Step by step to good health and happiness: 5 tips to follow

Exercise - the classic New Year resolution that everyone wants to fulfil, but somehow finds the time to avoid.

What can you do to move towards that goal of being fit and fabulous?

There are ways to spice up your fitness routine, said Ms Alice Ong from the Health Promotion Board (HPB). The senior manager for physical activity at the HPB 's obesity prevention and management division was quick to highlight the fun aspects of exercise.

Ms Ong said that this year, the HPB plans to roll out activities that would allow Singaporeans to take a weekend breather from their busy schedules, while getting family members to enjoy each other's company and be physically active.

The activities will be in line with the National Steps Challenge, which saw Singaporeans competing with each other to find clues hidden around Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park in its second season last November.

The points-for-rewards system of the Challenge was such a hit in the first season that the HPB expanded the tiers of sure-win rewards from three to six in season two "to keep it engaging and challenging for participants", she said.

The National Steps Challenge will run till April.

Participants earn points after taking a minimum stipulated number of steps each day.

They can use the points to redeem rewards, such as shopping and grocery vouchers.

Ms Ong also suggested ways for people to integrate physical activities into their daily routine.

Walking, for example, is a low- impact exercise suitable for all fitness levels and age groups.

"Some physical activity is better than none," she said, adding that once the activity becomes a habit, people can gradually increase the intensity.

There is also a mental aspect to exercising successfully, such as a sense of achievement in being able to set specific and attainable goals and having creative routines.

Ms Ong said there are more than 200 free physical activities and fitness workouts in parks and open spaces across the island, such as the Sundays@The Park Programme.

"Regular exercise is about forming a habit. So, regardless of what and how, the idea is to start moving and being active," she added.

People should aim for 150 minutes of "moderate- to vigorous- intensity" physical activity weekly, she said, and they should also ensure they have a balanced diet.

Eating right

The new year is hardly ever good on the stomach and there is some irony in a resolution to gain a better body just after the excesses of the festive season.

However, experts from National University Hospital (NUH) are on hand to give diet advice for 2017.

When asked what one can eat to offset the sinful festive meals, Ms Pamela Er, senior dietitian at the NUH Centre for Obesity Management and Surgery, said: "There's nothing you can eat to compensate for the fact that you have already overeaten and taken an excessive caloric intake."

Instead, the "offsetting" could come from things like physical activity.

She recommended a more restrained diet, such as taking brown rice with non-fried meat items and vegetable side dishes. She urged people to prepare their own meals using healthier cooking methods, such as steaming or grilling.

Creating a culture of good nutrition, whether in the workplace or at home, is important, she said. An example could be encouraging colleagues to "take along their own home-made bento lunch".

For those who celebrate Chinese New Year, which falls on Jan 28 and 29 this year, Ms Er suggested opting for sugar-free diet beverages or plain water, rather than sweetened or alcoholic drinks when visiting.

"Share your festive treats with friends and family, instead of eating everything yourself."

She said people could also use calorie-counting apps to help them keep track of what they had eaten.

Dr Asim Shabbir, director of the NUH Centre for Obesity Management and Surgery, recommended getting a pedometer to ensure that one walks "the recommended 10,000 steps a day".

There are two recent food trends that Ms Er is concerned about - salted egg yolks and milkshakes.

She said salted egg yolks are high in cholesterol and sodium, and the creamy sauce is usually prepared with plenty of full cream milk and butter, significantly increasing the risk of heart disease.

"Another highly photogenic food fad seen on many social media platformsis the over-the-top milkshake," she said.

It is usually prepared in mason jars and filled with ice cream, fudge and whipped cream. "A serving of this monstrous milkshake will easily hit at least 800 calories," she added.

One's average daily intake should be about 2,000 calories.

But these experts are positive about 2017. Dr Asim said: "I see us all making healthier choices while enjoying the festive celebrations and a great year ahead."

Creating good sleeping habits

Teenagers suffer cognitive deficits when they do not get enough sleep and the effects linger long after, a local study found in March last year.

But not getting enough sleep is not something that is confined to teens. The question is how everyone can create good sleeping habits for 2017.

Dr Kenny Pang, a ear, nose and throat specialist at the Asia Sleep Centre, said there are many aspects to sleeping well.

For instance, diet is a factor. People should avoid stimulants like coffee and tea, as well as sleeping on a full stomach, which causes gastro-esophageal reflux and negatively affects sleep quality.

Camomile tea, he added, is the only tea one should take before sleeping.

Despite the pervasiveness of hand-held technology, one should also stop using the computer, iPhone, iPad or watch television two hours before going to bed.

"Read a book in orange or yellow light," he said.

