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More than vitamins and minerals: What else do you need for a healthy life?

Updated 9 April, 2018

Most of us know that having the right balance of vitamins and minerals is fundamental for good health.

However, these are not the only essentials our bodies and minds need to keep functioning to the best of their ability. Other building blocks of our health come from the lifestyle choices we make and the way we spend our time.

Here, we take a closer look at how keeping it simple and going back to basics can be one of the best ways to improve our health and wellbeing. If these basics were available on daily prescription, they would be on everyone’s list.

1. Exercise

Prescription: Choose a physical activity of your choice.

Instructions: Take 30 minutes at least five times a week.

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If pharmaceutical companies could create a drug that had even half the health benefits of exercise, everyone would want to be in on it. Companies would be rich beyond their wildest dreams. Exercise really is that good for you.

Regular physical activity reduces your risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, dementia, depression, breast cancer, bowel cancer, and other chronic diseases. It’s also a great stress-buster, improves wellbeing and even encourages brain cell production, which improves your memory and ability to learn. What’s not to love?

You don’t have to go to the gym for an hour a day or start marathon training to experience the benefits of physical activity. Anything that makes your heart and breathing rate faster counts.

The more you enjoy it the better, as you’ll be more likely to stick with it. Public Health England recommend we should be doing at least 2 ½ hours of moderate intensity exercise a week; for example 30 minutes, 5 days a week.

Why not try splitting it up into ‘exercise snacks’ of 10 minutes to make it easier to fit in to your day? There’s no better time than today to start making exercise part of your life.

2. Sleep

Prescription: Good quality sleep.

Instructions: Take 7-9 hours per night.

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Yes, you read that right. Being asleep in your comfy bed for 7-9 hours a night is good for your health. Getting the right quantity and quality of sleep can reduce your risk of heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, obesity, infections, depression and anxiety.

Despite it being so important, a report published by the Royal Society for Public Health in 2016 warned that in the UK, 40% of us don’t get enough sleep. When you’re busy (or watching a great series on Netflix), sleep can easily slip down your priority list, but if you want to look after your overall health and wellbeing it’s essential that it moves back up to the top.

There are lots of ways you can try and make the most of your precious time in bed. Why not hit the button below for some helpful sleep tips.

43 ways to sleep better
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3. Friends and loved ones

Prescription: Spend quality time with your friends and loved ones.

Instructions: Take as frequently as possible.

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When you’re spending time with your friends and loved ones, it might not seem like a health kick, but they are in fact kindly boosting your wellbeing and making you healthier and happier. An Oxford University study showed that friends can even act as effective painkillers!

Socialising has been shown to be better at improving your happiness than money, makes you live longer, and reduces your risk of future health problems including depression, dementia and heart disease.

The charity Campaign to End Loneliness highlights that loneliness and social isolation can be as bad for you as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

When life gets busy, connecting with friends and family can get pushed to one side and is replaced with a quick time-saving text or a ‘like’ on social media. Smartphones are great for keeping in touch, but remember that scrolling through someone’s holiday pictures on Instagram is not the same as chatting to them about their holiday over a cuppa.

The feeling of loneliness has as much of an impact as actually being alone, so focus on the quality of your relationships rather than quantity and make time for the people who matter to you.

4. Water

Prescription: Good old H2O.

Instructions: Take at least 6-8 glasses (1.5-2 litres) a day.

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Our bodies are about 60% water, so it’s no surprise that drinking plenty of it is important for our health.

Water plays a part in everything from blood circulation to burning calories, and ultimately we can’t survive without it. This puts it pretty high up there on the ‘essentials’ list!

It even has an impact on your memory and concentration, with studies suggesting that as little as 2% dehydration can impact cognitive performance. Check out Push Doctor’s 11 Benefits of Drinking Water for a whole host of health benefits of the humble H2O.

The NHS recommends drinking 6-8 glasses of water a day (about 1.5-2 litres). If you’re sweating a lot, you’ll need more. There’s lots of ways to try and up your water intake, such as getting a reusable water bottle to carry around with you or using an app to track your intake.

Whatever works for you, drinking enough water is a great free health hack that’s well worth the effort.

5. Laughter

Prescription: Laughter.

Instructions: Take as frequently as possible.

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You may have heard the saying ‘laughter is the best medicine’. That’s a pretty big claim, but regardless of where it sits in the rankings it’s certainly good for your mental health and wellbeing.

Laughing leads to the release of the happiness hormones called endorphins, so it’s great for lifting your mood and reducing stress. As laughter is contagious, you’ll be sharing that feel-good factor with those around you.

Laughter is good for our relationships too. Psychologist Professor Levenson and his team at Berkeley, University of California, have found that couples who can smile and laugh together during difficult conversations felt better, are happier with their relationship and stay together for longer.

6. Rest and relaxation

Prescription: Relax your body and mind.

Instructions: At least 15 minutes a day, preferably more.

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Ever felt guilty for taking time to relax? Maybe if it was prescribed as a scientifically proven way to improve your health and wellbeing, you wouldn’t feel so guilty. Many of us live busy and stressful lives that keep us constantly on the go, which makes our stress hormone cortisol work overtime.

Cortisol is essential for our bodies to function normally, but having too much of it over a long period of time can have a negative impact on our immune system, sleep, digestion, memory and a whole host of other aspects of our health.

Why not give mindfulness a go? Or have a soak in the bath with a cuppa for 15 minutes? The charity Mind has some great relaxation tips that can be found here.

Rather than seeing relaxation as something to try and squeeze in if everything else gets done, try changing your perspective and timetable it in as an essential part of a healthy daily routine. Your body and mind will thank you for it.

7. The Great Outdoors

Prescription: Go outside.

Instructions: Take as frequently as possible, ideally surrounded by nature.

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With the days getting longer and the weather improving, it’s a great time to start trying to spend more time in the great outdoors. It not only makes us feel good, but it’s a science-backed way to boost our physical and mental health.

Sunshine is our main source of vitamin D and although it’s not exactly tropical in the UK, even in cloudy weather in Spring and Summer, it can boost our vitamin D levels and improve our bone health.

Stepping out of the house or office can also reduce stress, improve your mood and improve your concentration.

Now that you’re convinced that getting outdoors is a great idea and you’re lacing up your sensible footwear, where’s the best place to go? Scientists have shown that surrounding yourself with nature brings the biggest health benefits.

A 2015 study by Stanford University showed that people walking in natural areas had less activity in a part of the brain associated with negative emotions and risk of depression than those walking in busy urban environments.

You don’t need to have a forest on your doorstep, any green space such as a park or village green will do. Whether it’s a 15 minute walk round the block in your lunch break, or a trip to the countryside with friends, swap your slippers for shoes and see how much better you feel when you step outside.

Follow Dr Katie Amelia on Instagram @drkatieamelia

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Topics: expert health advice