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Urban issues for the health conscious

Summer holidays are nearly here, and it's a great time to think about health and wellness. Do you have a healthy lifestyle or are you perhaps overweight, inactive and at risk of developing lifestyle conditions like heart disease and diabetes?

For the first time in history, most of the world’s population lives in cities, and the rapid urbanisation that has taken place over the past 50 years has brought many lifestyle changes that are, let’s face it, dangerous to our health.

For a start, urbanisation and the knowledge economy has resulted in city dwellers becoming much more sedentary than their rural counterparts, and for many, the only exercise they get is on their commute between the kitchen and the couch.

Children reared in the age of television, internet and computers are also far less active than children in previous generations were, usually choosing to chat on smart phones or catch up on the latest music videos than to play sport. Add to this the cornucopia of high-fat, high-sugar processed foods that now form part of the urban diet and the ‘supersize me’ culture, and it’s all a recipe for disaster.

Zella Young, medical training manager at Novo Nordisk South Africa, says diabetes is fast becoming a worldwide epidemic. This is largely due to our modern urban lifestyle, which is characterised by a high-fat, high-carb diet and low levels of physical activity.

“Inactivity and weight gain are the number one driver of Type 2 diabetes,” she says, “but the good news is that small incremental changes can really make a difference – and it’s easier than we think to incorporate healthy choices into our lives.”

It all boils down to three simple things: eating consciously, incorporating enjoyable physical activity into everyday life and monitoring health risk factors. As far as eating is concerned, says Young, it’s about making healthy choices and consciously monitoring portion sizes.

“A good discipline is to plan for three healthy meals a day rather than just grabbing whatever may be available when hunger strikes,” she says. “Knowing that you have regular, satisfying meals to look forward to can reduce a lot of anxiety about food, and if you have a healthy sandwich and an apple close at hand, it’s easier to avoid that hamburger and chips for lunch.”

In a society in which food is always available and plentiful, and in which people are no longer engaged in physical work, obesity quickly becomes a problem. And it’s this, together with the changes in diet associated with urbanisation, that is contributing to the alarming rise in the incidence of diabetes.

Eating healthy doesn’t mean you have to cut out treats, she says, but it does mean being conscious about what you’re eating and how much of it you’re consuming at any one time.

The same goes for regular exercise, she says. Making exercise a chore will cause resistance, and you’ll soon stop exercising. The trick is to find something you enjoy doing, so that you can stay active and also get pleasure out of what you’re doing.

“Take the dog for a walk, go out dancing, kick a ball around with the kids, dig over the vegetable patch or sign up for a yoga class. Choose something you enjoy and you’ll stick to it. If you hate the gym, ditch it and do something you like doing instead.”

Monitoring individual risk factors for diabetes is, of course, just as important as a healthy diet and regular exercise. The important indicators to watch are body mass index or BMI (the ratio of weight to height), blood sugar levels, cholesterol levels and blood pressure. Regular blood tests conducted under the supervision of a doctor are a good precautionary measure, and it’s important to be aware of early warning signs of lifestyle conditions such as sudden weight loss, excessive thirst, frequent urination, blurred vision and tiredness.

“Lifestyle conditions are on the rise,” says Young, “but the way to prevent these is in our hands. We just need to choose a more healthy lifestyle – and to take it one day at a time.”

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