But what about the apps that supposedly cut down on screen brightness and help sleep?

Dr Pang said: "Don't use the mobile phone before or going to sleep. No apps can help."

While there are those who advocate starting school later to accommodate the different circadian rhythm of teenagers, Dr Pang disagrees and argues that habits can be modified.

"It is a matter of sleeping earlier, having afternoon naps and coping."

One thing that is important is regularity, he said. He recommended regular daily exercise and regular exposure to the outdoors in the daytime.

He said people should go to bed at the same time every day in order to allow the body and mind to develop a pattern of rest and wakefulness.

Snoring, he added, is one of the most common sleep problems for couples.

But, more than simply an annoyance, he said that snorers might be suffering from sleep apnea, which could be a serious condition. Chronic snorers should, therefore, consider going for a clinical evaluation.

Some people also have mistaken beliefs about sleep.

For example, although some believe that "catch-up" sleep - the act of sleeping more to compensate for a previous lack of sleep - does not work, Dr Pang said that it was indeed possible.

"Sleep more on weekends, if needed," he added.

Make time for health screening

Singaporeans may be becoming more sedentary, but there are also many who take part in events like marathons.

It was the tragic death of Mr John Gibson at last month's Standard Chartered Marathon Singapore that brought the issue of health screening to the fore.

Dr Derek Koh, head of Thomson Lifestyle Centre, said screening is beneficial before fitness events, especially for those that go beyond one's usual training routine in terms of intensity or duration.

He said: "There are often incidences of seemingly 'unexpected' fatalities, as many forms of heart disease can remain silent until the heart is pushed to its limit. These conditions may be picked up with health screening."

Some countries, like the United States, require pre-participation screening in sports events.

But what exactly does health screening entail?


Dr Koh said the process typically begins with a consultation and physical examination to assess one's health status, and to understand the purpose of the screening.

This is usually followed by blood, urine and stool analyses, with radiological scans and a treadmill electrocardiogram (ECG).

In a treadmill ECG, the person's heart health is monitored through walking on a treadmill that gradually increases in speed and incline.

He recommended that screening be done a week or two before the event to ensure one is able to take part in it.

Costs vary, he said, but "as a rough guide, basic screening packages may start from $300".

Dr Koh pointed out that some people may have misconceptions about health screening.

"A common complaint comes in the form of stories about friends or acquaintances who had done screenings and yet succumbed to diseases soon after," he said.

"Firstly, we must remember that screening results represent one's current condition. Some results may have little predictive value and should be checked regularly.

"Secondly, the choice of screening must be tailored to the individual and his risk levels. And this must be matched by his willingness to do the recommended tests."

However, health screening is not just for those who wish to take part in sports events.

Dr Koh said that chronic diseases like diabetes and hypertension can be silent, while cancer, if detected early, can be treated much more easily.

To check for these diseases, he recommended a yearly screening after the age of 40.

Practise mindfulness to beat stress

The new year is not all happiness. With new technologies and new ways of working, it also promises more pressure in people's lives.

Some practise "mindfulness" as a way to deal with stress.

But what is it? And how does one apply it?

Dr Jochen Reb, associate professor of organisational behaviour & human resources at Singapore Management University (SMU), said there is no single definition for the term.

"Mindfulness refers to a certain quality of attention - a present-centred, open and accepting attention", which contrasts with a mind that wanders constantly, thinking of the past or worrying about the future.

"Mindful attention", he said, can be developed through practice.

Dr Reb, who has done research on the subject for more than 10 years, said anyone can practise mindfulness anywhere at any time, "as it is fundamentally about being openly present".

There are courses in Singapore for those who want to learn the concept. For example, the Mindfulness Initiative @ SMU offers a variety of courses. Some of them are open to the public.

Dr Reb said the most well- researched and best-known mindfulness programmes are in cognitive therapy and stress reduction.

However, he added, there are some misconceptions about mindfulness.

Firstly, there is its association with religion. "Some people think that mindfulness is connected to a religious, often Buddhist, belief," he said.

"It's important to recognise that courses do not require or promote any particular religious belief, nor are they incompatible with or discourage religious beliefs."

He said some people think that mindfulness is suitable only for those with serious mental health issues.

"However, the reality is that many of us are stressed and feel overwhelmed by the demands on our attention and time. We want to relate better to others or just to live life more fully."

Many mindfulness programmes are designed for "regular" people. Dr Reb said, however, that it is important to choose instructors who are qualified.

Though the evidence for mindfulness is strong, he added, it cannot be guaranteed to work for everyone and there are other things that people can do for their well-being.

These activities include regular physical activity, taking walks and pursuing a hobby.

This article was first published on Jan 03, 2017.
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