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Health & Fitness Our health columnists share the one thing they would each change for a healthier 2019

Daunted by all the advice out there? Let our experts narrow it down.

Have more fun

I’ve spent the past decade writing about the science of exercise, drilling into the nuances of the optimal fitness routine – how hard to push, how to alter your running form, even what to wear. But I’ve come to believe that the most important question of all is the one asked by the emerging discipline of exercise psychology: How much did you enjoy it?

According to Panteleimon Ekkekakis, an exercise psychologist at Iowa State University, 97 per cent of adults recognize the importance of exercise for health, but as few as 3 per cent actually get the recommended amount of physical activity. The problem here is not an information gap; it’s an enjoyment gap.

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I got with the program last summer, when a good friend of mine told me there was an opening in a regular game of pick-up basketball on Friday nights in the basement of a local church.

Basketball, and team sports in general, aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. But there are numerous ways of staying active that feel more like a game than a chore: signing up for a trail race rather than sticking to the treadmill; hitting the links (but leaving the cart behind); finding a reliable tennis partner or rock-climbing buddy.

Find a game that clicks for you in 2019, and you’ll feel like I do on Friday evenings now: so eager to get out the door that you almost forget you’re about to get a workout.

- Alex Hutchinson, Jockology columnist

Eat whole grains

Your overall eating pattern matters most when it comes to health, so it’s not easy to narrow down nutrition advice to one recommendation. That said, I can offer one piece of advice: Eat more whole grains.

I’m pretty sure it won’t be popular advice with low-carbohydrate dieters. But here’s why you should eat more whole grains – and why I make a point of including foods such as oats, quinoa, brown rice, farro and millet in my diet every day.

Thanks to their fibre, antioxidant and phytochemical content, people who eat whole grains each day have been shown to have a lower the risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, digestive tract cancers and hormone-related cancers (e.g., breast, ovarian, uterine and prostate cancers).

Three daily servings of whole grain are also part of a dietary pattern associated with a slower rate of cognitive decline and protection from Alzheimer’s disease. (One serving is equivalent to one-half cup of cooked whole grain or one slice of 100-per-cent whole-grain bread.)

Whole grains also help nourish your good gut bacteria, microbes thought to help reduce the risk of allergies, type 2 diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease and obesity.

It doesn’t have to be difficult, either. I add whole grains to my diet by eating oatmeal or stirring raw rolled oats into yogurt or kefir for breakfast, tossing cooked quinoa or bulgur into salads, adding precooked barley, wild rice or spelt berries to soups and chili and eating only 100-per-cent whole grain bread.

I also use my Instant Pot to batch cook whole grains, so I have them on hand to add to weekday meals.

- Leslie Beck, Food for Thought columnist

Set your timer

If you want to improve your health in the new year, get a minute timer. Then set it to ring every half hour while you’re awake. When it goes off, get up and move.

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Research shows that a sedentary lifestyle – sitting for most of the day at work and at home – leads to heart disease, diabetes and other chronic illnesses. But one intriguing study found that it’s not just the total amount of sitting time that’s the problem. Rather, it’s how long you remain inactive at a stretch that seems to make things worse.

The study involved 8,000 middle-aged and older adults. On average, they sat for 12.3 hours over a typical day. During four years of follow-up, 340 of the participants died.

The results revealed that the volunteers who normally kept their sitting to less than 30 minutes at a time had a 55 per cent lower risk of death than those who tended to sit for longer stretches.

This suggest taking a “movement break” every half hour mitigates the negative effects of the sedentary time, says Keith Diaz, the lead author of the study and an assistant professor of behavioural medicine at Columbia University in New York.

“It doesn’t matter what type of movement you do,” he says. “A nice casual stroll down the hall is enough to lower the risks incurred by sitting.”

The researchers speculate that prolonged sitting may be particularly harmful in several ways. The lack of muscle activity could elevate blood sugar levels and cause blood to pool in the legs.

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Of course, not everyone has the job freedom to go for a walk. But doing things such as contracting your leg muscles, pointing your toes up and down or other stationary exercises can help.

“Whenever you have an opportunity to move, do it,” Diaz says.

- Paul Taylor, Healthy Debate columnist

Up your intensity

For a stronger 2019, I recommend that you make your workouts shorter. The catch? You’re going to have to work a lot harder.

For years, I’ve been a slave to the standard three-day total-body training split (“split” is gymspeak for “schedule”), with each workout lasting upward of 90 minutes. As I get older and have more outside interests competing for my time, efficiency in everything becomes more important. Shortening my training sessions and spreading them out over the course of five days rather than three has allowed me to maintain my overall weekly workload while cutting my daily gym time in half.

Of course, in order to achieve results, you still need to bust your butt. In the gym, intensity of effort – not duration – is the most important factor for success.

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This follows what researchers have been learning in the lab. In his book The One-Minute Workout, McMaster University kinesiology professor Martin Gibala presents years of research proving that short bursts of high-intensity training burns more calories and elicits greater muscle stimulation than the typical slow-and-steady variation.

It’s tough to come up with an excuse to not train when you remove the time factor. Shorter workouts help keep you focused, and because you’re training more often, you can add some variety to your routines rather than sticking with the same old approach.

- Paul Landini, Phys Ed columnist

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