Sounds straight forward enough right? Just ‘be healthy.’ As a starting point, to be healthy is to look at how you are treating your physical body. Not only is that a wise strategy in terms of maintaining better physical health, but there are enormous benefits to your mental outlook.
Here are four powerful ways you can do that.
1. Get a good night’s sleep
This one is a no brainer, but can be hard to do for those who struggle to either drop off to sleep, or to stay asleep for more than a few hours. Some techniques for developing better sleep habits include: not drinking alcohol, caffeine or other stimulants at night (at least in excessive quantities and close to the bed-time); turning off digital devices and screens an hour before you turn in and banning them from the bedroom; developing a meditation or relaxation practice that you can apply in bed, or before your turn in and, if you are worried about something or your mind is racing with unfinished business - put it all down on paper and forget about it until the morning. And it goes without saying, the more physically active you are in the day, the more likely you are to sleep soundly at night.
How much sleep you need depends on how much sleep you personally need, but many experts recommend at least 7-8 hours a day to help our bodies recover and repair, and to support brain development, cardiac function and body metabolism. Sleep helps with memory and mood. Regular poor sleep patterns contribute to long-term health problems such as obesity, Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and poor mental health.
You can find out how much sleep you need at the Sleep Foundation and how to develop good sleep habits at the Sleep Health Foundation or check Tiny Buddha’s 9 ways to get better sleep and prevent exhaustion.
2. Eat a healthy diet
Aussie men have diets low in fruit and vegetables, whole grain foods, fibre, nuts and seeds. But typically, they do eat higher quantities of processed meat, sodium and fats. Poor nutrition has been linked to 30 male deaths a day.
A simple way to better mental (and physical health) is to eat better. Move towards the foods that have not been packaged, that come out of the ground, that don’t have a beating heart. There’s lots of information to back up your choices but here’s some Do’s for starters from healthyweight.health.gov.au
You can register to the site to set some weight goals, get trusted nutritional information and track your progress. You can also find out if you are at a healthy weight with the BMI calculator. Body Mass Index is one way of trying to work out whether you are within a healthy weight range. Being a healthy weight can help you live longer, reduce your chances of developing chronic disease and help combat anxiety, depression and sleep issues.
Check out the Australian guide to healthy eating at www.eatforhealth.gov.au – but the basic principles are laid out in this graphic.
3. Avoid excess alcohol and drugs
According to Beyond Blue, men in particular turn to drugs and alcohol to deal with anxiety and depression, which only make the symptoms worse. The Australian guidelines recommend you have at least two alcohol free drinks a week, no more than four standard drinks a day and no more than 10 standard drinks a week.
The Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE) recently launched an online tool to help men reduce their alcohol use. It’s called TOM, because the research FARE conducted in the ACT showed a Third Of Men (TOM) wanted to cut back on drinking, or stop completely.
Alcohol can have a major impact on mental health because it slows your body down and changes the chemical makeup in your brain. According to headspace, this can alter mood, energy levels, sleep patterns, concentration and memory. There’s a link with risky behaviour, increased aggression, self-harm and suicide for people who may already be going through a tough time. And then there’s the general physical impact: high blood pressure, heart disease, brain damage, liver disease, various kinds of cancer, weight gain.
Drugs can also bring you down in a number of serious ways, depending on what it is you are taking and how much of it. Visit the Alcohol and Drug Foundation website to find out more about the effects of every conceivable substance you can imagine. This fantastic resource allows you to search a substance based on the technical or slang names it is called, and outlines background to the substance, how it is used and side effects.
The littlehabit.com.au website also provides practical tips to change a habit.
4. Have a regular check up with your GP
It’s important to check in with your GP from a physical and mental standpoint. Researchers from the Ten to Men Longitudinal Study on Male Health, a major national research project, found that 80% of adult men with mental health issues had contact with a GP. This can be a first step to seeking help from a specialist mental health professional, so don’t be afraid to discuss your concerns with your doctor and ask for a referral.
Health Direct says it’s better to find a GP you like and trust, and who you feel comfortable talking openly and honestly with. Get recommendations from friends, colleagues or from other health professionals. If you want a GP who understands your culture, sexuality, language … you might also ask people with similar set of preferences for their recommendations.
TIPS FROM THE TOP
The Australian Men's Health Forum surveyed men for World Mental Health Month 2020 on the 10 Habits of Mentally Healthy Men. 95% agreed that looking after physical health was a key driver of staying mentally healthy. Here's what some of them had to say:
I could for walks and wind down. I go fishing and enjoy the outdoors.
The ritual of morning cardio exercise for me leads to stable mental health + three alcohol-free days a week.
Taking my puppies for a daily 5km walk.
Not only do I feel more alive and energetic, but I feel pride and self-respect, these form the basis of my mental health.