THE Straits Times (28 December 2022)
Looking to be healthier in 2023? The Straits Times asked more than a dozen experts in health and fitness for their advice. Here are their lifestyle hacks to get you eating better, moving more and sleeping better.
The top recommendations from dietitians and nutrition experts are to consume less salt, sugar and saturated fats, and to get more fibre. This is how to start.
- If you like packaged drinks, choose those with Nutri-Grade label A or B, says Ms Alvernia Chua, senior dietitian at Ang Mo Kio Polyclinic, which is under the National Healthcare Group Polyclinics. From Friday, the new Nutri-Grade mark will help consumers identify healthier packaged drinks, from Grade A being the lowest in sugar and saturated fat content to Grade D being the highest. Even some bubble tea chains have started incorporating the Nutri-Grade label to help you make healthier choices.
- Order salads as side dishes and eat fruit for dessert. This is an easy way to add more fibre to your diet, says Ms Chua.
- Salt is not the only way to flavour food. Ms Alefia A. Vasanwala, principal dietitian at Mount Elizabeth Hospital, suggests adding herbs and spices instead.
Use herbs and spices like ginger, garlic, mint, parsley, onions, cloves, and cardamom to flavour sauces, gravies and curries,” she says.
- Are you eating too fast? Ms Chua says you should eat mindfully, chewing food thoroughly and not rushing through meals. It takes 20 minutes for satiety signals to reach the brain, and eating quicker can lead to eating more. Instead of using the phone or watching television while scarfing down a meal, she suggests focusing on the eating experience, which can include placing your cutlery down between bites, taking sips of water and maybe even conversing with a companion.
- Social media is flooded with diet trends that promise weight loss and health outcomes. Ignore them and look for qualified health practitioners to help you, says nutritionist Felicia Koh, who runs The Whole Health Practice with her husband, health coach Alastair Hunt.
Mr Hunt agrees. “Everyone is unique. Health goals shared with your contemporaries may be similar, but your path to achieve them can differ enormously.” Adds Ms Koh: “Focus on your health and vitality, support your body with the nutrition that it needs.”
- Do not sit or lie down immediately after a meal. Ms Lua Chong Ying, senior dietitian at Tan Tock Seng Hospital’s (TTSH) department of nutrition and dietetics, suggests light exercise instead. “Walking can help muscle cells better uptake glucose, prevent blood sugar level spikes and lower blood sugar levels after meals,” she says.
The Singapore Physical Activity Guidelines were revised in June to reduce sedentary behaviour and encourage residents to clock at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic activity a week.
If that target seems daunting, Dr Grace Huang, general practitioner at DTAP Clinic, says aiming for 8,000 steps a day could be an easier achievement for people looking to increase their physical activity. “A higher daily step count has benefits like decreasing cardiovascular risk or risk of diabetes, and even risk of dementia,” she adds.
How can you clock 8,000 steps a day? Ms Irene Chu, senior physiotherapist at Singapore General Hospital (SGH), suggests planning regular walks with loved ones. Ms Chu and Dr Tan Ken Ji, orthopaedic surgeon at Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital, both recommend shopping in person to help raise one’s daily step count.
Dr Tan says: “Fun fact – going grocery shopping once a week for a year is equivalent to walking a marathon.”
It can also help to strengthen one’s muscles and bones.
- Exercise with other people as accountability can help you stick to your activity goals. Mr Julien Bera, country director of Virgin Active Singapore, says joining group classes for yoga, pilates, cycling or high-intensity interval training can create a supportive community that also improves one’s social well-being.
Investing in a health tracker can also help one stay accountable. Ms Ivy Lai, country manager of Philips Singapore, says that according to the company’s research, 59 per cent of respondents surveyed agreed that having access to personal health technology and devices would prompt them to take action to better care for their health.
- With all this moving around, it is also important to stretch regularly. Dr Tan says: “Stretching can help to improve flexibility and increase the range of motion in your joints. It can also decrease the risk for injury and keep your muscles healthy and strong. The best part is, you can stretch anywhere and at any time – when watching television, at work. The possibilities are endless.”
A simple change you could make is standing during your commute, adds Ms Chu. “Standing for your ride can be a welcome change for your legs, especially if you have spent the whole day sitting in the office,” she says.
Soak up some sun, make time for sleep
Exercising in an air-conditioned gym might be more comfortable, but a bit of sun could help your fitness goals. Dr Sean Ho, consultant in orthopaedic surgery at TTSH, says moderate sun exposure while exercising will boost your vitamin D levels and reduce the risk of osteoporosis. “The recommendation is to get between five and 30 minutes of sun exposure at least twice a week,” he adds.
Are you making enough time for rest? Dr Leow Leong Chai, director of SGH’s sleep disorders unit, says it is important to make enough time for sleep. Most people need seven to nine hours of sleep a night and should try to sleep and wake at the same time.
A sleep expert from Fitbit Singapore suggests making an 8½-hour window for sleep to take place and creating a wind-down routine that starts at least an hour before attempting to sleep. The routine can include switching off from work email and projects, lowering light and sound levels, and engaging in a calming activity such as reading.
- Get your light exposure right as well. “Minimise screen time two hours before bed as nocturnal blue light from devices suppresses melatonin release and prevents sleep initiation,” says Dr Leow. Wearing glasses that block blue light can help.
It is also important to get 30 minutes of bright light on waking, for example through exposure to sunlight. “This helps to boost mood, alertness, and function of the body clock, which will also improve nighttime melatonin release and sleep.
- Avoid or limit naps. Sleep experts say it is better to avoid napping to sleep better at night. Go for a light walk instead as exercise can help improve sleep quality.
- Mr Ken Mok, founder and director of Fiitboxx and Foxx gyms, recommends activities such as stretching, yoga and walking to improve sleep.
He adds: “It is generally okay to work out at any time of day, but I would advise stopping at least 90 minutes before going to bed. This will enable a reduction in heart rate and a return to normal body temperature. To find out what works best for you, try various workout times.”
- Watch what you eat before bedtime, says Adjunct Assistant Professor Chong Khai Beng, a senior consultant in otorhinolaryngology at TTSH. “If possible, avoid having large meals before bedtime. Minimise nicotine, caffeine and alcohol close to bedtime as well.”