress is a good thing. That’s what brings excitement and drive into life. However, we are all different as to how resilient we are to stress, and how other lifestyle factors impact our ability to cope.

You will know if you are at your tipping point where stress is affecting your health, wellbeing and work performance. You might find yourself snapping at your partner, kids or colleagues, and your anger levels may be out of proportion to the trigger. You may find it hard to sleep through the night or may be turning to alcohol or particular foods (usually fat or sugar). Learn to recognise the cues that you are stressed and do something about it. Taking a few days off to head to a health-style resort can be a great idea. They have come a long way in the past few years, offering all sorts of options to suit both men and women. You can be as engaged in activities as you want, or simply chill out and spend your time as you wish.

You can dial down stress levels through meditation, mindfulness — several apps can help with this — exercise and getting outdoors with nature. It may sound hippie, but there is science to back up how important it is to spend time with trees, grass and natural, open space. A walk in the park at lunchtime might just be the ticket.

Dr Joanna McMillan is a PhD-qualified nutrition scientist, Accredited Practising Dietitian, and Adjunct Senior Research Fellow at La Trobe University.