Published: 12 October 2021.
We all know we have a lifespan, the number of years lived, which reflects our quantity of life. But did you know that we also have a healthspan? Your healthspan is the number of years you can expect to live in good health, which is important because it’s a measure of quality of those years lived.
In the UK, the number of years people are spending in ill health has been gradually increasing, which is mainly due to the growth and earlier onset of chronic conditions and lifestyle-related diseases. On average on the UK, 16% of a woman’s life, and 13% of a man’s life, is now expected to be spent in poor health. The good news is that research suggests most of the contributing factors are preventable and therefore taking preventative measures through healthy habits could lead to living longer in good health.
The opportunity to improve healthspan is significant, even for those who would consider themselves to be in ‘average health’. For example, a 30-year old female of average health who makes moderate changes to increase and improve her exercise and diet could potentially add three years of good health to her life.
Changing your habits for the long-term
The biggest contributing factors to living longer in ill health are chronic conditions and lifestyle-related diseases, such as diabetes, musculoskeletal conditions and mental health, as well as certain risk factors like BMI increasing at younger ages. By making lots of small changes to your overall health habits, you could help to increase the time spent in good health, and although starting sooner is better, you can make changes at any age.
There are a few areas of focus when it comes to changing behaviours to increase your healthspan, which are physical activity, diet and nutrition, sleep hygiene and high-risk activities such as alcohol consumption and smoking. By making a few small changes to these aspects of your life, you could add years to your healthspan, which is no small thing.
Here’s how to take immediate steps to extend your healthy years…
Cut out high risk habits
There are some habits that can be immediately removed or reduced from your daily behaviours to ensure that you will live life in good health for longer.
The first of these is alcohol consumption: whilst it might be difficult to completely cut out alcohol from your lifestyle, even making a small adjustment to your intake is a step in the right direction. Try to reduce the number of drinks you are having in a week and always avoid binge-drinking as this can often be worse than having a very small drink a few times a week. It’s easy to lose track so you could keep a diary to see what days you’ve had a drink and how many you had.
The second is smoking, something that decreases good health and also is the cause for many diseases such as cancer. Quitting smoking is one of the quickest ways to improve your health, but it can also be difficult for someone who has been smoking for a long time. There are lots of resources and help available which make this much easier, and to help you get started here are some of the most effective methods to stopping smoking.
Put in place an exercise & nutrition routine
Nutrition and physical activity go hand in hand, and they are both proven ways to help ensure you get healthier. Starting to exercise in ten years’ time or cutting out unhealthy food in five years’ time won’t make the same impact as today, so it’s always a good idea to start earlier rather than later.
When it comes to exercise, having a regular routine that works for you is the best place to start. If you’re someone who doesn’t move much, you can start small by incorporating a morning walk for 10 minutes into your day. Gradually you can begin to increase this so that you are moving more throughout the day. It’s also easier to stick to a routine if you find an exercise you love – you don’t have to do HIIT sessions every week, you could go swimming, dancing or just get walking.
Nutrition is often where people really struggle to make a difference, but even a small change in diet can make a difference. If you’re ordering three takeaways a week, try cutting this down to two and then one, or see if you can make a healthier alternative at home. Being overly restrictive could see you falling off your nutrition plan, so look to make small changes rather than a complete overhaul.
Use tech to track your habits
Technology has reinvented the way we approach fitness and health over the years, so it is well worth utilising it to support your change in habits. You don’t always need to spend lots of money on tech either, there are a lot of built-in functions on devices we already own and some helpful apps that are either free or affordable.
Smart watches are just one way that you can track your health – they can monitor your daily steps, your activity levels, look at your heartrate and so much more. You can also integrate your smart watch with certain apps on your device which can remind you to drink water, get enough hours of sleep each night and help you to monitor your nutrition.
Get a buddy
Having someone else that is also looking to change their health habits can be one of the best ways to ensure you stick to your plan. Not only does it help to keep you accountable, but they can motivate you on the days where you are struggling, and they are there to support you when you need it.
Sustaining goals can be really difficult when you feel like you’re doing it all alone, which is why the buddy system works so well. You can work together to set challenges, have daily or weekly check-ins and also celebrate your achievements together. Alternatively, there are lots of great fitness, health and nutrition groups out there that can really help you to stay on track and motivated.
For more information on healthspan, you can read the full Maximising quality of life: A primer on healthspan and lifespan Report on the Vitality Research Institute.