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Your guide to a healthier year – month-by-month

2024 and a trainer
2024 and a trainer

Improving our health is a priority for many of us in 2024 — but we’re also aware that trying to enact a laundry list of changes all at once in January is likely to be doomed to failure.

In fact, research shows we’re much more likely to succeed if we tackle one change at a time — and if we bear in mind that certain actions are more suited to certain times of the year than others.

Our health calendar reveals the month of the year to begin new habits to boost your physical and mental wellbeing, with the best possible chance of success.

January — Cut back on alcohol

For vast numbers of people — as many as nine million last year, according to the charity Alcohol Change — this is a month of abstinence. And there are good reasons why the first month of the year is the ideal time to cut down on alcohol or cut it out completely. It’s cold, we’re not socialising much and we may relish the idea of a reset after a period of overindulging.

Rosamund Dean, author of Mindful Drinking: How Cutting Down Can Change Your Life, advocates a month entirely off alcohol even if the long-term goal is moderation rather than abstinence, to become comfortable with the idea of managing the highs and lows of life without it. “Once you see the benefits, you may not want to go back,” she says.

“A 2019 study of over 6,000 Dry January participants found that 81 per cent felt more in control of their drinking, 70 per cent were sleeping better and 65 per cent had generally better health.” And these benefits can last: the University of Sussex reported that six months after Dry January, 70 per cent of people were still drinking more healthily.

February — Brave the cold and exercise outside

It might be a daunting prospect, but exercising outside in cold weather could have greater benefits than hitting the gym. A 2018 study at Californian medical research institute Sanford Burnham Prebys found that a peptide called sarcolipin, which helps us burn fat, is activated by moving in cold temperatures.

“When it’s cold, plyometric training is ideal — short, intense bursts of activity such as sprints and jumping squats and lunges that will warm up your body quickly,” says fitness trainer Tej Patel, founder of Tej-Fit.

man jumping in cold
'When it’s cold, plyometric training is ideal,' says fitness trainer Tej Patel - iStockphoto

Even a brisk 20-minute walk through a local park in freezing February could bring benefits that go beyond the physiological. Getting outside in fresh air and natural light is vital in the depths of winter to regulate our circadian rhythms and protect our mental health against seasonal affective disorder, believed by scientists to be linked to the disruption of the natural sleep/wake cycle at this time. In Finland, deemed the happiest country in the world, 96 per cent of people exercise outdoors two to three times a week, all year round.

March — Eat to combat hay fever

According to Allergy UK, 49 per cent of people have suffered hay fever symptoms: the itchy eyes, congestion and fatigue that strike during the spring pollen season. What few realise is that our diets can help protect us, particularly if we start a couple of months before symptoms usually hit.

“Hay fever happens when our immune system produces histamine, and we can reduce our output of histamine quite successfully through food,” says Laura Southern of London Food Therapy. “Cut back on histamine-rich foods such as aged cheeses, fermented foods, legumes and alcoholic drinks such as cask-aged wines and whiskies.

fresh fruit and vegetables
Hay fever sufferers should start adding in more low-histamine foods such as fresh fruit and vegetables - Moment RF

Add in more low-histamine foods such as fresh fruit and vegetables, fresh meat, fish and eggs, as well as foods that help the body clear excess histamine. The plant compound polyphenol quercetin, found in apples, onions and fresh berries, does this.” Quercetin and vitamin C supplements taken in advance of hay fever season can also lessen its impact.

April — Take up running

A 2023 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research & Public Health found that running for as little as 75 minutes per week can add a remarkable 12 years to your life — a reason if ever there was one to dig out your trainers and attempt Couch to 5k.

Fitness experts agree that the spring, when the weather is beginning to warm up, is a far better time to start running than in January as a new year’s resolution. “There’s a good reason the London Marathon is in April — the moderate temperature is ideal for distance running,” says Tej Patel. “Increased sunlight positively affects mood and energy levels, making starting a new running regime feel more appealing. It’s lighter for longer, which is particularly important if you’re a woman who doesn’t want to go out running in the dark. And starting now means you’re likely to be seeing the benefits in how you look and feel by holiday season.”

May — Start lifting weights

Strength training is vital for all of us, especially as we age. Muscle mass naturally declines as we grow older, and maintaining it is essential to support bone density, cardiovascular health, cognitive power and insulin sensitivity. Building muscle is also the most efficient way of burning fat.

“I’m passionate about resistance training and the impact it has on combating the negative effects of ageing,” says personal trainer Mandy Wong Oultram. As with running, taking advantage of our natural increase in energy and motivation in the spring will help us follow through on our intention. “It’s a form of exercise that can be done indoors using machines in the gym, or outdoors using bands, weights or bodyweight exercises such as squats,” she says. “If you want to get your body ready for summer, and you consistently work out two or three times a week, you will see a real change in two or three months.”

June — Train your brain

Research shows that stimulating the brain can help stem cognitive decline and build up a resilience against dementia, which affects 900,000 in Britain and is the country’s biggest killer. A study by the University of Exeter and King’s College London, which analysed 19,000 participants, found those who regularly engaged with word and number puzzles such as Wordle, crosswords and Sudoku had sharper performance “across a range of tasks assessing memory, attention and reasoning”.

crossword
Research shows that stimulating the brain can help stem cognitive decline - Photodisc

Research carried out at the University of Liege in Belgium showed that brain activity varies according to the rhythm of the seasons, with performance on tasks requiring sustained attention peaking around summer solstice – which is on June 20 this year, making it the optimum time to start training the brain.

