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20 healthy habits to practice in 2020

Regardless of your views on New Year’s resolutions there are definite changes you ought to make, especially when it comes to your health. We speak to medical doctors and other health practitioners for some pointers

1. Get serious about regular exercise

The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends that adults aged between 18 and 64 engage in at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity throughout the week. Either that or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity in the same period of time. Physical activity, says Eric Opembe, a gym instructor, has several benefits. They include: improved blood flow, low cholesterol, improved immunity and physical fitness.

2. Stop forgetting to check your breasts

If there is a health lesson Kenyans learnt in 2019, it must be that cancer, the disease, has become mainstream. Breast cancer is the most diagnosed type of cancer among women. Cancer is a relatively easy-to-treat disease when diagnosed early, says Dr Elly Odongo, an oncological gynaecologist at Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital. Breast Self-examination, Odongo says, is the best way to catch the disease early. BSE seeks to identify any abnormalities – such as lumps, discharges, surface changes, colour changes, abnormal size differences – which may be indicative of developing cancer. BSE is recommended for every woman aged 18 and above at least once every month.

3. Poop properly                                         

Have you ever wondered if you are doing your business in the toilet correctly? Dov Sikirov, an Israeli scientist, conducted a study on human pooping. Sikirov studied the ease and time taken for one to relieve themselves while sitting (like we do on a toilet bowl) and when squatting (frog’s resting position). Sikirov found that in a squatting posture, subjects required, on average, only one-third the time to garner a movement. Subjects who squatted rated the experience as better than did those who sat. Crouching, with your knees up above the hips, is how the world has known pooping; until modernity came along. When sitting on a toilet, puborectalis muscle, the muscle responsible for continence, relaxes only partially. In squatting position it relaxes completely allowing complete and easy defecation.

4. Don’t skip your pap smear

A pap smear is a diagnostic test for cervical cancer. Like breast self-examination pap smears are meant to diagnose any developing cancer in the cervix at the earliest possible time. Dr Catherine Nyongesa is an oncologist. She says every woman (especially those who are sexually active) should undertake regular pap smears. This, she says, can be done once every one to three years. Cervical cancer is the second highest cancer diagnosed in women. It is also the deadliest cancer in women.

5. Aim for eight glasses of water a day

The human body is approximately made up of 75 per cent liquid. According to nutritionist Kepha Nyanumba we replenish that liquid by drinking water. Just like it cleans on the outside, water also cleans the inside. The human body rids itself of metabolic waste and toxins through sweat and urine. For us to urinate and sweat, the body needs to be well hydrated. “We should consume about two litres of water every day: approximately eight glasses,” Kepha says.

6. Weigh yourself regularly and test your cholesterol levels

Obesity, like cancer, is quickly becoming part of our lives. Today, you can barely walk 10 metres along Nairobi streets without spotting an overweight person. Of course, none of us is born obese. We gain the weight through bad nutritional choices. According to Dr Lyudmilla Shchukina, an obesity specialist, it is important that we weigh ourselves regularly. “Through BMI (body mass index) we can identify those who are overweight or obese,” Dr Shchukina says. “This is important because obesity is a precursor to many deadly diseases like hypertension, diabetes and cancer.”

7. Practise safe sex

Lessons from the last three decades – since the early days of HIV/AIDs – tell us why it is important to practice safe sex. Safe sex, says Dr Esther Wanjohi of Nairobi Hospital, protects one from sexually transmitted infections and mitigates against unplanned pregnancy. Do you still remember your ABCs of sex? They are abstinence, being faithful to one partner and always carrying a condom just in case you meet a random sex partner.

8. Observe proper vaginal hygiene

According to Lucy Muchiri, a doula, the vagina, unlike many other parts of the body, is much at risk of infections if not well cared for. Valentine Nyakiere is a female hygiene specialist. She notes that many women do not know how to properly clean the vagina. “Many use soap,” she says. Soap exposes the vagina to more infections and is not friendly to its natural microbial makeup. The vagina is best cleaned using warm clean water only: nothing more, Nyakiere says. Douching is also wrong. According to Muchiri, douching is likely to introduce unwanted bacteria into the vagina and has no hygienic value, she says.

9. Get tested for HIV

Transmission and acquisition of HIV has been parroted so much that it has made many complacent towards getting tested. In a previous interview with Dr George Githuka, formerly of National Aids and STI control programme (NASCOP), insisted on the importance of getting tested. “HIV/AIDS lowers immunity making the body susceptible to infections it would otherwise fight off on its own,” Dr Githuka said. Antiretroviral drugs are today available for those infected with the virus. When diagnosed early a patient would be placed under ARVs sooner; preventing extensive damage to the body’s immune system. HIV predisposes women to cervical cancer and TB.

10. Do not ignore abnormal menses

According to Dr Kireki Omanwa, a consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist, menses that are abnormally heavy should not be ignored. “It may be a signal that something is wrong,” he says. Also, while menstruation is usually accompanied by mild pain and discomfort, any pain that is searing, “pain that prevents one from carrying on with day to day activities,” should be reported to doctors immediately. Fibroids are known to cause abnormally heavy bleeding and pain. Another often missed condition connected to menstruation is endometriosis – which causes excruciating pain. Both fibroids and endometriosis, if left unchecked, may cause infertility.

