My two top tips to help boost your own health span | Fitness tips of the day

We hear the word lifespan all the time, but this week I want to discuss our health span, which is something rather different.

Basically, lifespan is the number of years we live from birth to death, while health span means the period of our lives when we’re free from chronic health problems.  

It’s estimated that the average individual spends one fifth of his or her life troubled by serious, ongoing illness, such as heart disease or diabetes.

That can add up to rather a lot of years. But if we could reduce that particular statistic, we could live well for longer. Wouldn’t we all be up for that? After all, few of us are keen to live to a ripe old age if we’re also immobile, or in pain. 

In part, the reasons for chronic illness may be genetic, but the harsh truth is that mostly we succumb to the common “ageing illnesses” because of how we live.  

I’m currently reading a fascinating book, called Outlive by American medic Peter Attia, which is all about “rethinking medicine to live better longer”. 

It’s full of vital medical information, but what interests me most is how the author pulls no punches in asking the readers to step up and take responsibility for their own health.

And urges us to find the courage to confront likely health problems, instead of ignoring them till it’s too late. 

This may seem pretty daunting advice, but if we’re to have quality of life into our dotage, we need to hear it, and act accordingly. 

Of course, as we all know, some major illnesses come out of the blue and can affect even the healthiest of people, but we should remember that the vast majority of conditions we’re more prone to as we age, don’t fall into that category.

Mostly, they occur because we ignore all the information – just a computer click away – that could help us stay healthy for longer. 

One way forward is to be specific about what we want to be able to do in 10, 15, or 20 years’ time.

It’s easy to say: “I’d like to carry on much as I am” but experts tell us we need to be much more precise – and that when we are, we’re likely to find the motivation to make the necessary changes to help us meet our goals.  

Let’s take 2030 as a starting point. Is your hope for that year simply that you should still be able to get yourself to the loo on your own and feed yourself?

Or is it more ambitious? Perhaps you want to continue walking regularly, or even playing tennis, or running till then? Or maybe you want to still be working? Or be fit enough to attend your grandchild’s graduation? 

Get some aims in place and then work out how you might achieve them. 

Next, spend 30 minutes or so looking at websites of reputable organisations, such as Cancer Research UK, the British Heart Foundation, Stroke Association and Diabetes UK, and read the advice they offer on preventing illness.   

You will doubtless find that much of the information focuses on two areas – eating and exercising. 

Now, you may say that you already know all these hints and tips. But the fact is that an amazing number of adults who are familiar with them never put them into practice. 

1.    Exercise more – there’s hardly a day goes by without some new medical research extolling the benefits of exercise.

Last week, a study of a quarter of a million people revealed that walking just 4,000 steps a day reduces your risk of dying prematurely of any cause. This equates to around a mile and a half.

If you hate walking, there are dozens of other ways to improve your fitness. The trick is to find physical activities you enjoy and to do them regularly. 

2.    Eat less – so many illnesses we get in our senior years are much more common in overweight people.

If you know this applies to you, start to make some tiny adjustments to what and when you eat, and see where they take you.

You could add more plant-based foods to your diet, for example, and decrease the amount of processed food. You could eat more fruit but drink less fruit juice.

You could schedule your evening meal earlier and resolve not to snack after it. Small alterations like these can, in time, lead to massive change. 

I also suggest we all make ourselves aware of the risk factors of the illnesses associated with later life. This can give us the impetus we need to get our act in order. Here’s a good example of what’s out there

We don’t know what the future holds, but the more we face up to what could happen, the more likely we are to make a real effort to avoid illnesses that could seriously hamper our enjoyment of whatever time we have left.  

Finally, Dr Peter Attia compares our health span to a ship, and says that we need to accept we’re not a passenger on it, but the captain.

Let’s try and think that way.  

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