From physical fitness to mental agility, strength is important for every aspect of our wellbeing. Here’s how to build a strong body and mind. By Karen Fittall.
When you think about improving your strength, you probably automatically think of making your muscles stronger, right?
And there’s nothing wrong with that – that kind of strength is definitely healthy. But what about how strong your brain is? Or your emotional strength? Or how robust your cells are against the ageing process? Those things matter for good health and wellbeing, too.
Here’s a handful of health areas, from your immune system to emotional resilience, that you can start strengthening right now.
Strengthen Your: Brain
By building your physical fitness. Regular physical activity was recently identified as being the best lifestyle change you can make after the age of 45 to protect against cognitive decline and dementia in later life. Not only do the connections between different regions in the brain grow stronger the fitter you become, regular aerobic exercise has also been linked to growth in the hippocampus, the area of the brain that’s responsible for verbal memory and learning.
Eating dark chocolate once a week. That’s linked to a stronger performance of a number of cognitive tasks such as concentration, recalling information and reasoning. Chocolate contains antioxidants, called flavanols, that scientists have found accumulate in the brain’s hippocampus, improving blood flow and encouraging new neurons to form.
And staying busy. The busier you are after the age of 50, the better your brain’s processing speed, working memory and vocabulary will be as you grow older. It’s not 100 per cent clear why a busy schedule leads to better brain health, but the busier you are, the more learning opportunities you encounter on a day-to-day basis, and researchers say those opportunities help to maintain brain strength.
Strengthen Your: Boy
By lifting weights. Weight training builds both bone and muscle strength. Lifting heavier weights is great, but lighter weights are just as effective for strengthening muscles – and less taxing to use. The key is choosing a weight you can lift between 25 to 30 times per set, before your muscles start to feel fatigued. And try waiting for at least three minutes between sets of exercises – compared to waiting for just one minute, a three-minute break produces a bigger muscle response, which equals larger strength gains over time.
Eating 50g of prunes a day. That strengthens your skeleton by protecting against the loss of bone mineral density post-menopause. It’s because prunes contain nutrients that inhibit something called bone resorption – the breakdown and absorption of minerals inside your bones that can contribute to osteoporosis.
And jumping up and down 20 times a day. Do 10 jumps in the morning and 10 at night, waiting for 30 seconds between each jump. After four months the bone mineral density in your hip – a good indicator of osteoporosis risk – will have improved. It works because jumping is a moderate- to high-impact weight-bearing exercise, the type that places more strain on your bones, which helps to build their strength.
Strengthen Your: Body’s Cells
By doing a few different types of exercise. Physical activity is good for your telomeres – the protective caps on the end of chromosomes, the DNA-containing structures that every cell in your body contains. By protecting your chromosomes, telomeres influence how well your cells age – the longer the telomeres are the better and past the age of 40, exercise variety helps preserve their length.
For example, when you participate in one type of activity, you’re three per cent less likely to have short telomeres, but do four different types and your short telomere risk falls by 52 per cent. While reduced telomere length is associated with a range of diseases, like cancer and diabetes, as well as a shorter lifespan, exercise strengthens telomeres by increasing levels of a compound that protects them from being‘snipped’ prematurely, say researchers.
Eating like they do in the Mediterranean. The more you do that, the longer your telomeres will be. The reason? The Mediterranean diet protects against the inflammation that accelerates how quickly telomeres start to lose their length. Base your diet primarily on plant-based foods, like fruits, vegetables, wholegrains, legumes and nuts; replace butter with olive oil; eat fish and chicken at least twice a week, but limit red meat to just a few times a month; and use herbs and spices instead of salt, for flavour.
And taking up meditation. That’s been linked to longer telomere length, too. Meditation strengthens telomeres by reducing stress levels as well as lowering the body’s stress response. And it also increases levels of telomerase, an enzyme that helps to prevent telomeres from shortening.
Strengthen Your: Immunity
By getting enough sleep. That means catching at least seven hours a night. Any less than that and you’re around four times more likely to catch a cold when you’re exposed to a rhinovirus, according to a 2015 study. Sleep deprivation suppresses the activity of key immune system cells.
Eating 10g of shiitake mushrooms. Do that every day and after four weeks, your immune system’s cells will function more effectively and efficiently. Shiitakes contain beta-glucans, a type of soluble fibre that stimulates the immune system – and the mushrooms don’t even have to be fresh to be effective. Dried shiitakes work just as well for improving the strength of your immunity, say researchers.
And spending five minutes visualising your ‘best possible self’. After two weeks of doing it daily you’ll feel more optimistic, a state of mind that’s been linked to a stronger immune system response when your body encounters bacteria or a virus. To perform the ‘best possible self’ activity, pick a timeframe, like five years from now, and visualise how you’d ideally like your life to be in 2022.
Strengthen Your: Emotional Resilience
By writing your worries down. It’s a good way to acknowledge what’sworrying you, and that’s important for staying emotionally strong. Why? Because when you try to suppress the things that are bugging or concerning you, your anxiety levels climb. Plus, the act ofwriting yourworries down physically clears space in your brain so that you can get on with other tasks, say researchers.
Eating lentils regularly. They contain a prebiotic called galacto-oligosaccharides, or GOS, which can strengthen your ability to focus on the positives rather than the negatives of a situation, according to a 2015 study. A regular dose of GOS also lowers your levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Having good gut bacteria helps to boost mood and improve the way you cope with stress, and these good bugs thrive on prebiotics.
And being strategic about the music you listen to. Load your playlist with songs that have a high-energy beat, and when you’re listening to them, make a conscious effort to feel more positive. It’s a combination that will genuinely improve how happy you feel, and happiness helps to strengthen your emotional resilience.