Get off to a healthy start – physically and emotionally – in the new year

Make your well-being – physical and mental – a priority in the new year, by incorporating simple but effective changes to your diet, exercise regime and emotional outlook.

Businessman Martin Hope describes his participation in a fitness challenge in Mongolia through Gulf For Good, a charity that organises health events to support children, as life-changing. Courtesy Martin Hope
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You've sworn to start 2017 on the right note. This time, nothing will prevent you from achieving the goals you set for yourself in these stale, final days of 2016. Sound familiar? Like something you uttered last year, and the year before that? This year, decide upon some resolutions that will make an honest difference in your life. You can't do any better than beginning with your health.

The World Health Organization recommends at least 130 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity throughout the week and strength training twice a week or more. The benefits are manifold: a stronger heart, lower blood pressure and cholesterol, enhanced mobility and flexibility, better sleeping patterns and mood, decreased stress, improved concentration, and an overall feeling of well-being.

Keeping healthy isn’t about spending hours at the gym, it’s about moving. That said, if you don’t know where to begin, establishing a sustainable self-care routine can prove daunting. “Just get started,” says Martine Kerr, a strength, movement and nutrition coach in Dubai. “Commit to a few things every day like walking around the office eight times, going up and down the stairs 10 times, or jogging around your neighbourhood.”

Andy Bedford, senior trainer at Haddins fitness centre, Abu Dhabi, recommends choosing an activity that connects you to people with similar goals. “You’ll have more fun doing it together than alone,” he says. “A big part of exercising is releasing stress through positive measures to live a happier life, so why not get that while getting fit with friends?”

If group activities aren’t your cup of tea, consider taking online classes, hiring a personal trainer or signing up for a fitness challenge. Martin Hope, a business owner, explains that his experiences with Gulf for Good, a charity in the UAE and the United Kingdom that organises fitness challenges around the world to support children, have been life-changing. “Going to the gym and trying to stay fit is a challenge for most. Training for my first G4G challenge to Mongolia in 2014 was completely different. With a focus like that, all the training became relevant. A week after coming back from Mongolia, I entered my first triathlon, did another six that winter and have never looked back. Three G4G challenges later, it’s proved to be a big influence on my life, let alone the kids we helped along the way.”

Adopting healthy eating habits is another key ingredient to feeling well inside and out. Forget crash diets. Instead, get educated so you can make informed decisions that will positively impact your health.

A well-balanced eating plan should include plenty of vegetables and fruit – the more colourful the better – and complex carbohydrates, such as legumes and lentils. Get your fill of high-quality dairy products and protein – oily fish, eggs and meat, as well as raw nuts and seeds. Replace unhealthy ingredients with more nutritious options, suggests Bernadette Abraham, a wellness coach specialising in high-end personal training and nutritional therapy services across the UAE. For example, swap white rice for quinoa, table salt for Himalayan rock salt, vegetable cooking oils for pure coconut or avocado oil and store-bought fruit juice for infused water. “Fruit juice has nearly as much sugar per ounce as soda. Adding herbs like mint and basil or berries and lemon [to water] provide flavour without the added sugar,” says Abraham. She also recommends fermented and cultured foods, such as kefir, sauerkraut, kombucha, miso and tempeh, all of which are natural food sources of probiotics that can help improve gut health. Tuck into these and drink plenty of water to get your daily dose of vitamins, minerals, protein and essential fatty acids, which are vital for the body to function properly and to fight disease. Also, avoid processed foods, hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils, refined carbs and sugars.

Cooking your way to better health doesn’t mean spending hours in the kitchen. But having the right equipment, including a hand blender and food processor, strainers, storage containers and sealable plastic bags, will make life easier, as will prepping meals ahead of time. Abraham is a fan of no-fuss recipes that require minimal cooking: soft-boiled or sunny-side-up organic pasture-raised eggs; pan-cooked salmon with garlic, dried basil and salt cooked in grass-fed butter with a side of steamed asparagus and sweet potato; a green power smoothie with added grass-fed gelatin and flax seeds for extra protein and healthy fats; and quinoa salad with vegetables, extra virgin olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, salt and pepper.

Elizabeth Carroll, a web developer and mum to a 9-month-old, says that reassessing her eating habits helped her shed 10 kilograms and feel better about herself. “I found out I love to cook. I eat everything in moderation, but I steer clear of junk food, ready-made meals, takeout and soft drinks. I’ve never felt healthier or more energised, which motivates me to keep going.”

When we speak about keeping healthy, taking charge of our emotional well-being rarely tops the priority list. Yet, carving out adequate time to focus on our inner ecosystem is an asset when it comes to handling life’s curveballs, says Dubai-based psychologist and yoga teacher Jeyla Shikhlinskaya. “You cannot give what you do not have. If you are stressed out, overworked and sleep-deprived, how are you supposed to be the calm professional preparing for an important presentation? Or the understanding parent to a moody teenager? Or the supportive spouse?”

Just as with exercise and diet, emotional well-being requires a shift in behaviour. Clearing clutter, going to bed earlier, limiting time on digital devices, and adopting mindfulness practices, such as yoga and meditation, are simple yet efficient strategies. “Meditation is like a break for your brain; it is a moment of stillness, of quiet in an otherwise unstoppable flow of consciousness,” says Shikhlinskaya.

Sarah Arnold, founder of Alma Retreat in Ras Al Khaimah, says that time away from routine, duties and information overflow is necessary to help us get back to ourselves. “It becomes hard at times to distinguish if we do things because we really want to or because we just run on autopilot,” she says. “It’s good to take time away from materialistic things to focus on what really counts – our mind and heart, and our health and body.”

Sasha Quince, a yoga teacher in Abu Dhabi, has been on a journey of self-investigation for several years and makes it a point to check in with herself regularly. “I ask myself what I can get rid of that I don’t need. Then I go into the mind or into my home and rid myself of exactly that,” she says. “I aim for a quality experience with mindfulness, such as a short walk in nature, cloud gazing, breathing with awareness, or colouring.”

Changing habits takes some effort, but it’s not without its rewards. Try it: commit to a healthier lifestyle in the new year. Alternatively, you could dig up this article in 2018 and try again.