“If you’re already doing puzzles then keep at it; do more, do different and do more complex ones,” says Dr Tim Beanland, the head of knowledge at the Alzheimer’s Society whose book Mind Games features more than 150 puzzles to target different areas of the brain.

July — Break your phone addiction

A survey published last year by the comparison website Uswitch found the average person scrolls through the equivalent of 43ft 3in of content on their phone daily – the equivalent of three miles, annually. But the negative impacts can include eye strain, neck and back pain, sleep disturbance, anxiety, depression and decreased concentration.

If you’ve been meaning to tackle a toxic relationship with your phone, July could be the time to try, particularly if you’re going on holiday. “The contextual side of habits is extremely strong,” says psychotherapist Hilda Burke, author of The Phone Addiction Workbook. “Reaching for our phone first thing in the morning is just what we do without thinking – it’s muscle memory. Being in a new environment, out of our usual routine, is very helpful for cultivating new habits. It’s a good time to make more conscious choices, such as keeping the phone out of the bedroom, or only checking it at certain times.

“It allows us to see the benefits of not being glued to the screen – feeling more relaxed and less anxious. We’re more driven by positive rewards than anything which feels punitive, so experiencing the benefits makes us more likely to carry on when we arrive home.”

August — Start meditating

Research by psychologists from New York University found that just 13 minutes of mindfulness meditation daily can bring benefits including decreased negative mood and anxiety, better sleep and improved cognitive powers.

August, when the pace of life is often calmer than usual, is an ideal time to begin incorporating a few minutes into your daily routine. “September often brings a new wave of deadlines and commitments at work, and activities with the children, so it’s great to use August as a pre-emptive strike against that stress,” says Donna Noble, yoga teacher and wellness coach. “You’ll enter the busy autumn months better equipped to handle whatever comes your way.”

Noble recommends taking advantage of the warmth and light of the summer to go outside. “Find a quiet spot in your garden or a park and let the nature sounds calm you,” she says. “Fearne Cotton’s Happy Place app has a selection of meditations you can listen to which will help you focus and breathe. I find doing it first thing in the morning, when it’s peaceful and quiet, works best for me — I emerge feeling calmer and clearer, ready to face the day.”

September — Reboot your gut health

“Research shows that the health of our gut microbiome – the community of bacteria, fungi and viruses which live in our intestines – influences everything from our immune systems to our mental health,” says Laura Southern. Early autumn is the perfect time to focus on improving gut health to stave off bugs and winter blues over the coming months.

kimchi
Fermented foods such as kimchi help with gut health

The starting point, she says, is to try to remove as much ultra-processed food and sugar as possible from your diet, as these increase the “bad” bacteria. “The more diverse your gut microbiome, the better for resilience to infection, so aim to eat a diverse selection of plants, increase your fibre intake with wholegrains, add in some supportive bacteria via fermented foods such as kimchi and live yoghurt and consider taking a probiotic supplement, too,” she says.

October — Start taking vitamin D

Vitamin D is essential for everything from our bones, teeth and muscles to our immune responses and even our mood, says Dr Melanie Angelova, who specialises in functional medicine at Optimise Health. We create vitamin D from direct sunlight on the skin, but during the autumn and winter months Britain does not have enough sunlight, so supplementation is important.

Dr Angelova recommends it as a year-round supplement and says: “The best time to start increasing your dose would be from October all the way until April.” At the same time, she suggests adding in other supplements: “Vitamin C is an incredibly powerful antioxidant which can act as a preventative measure against illness. Zinc is involved in most immune system enzyme reactions and can also prevent sickness, as well as helping the body recover quickly. Curcumin is a very potent anti-inflammatory molecule and can help support your immune system. It can be taken in a pill form or combined in a juice with ginger – a perfect combination for the colder months.”

November — Start practising yoga

The benefits of this millennia-old practice have long been known, including building bone density, reducing depression, boosting brain health and even, according to a recent study by the University of Rochester, reducing the risk of cancer.

yoga class
Gentle stretches and mindful breathing stimulate the lymphatic system, a key player in your immune defence, which helps you fight off winter bugs - Digital Vision

During winter, when exercising outside is more difficult, spending 15 minutes doing a Yoga with Adrienne class online at home or popping to your local studio for a session could be particularly beneficial. Donna Noble says: “Gentle stretches and mindful breathing stimulate the lymphatic system, a key player in your immune defence, which helps you fight off winter bugs. Flowing sequences and dynamic poses also improve circulation.”

Many of us suffer from stiffness, aches and pains in our muscles and joints in winter, but yoga can counteract this by stretching and strengthening the body. Increased flexibility can also help prevent injuries, which are more common in the colder months, especially among older people.

December — Go to bed earlier

December may be a month of parties, but on evenings when we’re at home instead, prioritising sleep is an excellent idea. A recent study by the sleep clinic at St Hedwig Hospital in Berlin found that participants slept an hour longer in December than in June, with REM sleep, the most active stage in which we dream and our heart rate increases, lasting 30 minutes longer in winter than summer. This is thought to be a result of the shorter days: the darkness means our bodies produce more melatonin. Colder temperatures can also boost our metabolism, explaining why we need more sleep – and why we’re often hungrier, too.

Dieter Kunz, one of the study’s lead authors, said that most people maintain a similar sleep routine throughout the year, but “our study shows they will be missing out on one to two hours of sleep each night during the winter,” he said. A lack of sleep is associated with an increased risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity and depression. Instead, the report recommended we should aim to go to bed earlier during the winter to fulfil our increased need.

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