Health lessons we learnt in 2012

If you were to print all the health research published in a year, you'd probably be crushed under the weight of it.

This year we’ve looked at low-fat dairystress and strokebreastfeeding and food allergies, how your oral health affects your heart, bringing your temperature when have fever, and whether you can die from lack of sleep.

Here are five things we learnt about our health this year that we thought were worth sharing with you again (listen here if you want to here our chat with our colleagues over at Life Matters - and their audience).

Lesson 1: Stand up for your health

We already knew sitting too much at work can be a health hazard. But when we looked at the research again this year we discovered most of us are spending more than half of our day being sedentary.

We also learnt this amount of sitting could affect your health, even if you exceed the recommendations for daily physical activity, which are 30 minutes of moderate activity every day. Being too sedentary increases your risk of a range of health conditions including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, some cancers, obesity and … early death.

Dr Alicia Thorp, whose research is looking at the effects of sitting in the workplace, says we should aim to move as much as we can every day . But if you do have to sit for extended periods, try to stand for at least two minutes every 20 to 30 minutes.

Lesson 2: The best ways to avoid the big C

Hair dye, pesticides on food, tight pants… These have all been blamed for causing cancer at some point. But if you’re serious about reducing your cancer risk then you should worry less about the effects of hair dye or pesticides and focus more on four other key  lifestyle factors.

Professor Bernard Stewart, a public health expert who heads a cancer control program in Sydney, told us cutting smoking,avoiding obesitynot drinking too much alcohol and minimising your sun exposure make a real difference to reducing your cancer risk. Unfortunately, he says, we often don’t do anything about these factors because we’re  "distracted" by other factors we think are equally important but actually are not.

Lesson 3: Crossing your legs on a flight won’t cause DVT

Ever since we first heard of 'economy class syndrome' in the '80s and '90s, we've been looking for ways to avoid the possibility of a blood clot forming in our legs, travelling to our lungs and killing us. So we all took notice when we were told not to cross our legs on flights as it can increase the risk of developing deep vein thrombosis (DVT).

But when we took this question to Alex Gallus, professor of haematology at Flinders University Medical School in Adelaide, his answer was an emphatic ‘no’. In his view, there’s no anatomical explanation for the suggested association, and he’s not seen anything in the literature to suggest this would be the case.

(This isn’t the first leg crossing myth we’ve debunked, some years ago we asked the question Does crossing your legs give you varicose veins?)

Lesson 4:  If you’re over 65 and exercising, try mixing it up

Committing to regular exercise at any age is commendable, especially if you’re over 65 - and walking is very popular in this age group. But research suggests more than half of older walkers are only walking.

As an aerobic exercise, walking is fantastic and helps lower your risk of developing heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some cancers. Unfortunately it looks like walking isn’t the best way to protect yourself from falls, which are a significant cause of death and disability in the over 65s. For that, it seems you need to challenge your sense of balance with other activities, such as dance or tai chi. So don’t stop walking, but think about mixing things up; throw in a little ballroom, salsa or just a slow tai chi session when you can.

 Lesson 5: Avoid rubbing your eyes

When it comes to investigating the veracity of weird and wonderful health advice, we come across no shortage of ideas for stories. Usually when you take these ideas to the experts,  they tell us there’s no evidence to suggest we need to worry about the issue in question (for example Is a red face a sign of high blood pressure?Does reading in dim light damage your eyes?,Can raising your arms above your head be bad for your heart?

This is why one of the more interesting things we learnt is that rubbing your eyes can actually ruin to your eyesight. True, it’s not that common (although your contributions to the message board suggest it’s not as rare as we may have thought). But we hadn’t considered eye rubbing can also increase your risk of transferring germs or allergens from your hands to your eyes, putting you at risk not only of eye infections and a worsening of allergy symptoms, but of transferring viruses, such as colds and flu, into your system.

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