Your tendency to get ill or succumb to disease is not predetermined, it’s something you can control. Of course, there are some genetic and environmental factors but, as you’ll see, reducing the risk of disease is largely a matter of lifestyle choices and good habits.
You may not have thought of it in this way, but risk reduction is all around you in every day life. Look at traffic signs, signals, speed limits and road layouts for example – all designed to reduce the risk of accidents. Think about all the risk reduction procedures that happen at an airport or on an aircraft. Health and safety regulations and procedures are in place to reduce the risk of accidents at work.
All these risk reduction strategies work and they are worth the effort. With appropriate precautions you can minimise or eliminate the risk that something bad is going to happen.
And so it is with the human body. Take the right precautions and you can go a long way to eliminating or reducing the risk of disease. Better still, these same precautions will help you recover if you do get ill.
So what are these precautions? Below are six strategies that will maximise your chances of living a healthy active life by avoiding disease.
No surprise about this one, but do you know just how many conditions have a reduced risk attributable to regular exercise? Here are some of the main benefits:
- Reduced risk of coronary heart disease and coronary artery disease
- Reduced risk of stroke
- Reduced risk or reversal of type 2 diabetes
- Improved mental health – combats depression, anxiety and stress
- Reduced risk of osteoporosis
- Improved blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol
- Lowers the risk of many types of cancer
In general, physical activity is known to reduce the risk of death from all causes.
Being simply more active is great, but more benefits are realised by exercising. So what constitutes exercise? Anything that raises the heart rate, makes you breathe more heavily and gets a bit of a sweat going. Try to do some form of exercise every day. Choose anything you enjoy. If you’ve been sedentary then even a brisk power walk should do the job.
In my view this is number 1 when it comes to lifestyle habits that will help with reducing the risk of disease.
2. Maintain a healthy weight
Being overweight is associated with a lot of health conditions, so simply maintaining a healthy weight will help with reducing the risk of disease. Although not exhaustive, here’s a list of the main conditions associated with being overweight:
- Heart disease and stroke
- High blood pressure
- High blood sugar and diabetes
- Fatty liver disease
- Poor circulation and skin conditions
- Painful joints and arthritis
Yes, that’s right, cancer. A number of cancers are associated with being overweight or obese, such as gallbladder, esophegeal, colorectal, pancreatic and post-menopausal breast cancer.
To maintain a healthy weight you need to eat the right amount of food for your activity levels.
This is easier said than done these days. Many people have sedentary lifestyles and don’t use a lot of energy, so it’s easy to overeat. Portion sizes have become too big over the years and a lot of people are addicted to instantly gratifying calorific foods. A lot of our clients are amazed at what they learn about food and calorie control on our programmes. It’s the aspect of weight maintenance that is least well understood.
The challenge for a lot of people is that a complete lifestyle change is required.
If you can exercise regularly, eat more fruit and vegetables, get more fibre and avoid nutrient sparse and sugary foods, then you’ll go a long way to adopting the kind of habits that will help you maintain a healthy weight.
3. Eat healthy food
Again, no surprise here. But what foods are healthy? Usually unrefined foods, packed with fibre and micronutrients. Eating healthy food also means, almost by definition, avoiding unhealthy food.
We’ll start with fibre and move on to micronutrients.
There are two types of fibre:
- Insoluble – this is the gritty stuff that passes through your intestines, dragging with it harmful debris and toxins. This type of fibre keeps your colon clean and reduces the risk of colon cancer.
- Soluble – this type forms a gel in the stomach, trapping sugars and enabling them to trickle more slowly into the blood. Soluble fibre will help provide slow release energy and delay hunger, so it’s good for weight maintenance.
Getting enough fibre keeps your colon clean and reduces the risk of health problems associated with the colon or bowel. Fibre also helps your gut to create the right mix of healthy bacteria. In that role, fibre is known as a prebiotic. Having a healthy alimentary canal can, in particular, help reduce the risk of certain cancers. Take a look at this BBC news article for a good summary of the importance of a healthy gut.
Broadly these boil down to
- Vitamins and minerals – essential for keeping you alive and avoiding illness. For example, we’ve all heard of scurvy (lack of vitamin C) and rickets (lack of vitamin D). A general lack of vitamins and minerals has numerous health implications
- Phytonutrients. These are compounds found in vegetable matter – fruits, vegetables, pulses, wholegrains and so on. There are thousands of them. Some you may recognise… lycopene, lutein, catechins, hesperidin, flavanols, resveratrol, curcumin, gingerols, quercitin, beta-carotene, alpha-carotene, anthocyanins, glucosinolates, isoflavones, lignans, ellagic acid. They have numerous and varied health benefits but nearly all of them have been reported to reduce the risk of one or more cancers. The health benefits of phytonutrients are transient, so it’s important to take every opportunity to feed yourself some goodness and to eat a variety of foods.
Often you will see an RDA value for a particular micronutrient, with food labels stating, for example, 60% of your RDA for a particular vitamin or mineral. Note that these RDAs are the minimum amount for avoiding deficiency, and they are an average over a typical population. In reality, if you expect a lot from your body, are stressed, get too little sleep, are exposed to pollutants and so on, you may need a lot more than the RDA. Aim for 10-a-day rather than 5-a-day.
