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Your winter health protection plan

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As autumn disappears it can be a struggle to cope with the challenges of chillier days. We stick closer to the fire and spend longer under a duvet where it's warm and cosy. But the more we stay in, the less active we become - missing out on the daily exercise so important for good health.

Our diet also changes; we tend to eat less fresh fruit and vegetables, turning instead to comfort foods and sweet treats.

With all of this in mind and with the help of Dr Trish Macnair, we've come up with some ideas to help you create your own winter health protection plan.

1. Keep active

Start by finding ways to keep active - no matter how bad the weather. Regular exercise boosts every bodily system, to help improve strength and balance, digestion, mood and even immunity.

Often the key is just finding the motivation to get up and out into the fresh air. Check out local walks where you can appreciate the drama of autumnal colours, or join a walking group where good company or a pub along the way may tempt you out.

If the weather is really bad, sign up for indoor activities and try something new, such as badminton or bowling. Even if you stay at home more, get up frequently and do some simple stretching and balance exercises.

2. Eat well

If you're going out for bracing walks, you need fuel to keep your internal fires burning. Most of us do less in the winter, while still eating more. As it gets colder, our appetite increases for carbohydrate-rich foods, and in our modern world, snacks or processed foods packed with sugar or fats are readily available.

Why do we crave carbs in winter?

At lower temperatures, the body craves foods that promise an energy burn to warm it up fast. Just remember that when these cravings kick in, it's better to eat slow-burn carbs such as stews full of root vegetables.

It's also important to keep protein intake up. Not only does a good supply of protein help to regulate appetite and keep muscles strong, but it is essential for the immune system.

3. Remember your vitamins

At any time of year it's important to make sure your diet provides your vitamin and mineral needs. If you have any doubts, take a daily multivitamin. In winter, when sunlight is poor almost everyone needs vitamin D supplements.

Many other foods also have a reputation for boosting the immune system - from the vitamin C-rich citrus fruits and peppers to garlic and green veg that is packed with the vitamins A, C and E.

4. Keep infections away

Few of us escape the misery of respiratory infections during winter. Your own immune system should be able to fight them and you don't need antibiotics. But more serious infections = such as flu - can be a particular risk, especially for older people, smokers and those with lung disease.

How can I prevent winter infections?

  • It's hard to avoid winter bugs completely but research does show that being tired or stressed makes you more vulnerable, so take steps to get enough sleep and deal with any problems.
  • Boost your defences by taking probiotics (supplements of 'friendly' bacteria) or prebiotics (foods that your own gut bacteria thrive on).
  • Make sure hygiene is tip-top too, by washing hands regularly.
  • Consider getting a flu vaccination, available on the NHS to those who are particularly vulnerable. And if you are 65 or over, you may be eligible for a vaccination against a certain type of pneumonia. Ask at your surgery.

5. Check your mood

One of the factors shown to make us more vulnerable to respiratory infections is emotional stress. There are many different ways to deal with stress, from meditation to talking therapies, so explore them and see what works for you.

How can I avoid getting SAD?

About 1 in 15 people in the UK have a particular form of depression, with symptoms including low mood and sleep problems that are linked to the long dark winter days. This is known as Seasonal Affective Disorder or 'SAD', and typically reappears each year between October to March.

Treatment can be very effective, and includes light therapy (spending time in front of a special light box) as well as cognitive behavioural therapy and antidepressant drugs.

We can all benefit from spending a little time on our mental health in the winter. Here's how to let some light back into your l life as the days get shorter:

Get outside

Walk every day for 20-30 minutes - it will boost heart rate and circulation (helping to keep you fit and trim) and is about the best mood lifter there is.

Have a salad day

Keep that sunshine feeling going with a crisp salad of green leaves and colourful peppers, but for a winter twist, add roasted tomatoes and warm chicken or prawns.

Wear it bright

Just because the weather is drab it doesn't mean your clothes have to be. Feeling good about how you look can give a tremendous psychological boost.

Dig out snaps

Remind yourself of warmer days by digging out your summer photos and sharing the memories with your loved ones.

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