Want to live a healthier life? Here’s what GPs advise

We ask four doctors for their top tips on how to live a healthy life. Here are their answers...

Dr Illona Duffy, GP based in Monaghan says:

1. Vitamin D

Many of us do not realise that we are low in vitamin D. This is the vital vitamin that allows us to strengthen our bones with the calcium we ingest in our daily diet. Low vitamin D can lead to osteoporosis, which increases our risk of fractured bones. The easiest way to ensure we have adequate vitamin D levels is by being in sunlight. It takes 15 minutes a day of sunlight on our faces and arms to ensure adequate levels. This obviously can be difficult during the winter months and we may require oral supplements.

2. Fluid intake

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As we get older we lose our sense of thirst. This is one of the reasons older people are at increased risk of dehydration. We should encourage our older relatives to have a jug measured to 1.5 litres on their kitchen table. It should be filled at the beginning of each day. As they drink they should pour out the amount drunk allowing them an easy visual reminder of how much they still have to drink during the day.

3. Constipation

This is one of the most common causes of abdominal pain especially among children. Constipation causes cramps, bloating and a full feeling. It can also cause incomplete emptying of the bladder and thus increase the risk of kidney infections. The Bristol Stool chart can help people, especially parents, understand what is a normal stool. Fluids, fibre and physical activity all help reduce the chances of constipation

4. Exercise

I never advise people to join gyms. For most people, the best exercise can be done without the cost and pressure of a gym. Evidence proves that even 15 minutes a day of weight-bearing exercise, such as walking, improves the quality of our bones, reduces our risks of diabetes and heart disease. Older people should be encouraged to walk every day to improve their muscle strength. This can be simply walking around their yard or up and down their hallway.

Dr Austin O’Carroll, founder and director of North Dublin City CP Training Programme, says:

1. Don’t confuse the presence of disease or disability with ill-health

Of course, there are certain diseases that make it very difficult to be healthy. However, some of the healthiest people I know have a significant disease or disability. It is how one reacts to one’s personal situation that determines how healthy one will be. I believe healthy people maximise their opportunities to live a fulfilling life despite any afflictions they may have to endure. The person with a disability or disease who works on their fitness, pursues their life and career dreams vigorously, and who deals with the effects of their disability or disease stoically are maximising the potential for health.

2. Control the controllables

In sailing we say control what you can. The wind and tide are outside our ability of influence. We can only control the way we sail into those conditions. When it comes to health, we often suffer at the vagaries of fortune and genetic predisposition. However there are many factors that we can control including exercise, diet, smoking, alcohol, relaxation time, and so on. Exercise, a good diet, avoidance of tobacco and sensible drinking will not guarantee a healthy and long life, but they will definitely hugely increase your chances of having a longer and healthier one.

3. Face your worst fear

Many people fear sickness. Such fear can interfere with their sense of wellbeing and affect their health behaviour, for example, making them either visit the doctor too often or avoid them altogether. Stoicism teaches us firstly to face our worst fear; secondly to rationalise how objective that fear is and lastly, to develop possible strategies that will help us cope if that fear was realised. In my experience, patients who have worked out how they would cope if their worst fear became reality, are the ones who cope best whether the news is good or bad.

4. Realise the difference between a disease and a risk factor

A disease means there is a pathological process occurring in your body that affects your health. A risk factor is something that puts you at risk of getting a disease later on in life. Blood pressure, high cholesterol and abnormal cervical smears are a few examples of risk factors.

Take hypertension, for example, which is simply the pressure of blood in your system. It is affected by how hard the pump (heart) works and how narrow the pipes (arteries) are. Like height and weight, blood pressure varies from person to person. We know that those who have higher blood pressure have more wear and tear on their circulatory system that will, in the long term, place them at higher risk of getting a heart attack or stroke.

So when we treat a person for blood pressure with a tablet it is not because they are unhealthy, it is to try to ensure they remain healthy. Too many people with hypertension believe they have left the realm of the well to that of the ill. Take your tablet and enjoy your health.

Dr Pat Harrold, GP based in Nenagh, says: 

1. Look after your soul

Listen to music and appreciate the arts. Get out into nature and notice the seasons.

2. Look after your body

Make a choice to take something nourishing each day in the place of a coffee or cake. Do something to increase your heart rate. Walk, run or go to a class. Do whatever type of exercise takes your fancy. If you have a condition, face up to it, take control of it yourself and manage it in the best way you can.

3. Look after your mind

Keep it active and challenge it. Share problems and look for ways to handle toxic situations and people. Appreciate what you have and give thanks for the good things.

4. Look after others

Look after a plant or a pet. Help another person and do good things for your community. Protect the environment.

Dr Yvonne Williams, GP based in Shannon, says: 

1. Eat less salt

Don’t add salt to food and avoid salty foods and processed meats. Adults should try to eat less than 3g of salt a day but in Ireland adults often eat double that. A high salt intake is linked to high blood pressure which 30 per cent of all adults have. This can cause heart disease and stroke. So get into the habit of checking the salt content on food before you buy it.

2. Never ever use a sunbed and avoid sunburn

Never use a sunbed, especially if you are under the age of 21. It will put you at risk of getting melanoma, a type of skin cancer that can kill you. Australia has banned sunbeds and is the first country to see its melanoma rates falling. If you are outside, wear sunscreen and don’t get sunburned – from 10am to 3pm from March to October is when Ireland’s UV levels are highest. Use a factor 30-50 sunscreen with high UVA and UVB cover. Babies under six months should never be in direct sunlight. Check the UV index free on sunburnmap.com and you will see how long you can safely expose your skin. Almost 1,000 cases of melanoma were diagnosed in Ireland in 2013 and rates are rising rapidly. In 2014, 167 Irish people died from skin cancer. Don’t become one of these statistics.

3. Check your home’s radon gas level

Check out the level of radon in your home. Radon is a gas that can cause lung cancer. It causes 250 cases of lung cancer in Ireland each year. Smokers and ex-smokers are particularly at risk. It is very easy to detect with a special kit and to reduce the levels, if needed. Call 1800 300 600 or see epa.ie for details. Schools and employers can also check their levels.

4. Keep mentally active and stay involved

Apart from keeping a healthy weight, a good cholesterol level and never smoking, there are other factors linked to lowering your risk of getting dementia. Doing regular exercise from middle age onwards seems to be protective. So is keeping your brain stimulated, by learning a new skill, studying, doing puzzles such as Sudoku and crosswords or being involved in the local community.

So, just like the advice for your body, exercise your brain for 30 minutes every day. Get involved with local groups and events. Join your local library or do voluntary work.

Your mental health will be all the better for it.