Above I also mentioned avoiding the unhealthy stuff. In my book, if a food is not providing you with some goodness then it’s not healthy enough. But that’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about food that is actually bad for you and will increase your risk of disease. For example, take a look at this BBC news report. In the table of preventable cancers, aside from getting too little fibre as mentioned above, you’ll also see processed meats. Look at the list of ingredients on any packet of ham, bacon, salami… any meat product that is not raw and completely unprocessed… and if you’re not sure what something is or why it’s there then you might want to do the research before you put it in your mouth and swallow it.
As another example, you’ve probably heard of trans fats. These are fats created in the lab that do not exist in nature. They are not meant to be integrated into your cell structures but, when they are, they can be unstable or lead to faulty replication. If you see trans fat or hydrogenated vegetable oil on the ingredients list then you should avoid.
In general, go for unprocessed whole food and always check the food label for suspicious ingredients.
This one is right up there with exercise when it comes to lifestyle habits that will help with reducing the risk of disease.
4. Boost your immune system
Your gut is your first line of defence, so do everything you can to keep it healthy.
After that, if you do get invaded, a robust immune system will help you nip an infection in the bud before it can take hold or help you recover quickly if you do fall ill.
I have not been ill for… well I forget how long… at least 5 years. I sometimes get to the end of the week and say to my partner “I wonder if I had a cold on Wednesday, I felt quite tired and had a bit of a headache”. That’s as ill as I get. The reason? I think my immune system is in good order and, whilst I may not prevent infection, I think I deal with it and eradicate it very swiftly.
I think the following acknowledged practices help me stay free of illness
- Regular exercise
- Eating healthy and varied food
- Maintaining as much muscle as possible. Take a look at this article for more details on the health benefits of muscle
- Getting enough vitamin C, vitamin D and zinc. Supplementing if necessary
- Supplementing with glutamine. I am surprised this is not more frequently cited as it has been well studied and recommended. Personally I think this is the habit that contributes most to my robust immune system.
- Avoiding alcohol. 10 or more years ago, when I still used to drink, I’d occasionally – maybe 3 or 4 times a year – go out for a bit of a binge. It was only following these occasions that I ever got ill.
- Getting enough sleep – this is the one, for me, that I notice the most. If I sleep badly then I’ll find myself asking that ‘was I ill on Wednesday?’ question at the end of the week.
5. Increase your autophagy
Autophagy is a process that occurs at the cellular level, collecting broken or foreign components and neutralising them, recycling them, preventing them from building up and causing us harm or disease. It’s been in the news a lot more recently since the 2016 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine was won by Yoshinori Ohsumi for his work on autophagy.
Autophagy can help you age more slowly, protect against cancer, psychiatric and neurodegenerative disorders, inflammation and infectious diseases.
How can you increase your own autophagy? There are lots of ways but for starters, doing the following will help
- Aerobic exercise
- Occasional fasting
- Sleeping well
- Coffee, ginger, turmeric, ginseng, vitamin D, fish oils and coconut oil have also been shown to boost it.
There’s a conundrum here. The processes that help you build muscle also tend to switch off autophagy. So how can you build muscle and maximise autophagy? Try the following cycle:
- Avoid a late dinner. Leave a gap between dinner and bedtime.
- Sleep well
- Upon waking have an espresso and take ginseng, fish oil and vitamin D supplements. Take in no calories. Hydrate.
- Do some fasted moderate intensity cardio .
- Have a low carb first meal at least 12 hours after dinner
- Have regular protein intakes of at least 20g throughout the rest of the day. Take in carbs in the 8 hours before and including dinner.
You’ll get a good autophagy response from being fasted for at least 12 hours. The morning hormonal environment – low insulin, high testosterone, growth hormone and glucagon – will help to maximise fat burning and spare muscle protein. The coffee will help adrenaline output and fat release whilst also promoting autophagy, and the supplements will also increase autophagy. Doing your cardio fasted will really ramp up autophagy and provide numerous other health benefits, including improving your ability to oxidise fat. The fasted period will prime your body a little more for hypertrophy when you introduce the carbs and regular feeds for the rest of the day.
It’s not perfect for either hypertrophy or autophagy, but it’s a decent compromise. It’s the sort of daily cycle practised by those following an intermittent fasting approach – take a look here and here for useful summaries of intermittent fasting.
6. Maintain or build muscle
Amino acids are required constantly by the human body for maintenance, repair and general cell turnover. Muscle protein is the human body’s only store of amino acids and is called upon when amino acids are in short supply from food. In times of stress, trauma or illness, the demand for amino acids increases. If dietary intake of amino acids from protein is not maintained then muscle plays an essential role as a donor of amino acids to help fight infection and to build and repair damaged tissues. Muscle takes a heavy hit in the absence of dietary protein. If there wasn’t a lot to start with then recovery will have been compromised and strength and function after recovery could be severely impacted. In the old and frail, a lack of muscle is often a reason why recovery never happens, or conditions persist for months or mobility is severely impacted.
So there you have it, six things you can do to keep illness and disease at bay. As you’ve seen there are some details that can make all the difference but the main message is simple and familiar – it’s pretty much the usual advice that’s been going around for decades: reducing the risk of disease boils down to exercising and eating healthy food!