Feeling better about yourself, having more get up and go — even being healthier — doesn’t have to involve upending your daily routine.
Here, in the final part of his compelling series, Dr Michael Mosley reveals more simple, science-based tweaks to your everyday habits that will transform your life.
Dance for five to ten minutes every day
I’m not one of the world’s most natural movers, but I enjoy the occasional salsa evening with my wife, Clare. And if you, too, like to bust a few moves you will be pleased to hear that dancing has been shown to be more effective at improving your muscles, balance and brain health than traditional fitness exercises.
Dancing vigorously can get your heart rate up to more than 140 beats per minute, and offers you a great combination of low-intensity and high-intensity exercise bouts in the process.
It can alleviate depression, reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke, boost memory and protect against dementia.
Brain-imaging studies reveal that it can increase the volume of the hippocampus (an area of the brain that deals with spatial memory) and improve white matter (the number of nerve cells) in areas associated with memory and processing speed.
The great thing about reading fiction is that it acts as a ‘whole brain’ workout. When researchers at Stanford University scanned the brains of people while they were reading Jane Austen, they found a dramatic increase in blood flow across the entire brain
Apparently, we are all (even me!) natural dancers. ‘Humans,’ says Dr Julia Christensen from the Max Planck Institute in Germany, a former dancer who retrained as a neuroscientist, ‘are the only species with a specific connection between ear and leg, which means we are hardwired to tune into the rhythm of our movements.’
She told me the key to getting the benefits from dancing is to be relaxed. So just enjoy yourself and dance as if no one’s watching (they probably aren’t).
And, if you can, dance with others. The bonding it involves has a more powerful, stress-reducing effect. Dancing enthusiastically with others may even help us manage pain, because it triggers the release of endorphins — powerful hormones that, as well as relieving pain, can induce positive feelings.
Devote 20 minutes to new skills daily
I recently tried oil painting. It was the first time I’d drawn anything since I was a child, and the first time with oils. When the model came in and draped herself on a chair, I was terrified. I had no idea where to start.
The art teacher taught us the basics then left us to get on with it for a couple of hours. I was surprised by how engrossing it was. I got the model’s hands wrong, and her feet ended up as ugly pink blobs, but I was quietly pleased with the end result.
Taking up new activities like this is very challenging, particularly when you’re my age (65); but that is precisely why they have such a powerful effect on the aging brain.
Trying to acquire new skills later in life may mean you generate new brain cells, according to Alan Gow, a professor of psychology at Heriot-Watt University.
The process of approaching something new, particularly in a group, can change the way you think and feel. If the skill is challenging enough, your brain will be forced to forge new pathways and grow new connections, thereby boosting your brain power.
Professor Gow’s studies indicate that after three months of working at a new skill, people show improvements in thinking skills — specifically in the areas of the brain most affected by ageing.
‘Processing and thinking speeds tend to be among the first areas of brain function to start to decline with age, but we believe it is precisely these areas that benefit most from learning a new skill,’ he explains.
‘It can reverse that feeling of “slowing down” you get with age, and if you continue mastering the skill, this benefit could extend to other thinking skills and improve memory, too.’
As Professor Gow says: ‘It’s never too late to try new things, and the longer you stick to them, the more benefit you will accumulate over time.’ People who maintain their skills, he adds, ‘generally live longer, healthier lives — so it makes sense to embrace the chance to improve them’.
One of the best things you can do for your brain is learn a new language, because juggling between sounds, words, concepts and grammatical and social rules enhances blood flow and connections across the entire brain. It can even improve intelligence. But for maximum benefit, you have to practice for five hours a week.
Soak in a hot bath before bed
A relaxing hot bath is one of those rare pleasures in life that not only feels great but is actually good for you, reducing blood sugar levels and lowering your risk of heart disease.
And a hot bath an hour-and-a-half before bedtime could help you get to sleep quicker and improve the quality of your sleep.
When you have a hot bath, your core body temperature goes up. But it’s when you get out, and start to cool down, that you get the sleep-inducing benefits.
‘As your core temperature falls, it mimics the onset of sleep, triggering the release of the sleep hormone melatonin, and sending a strong signal that it is time for bed,’ says Jason Ellis, director of Northumbria Sleep Centre.
A relaxing hot bath is one of those rare pleasures in life that not only feels great but is actually good for you, reducing blood sugar levels and lowering your risk of heart disease
Count your blessings
Last thing at night, write down three things for which you feel grateful. There is solid science that getting into the habit of being regularly grateful can make you feel happier, lower your blood pressure, improve sleep, ease pain and even rewire your brain.
‘Think about three things for which you can be grateful that day,’ recommends Fuschia Sirois, a psychology professor at Durham University who specializes in investigating gratitude and its role in health.
‘Perhaps someone has acted kindly towards you, or you managed to get outside and enjoy the fresh air.’ The aim is to develop what she calls a ‘grateful mindset’.
‘Gratitude opens up your perspective, allowing you to appreciate the positive instead of focusing on your worries,’ she says. ‘It reduces stress by helping us to see things from outside the narrow view we adopt when our fight-and-flight mechanisms are activated.’
In her studies, patients with chronic health conditions who spent three weeks counting their blessings reported significantly less pain, as well as better sleep, than those in the control group.
There is solid science that getting into the habit of being regularly grateful can make you feel happier, lower your blood pressure, improve sleep, ease pain and even rewire your brain
Read fiction for half an hour a day
I love reading — and have from a young age. I was often spotted walking down the street, reading while trying to avoid fellow pedestrians and lamp posts.
These days I snatch my reading moments when I can, but I’m also a member of a book club, and I don’t need any persuading that reading fiction is good for empathy and social skills. Nor that it can help improve memory and protect against depression.
The great thing about reading fiction is that it acts as a ‘whole brain’ workout. When researchers at Stanford University scanned the brains of people while they were reading Jane Austen, they found a dramatic increase in blood flow across the entire brain.
That’s because when we get immersed in a good book, our brains are busy imagining the settings, sounds, smells and tastes described, and this activates the many different areas of the brain that process these experiences in real life. Words such as ‘lavender’, ‘cinnamon’ and ‘soap’, for example, will elicit a response not only in the language-processing areas of our brains, but also in the areas devoted to dealing with smells.
Dr Raymond Mar, a neuroscientist at York University, says reading fiction can boost your empathy and interpersonal skills, because the parts of the brain that we use to understand stories overlap with the ones we use to understand other people. ‘Reading helps our brains get better at creating accurate models of real people and predicting what they might think, feel or do,’ he told me.
Studies show reading is also one of the best ways to escape from the pressures of modern life.
‘Anxiety is all about having attention focused inwardly,’ says Dr Mar, ‘but reading forces our focus on the words and the story, and this can take us out of our head and help us to relax.’
Research from Yale University found those who read for 30 minutes a day lived, on average, 23 months longer than those who didn’t.
Adapted from Just One Thing: How Simple Changes Can Transform Your Life by Dr Michael Mosley, published by Short Books at £16.99.
© Dr Michael Mosley 2022. To order a copy for £13.99 (offer valid to 15/11/22; UK P&P free on orders over £20), visit mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937.