My son Daniel revels in it, but for me, that daily shower — or rather, the 40-second blast of pure cold water at the end — is something I rather dread.
Of course, the discomfort is momentary, and afterwards I feel alert and ready for the day.
This is one of ten really simple things, — all based on good science — I’ve incorporated into my daily routine for my physical and mental wellbeing.
They also all fit in with the SMART approach, a technique proven to help you stick to goals.
To test your balance stand on one leg: you should be able to do more than 30 seconds with your eyes open and at least eight seconds with them closed. To improve your balance try Tai Chi — or stand on one leg brushing your teeth, which is what I do
SMART stands for:
Specific — For example, set yourself the goal of not just ‘going for a walk’, but ‘going for a walk in the morning at over 100 paces a minute’.
Measurable — Set a target, such as: ‘Have a cold shower, and stay there for at least 30 seconds.’
Achievable — You’re more likely to stick to a resolution to ‘eat five a day’ than ‘learn to play the piano’.
Relevant — Learning to dance is likely to be more relevant to most of us than learning an obscure language.
Timely — Training for the marathon involves a huge time commitment; something like practising standing on one leg (see below!) doesn’t.
Ideally the things you commit to will easily fit into your life — there’s nothing more daunting or less inspiring than setting a goal that takes the time you don’t have.
My ten things feature in a new series of podcasts I’ve done for BBC Radio 4, Just One Thing, where each week I talk with a leading expert and delve into the evidence for that step.
But in a sneak preview for Mail readers, here is my ‘magic’ list to try yourself…
My son Daniel revels in it, but for me, that daily shower — or rather, the 40-second blast of pure cold water at the end — is something I rather dread
1: Go for A morning walk
One of the best forms of exercise is a walk in the early morning light, ideally at a brisk pace, 100 paces a minute. (The song I Will Survive with its 100 beats a minute, is a good guide!) Not only does exercise first thing burn more fat, but sunshine helps reset your body clock, to help you sleep better.
2. Take a cold shower
Being exposed to really cold water produces a massive surge in ‘fight or flight’ hormones, as well as doubling levels of the feel-good hormone dopamine. There is also evidence from a Dutch study in 2018 that just a 30-second cold shower each morning reduces your risk of getting a cold or the flu.
Yet while my son Daniel happily has a three-minute cold shower every day, I have to start in warm water, then go fully cold for 40 seconds. I don’t love it, but it certainly wakes me up.
3: Balance on one leg while brushing teeth
A good sense of balance is vital, even lifesaving: falls are the second most common cause of accidental death, worldwide.
Unless you do something about it, your ability to balance drops off with age.
To test your balance stand on one leg: you should be able to do more than 30 seconds with your eyes open and at least eight seconds with them closed.
To improve your balance try Tai Chi — or stand on one leg brushing your teeth, which is what I do.
4: Eat more bacteria
I’ve been making and munching my way through fermented foods such as sauerkraut and kimchi, which are packed with ‘good’ bacteria for some time.
I find there’s nothing quite so delicious as fermented cabbage with my scrambled eggs in the morning! Healthy gut bacteria boosts immunity and now research shows it improves mental health, too.
5: Learn a new skill
Whether it’s painting, dancing or learning a language, acquiring a new skill is one of the best ways to protect your brain as you get older, particularly if it’s challenging and sociable.
During lockdown I’ve tried learning to draw (I was terrible) and learning Spanish (I couldn’t stick to it). My latest plan is to take up Zumba.
6: Start squatting
Although most people know about the importance of aerobic exercises such as walking, resistance exercises such as squatting are just as important for preserving your muscles, but also because they help you sleep. (Check out nhs.uk/10-minute home toning workout.)
7: Go to a park
There’s a lot of evidence that spending more time in green spaces reduces stress. And see what I’ve done here? A morning walk in the park hits two of my daily ten steps in one!
8: Take a deep breath
When I’m feeling stressed, or struggling to get back to sleep at 3am as I invariably do, I use this simple 4-2-4 breathing rule: breathe in through your nose to a count of four, hold your breath for two seconds, then breathe out of your mouth to a count of four.
This slows down your heart rate, which makes you feel calmer: do this for a couple of minutes and you’ll soon be asleep.
9: Have a hot bath
A hot bath at least an hour before bed can help you fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer. That’s because once out of the bath, your body temperature falls, a cue to your brain that it’s time to sleep.
10: Count your blessings
And finally — keep a notebook by your bed, and, before going to sleep, jot down three good things that happened that day. It may sound old-fashioned but expressing gratitude is a proven way to cut stress — which is also one of the main drivers of insomnia.
The first episode of Just One Thing is available now on BBC Sounds; and on BBC Radio 4 tomorrow at 11.45am, then every Sunday.
Will taking fish oil supplements do you good? The answer, it seems, is in your genes.
Researchers from the University of Georgia in the U.S. have found that while some people who take fish oil pills experienced a drop in their blood fat levels, suggesting a reduced risk of heart disease, others saw a rise.
Which could explain why big studies suggest fish oil pills offer no benefit: the two groups ‘cancel’ each other out.
The good news is the team were able to identify the genes responsible, so in future you could be tested for the gene to see if fish oil pills will help you.
Personally, I’m sticking to the real thing — fish tastes good and the evidence for its benefits are unambiguous.
Try clockwatching to beat stress
Time Restricted Eating (TRE) — where you stop eating or drinking anything with calories a few hours before bed, and then ‘fast’ overnight for 14 hours (known as the 14:10) — gives your body a rest from digesting, absorbing and then storing food.
It also switches on autophagy, a process where the body gets rid of old or damaged cells, making way for new ones.
Studies have shown that TRE can lead to modest weight loss, a reduction in blood pressure, improvements in your blood sugar levels and a better night’s sleep.
And now we can add reduced risk of heart disease to this list — as new research on firefighters has shown.
Time Restricted Eating (TRE) — where you stop eating or drinking anything with calories a few hours before bed, and then ‘fast’ overnight for 14 hours
Firefighters are at greater risk of being killed by a heart attack or stroke than by a fire. This seems to be due to a combination of shift work, exposure to heat (which makes the blood stickier) and stress.
A study last year from Texas State University found firefighters who stuck to a 14:10 eating regimen for six weeks had reduced levels of harmful compounds — advanced glycation end-products — in their blood, and so potentially reduced their heart disease and stroke risk.
Last month another study from the same researchers found that after eight weeks, TRE reduced firefighters’ cortisol levels and other markers of chronic inflammation. Chronic inflammation is a sign that the immune system is on constant alert (like a fireman), and lies at the root of many serious conditions including cancer.
And even if you’re not a firefighter, it’s highly likely TRE could help switch off your internal alarm, too.