It sometimes seems that the tradition of making new year resolutions is on the wane. Nowadays you are more likely to hear people saying that they are making a resolution never to make a new year resolution again rather than taking January 1 as an opportunity to make a new start with a spot of self-improvement. But as another year passes and your metabolism slows a little more, finding ways to keep yourself healthy and mentally active become more important.
That does not just mean joining a gym, although it's a good idea. Read on to find out how a little self-improvement can go a long way. Weight-loss is one of the most common goals post-Christmas, but it is not easy. Improving your diet and doing more exercise are still the best ways to go about it - there is genuinely no quick fix, unfortunately. Make sure you have a specific goal so that you stay motivated.
If you are overweight, losing just 10 per cent of your weight can lower your cholesterol levels and blood pressure, increase your energy, cut down aches and pains, help you to sleep better and reduce your risks of diabetes, heart disease and stroke. Start by seeing your doctor to come up with a weight-loss plan that is safe and will suit you. You might also choose to join a gym and see a personal trainer, or join a weight-loss club such as Good Habits (www.goodhabitsuae.com, 050 4542 309) so that you have regular chances to assess your progress.
According to the World Health Organization, tobacco is the world's leading preventable cause of death and has far-reaching implications for health. Of the 4,000 toxic chemicals in cigarettes, 50 cause cancer; others can damage fertility and contribute to heart disease, respiratory diseases and stroke among a whole range of illnesses, while from a cosmetic point of view, skin, hair and teeth are all affected by smoking. Children brought up in a smoker's house have a higher chance of suffering from asthma or glue ear, too. But as soon as you stop you give yourself a chance to live a longer, healthier life - within 24 hours of quitting your risk of a sudden heart attack will have decreased.
The Ministry of Health runs smoking-cessation clinics across the UAE that have a 32 per cent success rate for their three-month programme; you might also like to talk to your doctor about it or follow a self-help route, such as Allen Carr's Easy Way to Stop Smoking (www.allencarr.com). Don't panic if you fall at the first hurdle - statistics show that on average it takes four attempts to quit. So get back up and try again.
Being sociable might sound as though it has nothing to do with health, but studies show that it helps us to deal with stress and even extends life. Research into ageing consistently finds that a strong social network is a more important factor than blood pressure or cholesterol levels when it comes to living a long time. By contrast, being isolated is associated with high levels of depression, chronic diseases and a shorter life-expectancy. A 15-year study of baboons in Botswana showed that those in close social groups were healthier and had longer-lived offspring. It all supports the idea that living in close-knit groups is good for our mental and physical health.
Don't get caught in the trap of thinking that you can't teach an old dog new tricks - the truth is that you can. Our brains learn and grow the more they are stimulated, and learning new things stimulates cerebral function and actively protects against cognitive decline. Severe mental decline is mainly caused by disease, but much age-related memory loss is associated with a lack of mental exercise and stimulation. Research from the Institute of Neurology at University College London has shown that learning a new language boosts brain power, while the University of Zurich has found that playing a musical instrument can raise IQ and improve motor skills, alertness, hearing and memory, even in people over 65. Whatever your age, there's no excuse - trying something new is definitely good for you.
No surprises here: getting fit is good for your health. Along with reducing cancer risk, increasing longevity and helping with weight loss, it also lowers blood pressure, combats arthritis, helps you look and feel better and improves your mood. But where to start? Why not combine the previous two tips - round up some friends and try a new sport or class? Being with a group of people is more effective than working on your own because of the competitive drive, and you won't find it as easy to drop out. You should start to see results after a month or so. Set yourself a challenge, whether it is to run a halfmarathon, to try a triathlon, to run along the beach three times a week or to walk 12,000 steps a day. The main thing is to have a focus.
By making a conscious effort to think positively, you can have a great impact on your general well-being. Dr Martin Seligman, the director of the University of Pennsylvania's Positive Psychology Centre, is the leading light in this field. His research has shown that it is possible to be happier, to feel more satisfied, have higher hopes and even to laugh and smile more, regardless of your situation, if you just change your mindset. It is an important way to ward off depression, and scientists have suggested that being happier makes you more resilient, healthier, longer-lived and perform better. Have a look at his website for questionnaires and resources on the subject: www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu - and keep smiling.
There is nothing good about debt. Not only is the stress terrible for mental health, it also plays havoc with sleep, raises the level of cortisol in the body - which can lead to heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and cancer - and it puts enormous strain on personal relationships. Resolving to get out of that hole is the best thing you can do for your health. Start by organising and sticking to a weekly budget, and talk to a debt counsellor. The UK-based website www.moneysavingexpert.com/banking/Budget-planning has a very good year planner to help you budget and plenty of useful advice on debt and how to deal with it.
Volunteering gives you a health kick, so it's a great resolution to add to your list. Plenty of research has shown that helping others helps you - frequent volunteers live longer, have better physical and mental health and are happier, have higher levels of self-esteem and feel more satisfied. What's more, studies have shown that to reap the benefits, you only need to put in 100 hours over a year (that's two hours a week). There are many ways to help, so start by looking at what you're interested in. You can help in a hospital (www.takatof.ae), cuddle a cat (www.felinefriendsuae.com) or help terminally ill children make their wishes come true (www.makeawish.ae), just for starters.
Getting out of a rut is definitely good for you - if you can find a job, that is. This stalwart of the resolution list is one of the hardest to achieve at the moment, but that's not to say that you should just accept your current position if it is unsatisfactory. Staying in your old job when you are feeling demoralised won't help your stress levels, which in turn has an impact on your self-esteem and general health. So get moving: if there is nothing advertised, send speculative applications to companies you want to work for. Take a friend out for coffee if he or she is in the line of work you're interested in. Act optimistic. And if all else fails, add some volunteering hours to your week to give you a fresh perspective and new set of skills. It's all a step in the right direction.