11. Get HPV vaccine for you and your daughter

It is now two months since the government launched nationwide HPV vaccination for girls aged 10. The vaccine is given in two and sometimes three doses. Dr Catherine Nyongesa, oncologist, says HPV vaccine offers immunity against Human papilloma virus (HPV) which is the causative agent of cervical cancer. “As long as a woman tests positive for HPV it is only a matter of time before the virus causes cervical cancer,” she says. HPV is also sexually transmitted. The virus however tends to cause cancer in women more than men – who often act as carriers. Sexually active women should be tested for HPV, Dr Nyongesa says.

12.  Stick to healthy nutrition

The term balanced diet has often been used to describe healthy nutrition. According to Kate Kibara, a nutritionist at Kate’s Organics, a balanced diet is one that incorporates all the food types: starch, proteins, vitamins and roughage. Because of oestrogen, Dr Njoki Fernandez says, women are prone to storing fat and hence becoming obese. It is therefore important that one eats the right portions of a balanced diet. How so? In simple terms, Kate says; eat lots of green vegetables and fruits. Starchy meals can make one quarter of one’s diet as would proteins

13. Avoid stress/depression

Dr Lincoln Khasakhala is a clinical psychologist. He defines stress as mental reaction to changes in our environment.

Positive stress, he says, is a driver towards getting work done. Stress becomes negative when a person faces continuous challenges and is in a constant state of worry and panic. Stress has been linked to headaches, chest pains and elevated blood pressure. Stress has also been known to aggravate and bolster pre-existing conditions.

14. Keep off your smartphone unless necessary

Believe it or not smartphone addiction is a real thing. Sociologist Professor Halimu Shauri notes that smartphones (and similar forms of technology) have contributed to an isolationist lifestyle in many households. “Some parents last time bonded with children months ago because they enter the house on their phone and go to bed on their phone,” Prof Shauri says. “We are social animals: lack of a vibrant social life leads to forms of stress that lowers quality of life.”

15.  Keep to moderate (or zero) alcohol consumption

The CDC (centre for disease control) has linked 88,000 deaths between 2006 and 2010 to alcohol use in the US alone. Moderate alcohol consumption is encouraged for alcohol users. The CDC defines heavy alcohol use as consumption of 4 units or more per sitting. “Too much alcohol in the body has been linked to cancer, hypertension, dementia and depression,” says Dr Fernandez, who is also a wellness expert. Heavy alcohol use has also been linked to violence, risky sexual behaviour and road accidents.

16.  Find the right family planning method

There are at least 10 different family planning methods available for use. They all work differently. “It is important that every woman of child bearing age visits a gynaecologist to explore the best family planning method that works for their type of body and family planning needs,” says Dr John Ong’ech. Do not assume that a particular method works for your body as different women react differently to certain types of contraception.

17.  Get at least 8 hours of sleep a day

America’s national sleep foundation (NSF) conducted a study that was published in the journal Sleep Health. Sleep, they found, is important for one’s mental health, cardiac health and general well-being. The average adult needs between 7 to 8 hours of sleep within 24 hours. According to the NSF study sleep deprivation affects moods, concentration, blood pressure and even immunity.

18.  Practise proper dental hygiene

Dr Kisia Mitch is a dental surgeon running a private practice in Nairobi. He says dental hygiene is paramount if you want to keep healthy teeth into old age. To start with, he says, the best practice is to brush teeth after every meal. But since this is almost impractical, try to brush at least once in the morning and once in the evening – after meals. Use of antimicrobial mouth wash and flossing at least once a day help keep bacteria from multiplying in the mouth causing decay and bad breath, he says.

19.  Wear the right shoes

Dr Fernandez says it is important for women to wear the right shoes for the right occasion. Shoes are worn for particular occasions. High heels are good for a cocktail party but not for round the clock wear, says Dr Sally Kariuki, a podiatrist and a chiropodist. “Heels put pressure on ankles and backbones; causing pain and sometime long time damage to nerves,” she says. Flat shoes are also not good. According to Mary Kung’u, a physiotherapist, the foot has an arch on the inner side between the toe and the heel. Flat shoes don’t have support for the arch and over a long period of time it would collapse and cause pain in the knees and ankles. When wearing shoes, Dr Fernandez says, consider heel length, size, cleanliness and stability.

20.  Talk to friends (or a psychologist)

Because of life’s stresses, Catherine Mbau says, human beings are prone to psychological upheavals. “It is entirely normal to feel under pressure: no single person is dwells in eternal happiness,” Mbau, a counselling psychologist, says. In a fast paced world it is easy to hold onto false belief that we are fine when all indications are pointing to the contrary, she says. “That would be equivalent to burying your head under the sand,” she says. This, she warns, is dangerous because any strain on mental health cannot be ignored for long. “Talk to close friends and confidants regarding what you are going through; it helps ease the pressure,” she says. But in cases that may need clinical intervention one should not be shy to seek treatment from a psychologist or a psychiatrist to avert a tragedy.

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