Simple self-care: 10 small steps to a healthier lifestyle

Let’s face it, improving overall health can seem hard to do, but it doesn’t have to be. Here are some simple steps to start living better today

With the world seemingly in disarray and the cost of living crisis weighing heavily in the UK, it’s incredibly easy to allow our health to take a back seat. Whether it’s having a few glasses of wine at night to self-medicate or lacking the motivation to go to the gym, in times of stress, self-care often goes out the window. Being aware of the problem is half the battle, so here are 10 ways you can kickstart your way to a healthier lifestyle.

Mission nutrition

It’s always about the little things and there are plenty of simple ways to start off with. When it comes to nutrition, Dr Helen Hartley, associate medical director at Aviva Health, encourages us to “eat the rainbow”, which frankly sounds delicious. She recommends trying to eat different-coloured vegetables during the week as a way of upping our intake of nutrients and fibre, and reducing our consumption of processed foods and saturated fat. “See how many vegetables you can squeeze into a home-made tomato sauce to use in soup or as a pasta sauce.” And don’t forget, frozen vegetables are a great option, if you’re on a budget. She suggests switching to mint tea or a fruit tea instead of black tea or coffee to avoid adding sugar, which will help our teeth and our waistlines. Hartley also recommends having a “meat-free Monday”, or any day of the week for that matter, which has the added bonus of helping the environment.

Illustration of veg box


Sticking with our theme of keeping it simple, Hartley has a handy motto: “Small actions, done often, will burn more calories and help maintain a healthy BMI.” This we can do. She suggests things like jumping off the bus or the tube a stop before you’re due to get off and walking the rest of the way. The same goes with the lift or escalator – if you can take the stairs or walk up the escalator you are on the right track. For people who aren’t able bodied, there are gentle sitting exercises that can be done at home, for example upper-body twists and chest stretches. She also recommends you take your lunch break: “It will help you concentrate better in the afternoon, get some steps in with an outdoor walk and help minimise stress.”

Eating out/takeaways

Since the pandemic, you can pretty much order any food you like to your door, which can lead to bad habits when you can’t be bothered to cook after a long day. “Takeaway foods can often have high levels of fat, salt and sugar hidden within,” Hartley says, though they aren’t ALL unhealthy. “The Mediterranean diet is consistently lauded as a diet that helps reduce cholesterol and blood fats, lowering the risk of high blood pressure and heart disease,” she says. Takeaway options involving grilled chicken or fish are nutritionally good and easy on the purse strings as well.

Appy days

Sometimes it’s easy to feel harassed by health apps, especially when there are ads for them everywhere you look. “Apps can be helpful in tracking our habits, to help motivate us to practise what we aspire to,” says Hartley. “They can also demonstrate our progress, so we can see the beneficial outcomes of our efforts.” The NHS has decommissioned its app library, so get a recommendation from a friend or use your phone’s built in health app, which handily tracks your steps without you even asking it to.

To the gym!

How many of us have a gym membership we don’t use? Quite a few, we’d wager. Once you start skipping your sessions, it’s easy for your attendance to drop off a cliff. Hartley has a solution to dip back in: “Examine your motivation for joining the gym initially, and check which facilities or classes interest you. Start with a reasonable goal that fits into your schedule and try to commit to it. Once you start to see results, you’ll be motivated even more to continue.” If you really struggle with motivation, choose an option that fines you if you don’t turn up to class!

Home workout

So, what if we’re stuck at home and can’t get to the gym? For many, our lockdown weight gain has taken on a life of its own and remains with us to this day. Fear not, says Hartley: “Any activity that raises your pulse and makes you breathe faster counts as moderate exercise and contributes to the NHS recommended target of 150 minutes of exercise a week. You don’t have to run! Try brisk walking, swimming, cycling, dancing or hiking.” There are plenty of online classes too, to get that pulse moving.

Time to tip the tipple?

We are known as a nation of drinkers, for better or worse, and Hartley has plenty of advice on why we should keep it in check: “Alcohol is calorific and can contribute to abdominal fat. Its mental effects can also interfere with our willpower, causing us to make poor choices that undermine our otherwise good decisions.” Having alcohol-free days will break the cycle, she says. “It’s well worth cutting back on alcohol so you drink below the maximum recommended intake of 14 units a week, or try going teetotal for a month and see if you feel the benefit.”

Social smoker

When the booze is flowing on a night out, it’s all too easy to have a cheeky puff. We know how bad smoking is for our health, but what about vaping and that whirl of candy smoke being exhaled, as seen up and down the streets of Britain? Hartley says: “Smoking cigarettes is not recommended due to the increased risk of heart and vascular disease. Vaping is not recommended for non-smokers or young people as it’s not harmless. However, it can be more helpful for smokers trying to quit cigarettes than nicotine replacement products.”

Doing it for the ‘gram’

“Social media can be inspiring sometimes, but achieving health improvements can also seem unattainable at times,” says Hartley. It can also be pretty demoralising when we scroll past reams of beautiful people while we tuck into a burger. Other than staying off social media, she has some great advice: “Eating better – more vegetables, fewer takeaways – and increasing physical activity – walking more and doing some strength-based exercises to help maintain or build muscle mass – can be sufficient to achieve positive changes in our mood, sense of wellbeing and physical fitness.”

Partners in their prime

When you’re one half of a couple where one of you perhaps isn’t as interested in the gym, or even being healthy, it can create a bit of a barrier, so Hartley has a few motivation tips. “Having an ‘accountability partner’ and making it a fun joint activity can help keep you motivated when you might otherwise drop out by yourself,” she says. If they think they are helping you they may be more inclined to give it a go. “Once your partner starts to feel and see the benefits of exercise – mental and physical – for themselves, you might find they start nagging you to take your new sport to a new level.”

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