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Seven healthy habits

The information age has so overwhelmed us with countless ways to lie longer, stronger and happier, it's no wonder we sometimes feel we've fallen short. Keep it simple with these expert tips for better living, writes Julie Hosking.

Seven ECU experts give their advice on how to live better.

1. Aspire, but don't perspire

If you are falling short of your goals, don't sweat on them.

While aspirations help us to navigate life in a meaningful way, research has found that agonising about our failure to meet them can be harmful.

The study, led by Associate Professor Joanne Dickson, from the School of Arts and Humanities, determined it is not so much our failure to reach the goals for our 'ideal self' that causes us grief, but the tendency to repetitively think about this lack of progress in a negative way. This ultimately leads to increased psychological distress.

"Reflecting on, and at times modifying, our self-guides [our desired state of self] may be helpful, particularly if we are caught in a spiral of negative self-evaluation," Dickson says.

So, if at first you don't succeed, don't obsess about it. Re-evaluate those goals, stop setting overly high standards, and be kinder to yourself.

2. Let kids fail – or fail at life

Nobody likes failing, so it's natural to try to protect our children from such negative feelings. But in doing so, we're actually making it harder for children to cope with what life throws at them.

Dr Mandie Shean, from the School of Education, says we are robbing them of valuable life lessons.

"Studies show children who are protected from failure are more depressed and less satisfied with life in adulthood," Shean says. "Mistakes are the essence of learning. As we have new experiences and develop competence, it's inevitable we make mistakes. If failure is held as a sign of incompetence and something to be avoided, children will start to avoid the challenges necessary for learning."

Children need to know, for example, that if they don't study they might fail, and if they don't turn up for practice they might not be picked for the netball team.

Use their failures as an opportunity for growth, tell them it's okay to feel bad, and help them work out how to improve. And don't give praise for the sake of it – if they haven't put in the effort, saying otherwise is unlikely to make anyone try harder next time.

3. Enjoy a more fruitful life

Next time you write your grocery shopping list, think Mediterranean – it will help give you peace of mind.

ECU research found that eating a Mediterranean diet, with plenty of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, fish and olive oil, could delay the onset of Alzheimer's disease by years.

Led by Dr Stephanie Rainey-Smith, from the School of Medical and Health Sciences, researchers found that those who follow a Mediterranean diet have significantly slower rates of Amyloid beta (Aß) accumulation in their brain. The build-up of Aß is linked with the development of Alzheimer's.

And it seems the more fruit you eat, the better.

"While all of the aspects of the Mediterranean diet appear to be important for reducing Alzheimer's risk, in our study fruit intake provided the greatest benefit," Rainey-Smith says.

Best of all, you don't have to have been a devotee for decades – you can start now. The study showed that following a Mediterranean diet for just three years reduced the build-up of Aß by up to 60 per cent.

Pass the fruit bowl, please!

4. Move, eccentrically

Need a work-out? Believe it or not, walking down stairs could be better for you, mentally and physically, than walking up.

Professor Ken Nosaka, director of exercise and sports science at the School of Medical and Health Sciences, says there is growing evidence of the benefits of so-called eccentric exercise – and, no, that doesn't mean you need to dress up like the Barmy Army to get results.

"Eccentric exercise is where load is placed on the muscle while it is lengthening, rather than shortening," he explains. "Walking down stairs is eccentric exercise because your front thigh muscles are lengthening when they are placed under load, as opposed to walking up stairs in which the muscles are shortening, performing mainly concentric contractions."

The benefits of eccentric exercise include increased muscle function, bone mineral density, balance and flexibility – and strengthening mind over matter.

"Going down stairs rather than up, you have to think more and it requires greater muscle control," Nosaka says. "If we can stimulate the brain more, there is a hypothesis that it could decrease the risk of dementia."

5. Grow your own protective armour

Office buildings are a breeding ground for nasty bugs. The lack of natural light, poor ventilation and chemical compounds, such as formaldehyde, from synthetic office furnishings can all add up to serious health issues.

Similarly, if you live in a high-rise apartment, you're missing out on all the beneficial bacteria that comes with being in closer contact with nature, increasing the risk of stress and illness.

One easy way to fight back is by growing your own protection. Simply enliven your office or apartment with plenty of plants.

Danica-Lea Larcombe, a PhD candidate in biodiversity and human health at the School of Science, says indoor plants can purify the air and reduce volatile organic compounds, helping you to breathe easier and reduce the risk of illness.

Green spaces can also make you feel better. Research has shown that being close to nature is beneficial to your mental wellbeing.

"Contact with nature can shift highly stressed people to a more positive emotional state," Larcombe says.

When going green, look for plant species with large leaves (they are more energy efficient for photosynthesis), and aim for one medium-sized plant per 2.2 square metres. Also, choose plants that are hardy and easy to maintain so that they can withstand ‘black thumbs’ as well as life indoors.

6. Keep your mind on the job

Staring at the same sentence over and over again and wish your colleagues would take their discussion elsewhere so you can concentrate?

Some tasks simply demand our undivided attention, and that's when an open-plan office can play havoc with our head.

Psychology Professor Craig Speelman, from the School of Arts and Humanities, says it can take time to engage our working memory and get "in the zone", therefore interruptions can frustrate the process. Our brains then have to reboot, to restart our working memory.

While there isn't much you can do about the layout of your office (unless you're the boss), there are ways to reduce distractions and better manage your time.

Invest in a good pair of headphones for when you really need to concentrate. Ask to work from home if you have a particularly taxing job to finish. And schedule tasks requiring more brain power for times of the day when you're feeling most focused. (Avoid that 3pm "I need chocolate" hump.)

7. Turn the noise up (a bit)

Conversely, not everyone likes quiet when they work. In fact, if you prefer a noisier environment you could argue that it makes you function better.

Dr Onno van der Groen, research fellow in the School of Medical and Health Sciences, is part of a team examining what happens when we change noise levels in the brain directly.

Applying non-invasive currents, or transcranial random noise stimulation (tRNS), was shown to improve participants' ability to see low-quality images, make quicker and more accurate decisions, and help the brain to find other ways of looking at things.

As our understanding grows of the effect of brain noise on human performance, so does our ability to manipulate it to improve brain function.

In the meantime, if you like the radio on as you work, you might try persuading cranky colleagues of its benefits.


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