Why Giving Up Alcohol Is Good For Your Health

We're all well aware of the harmful effects of alcohol.

Whether it's an almighty hangover or the tendency to gorge on junk food, these short-term symptoms are, over time, often usurped by the longer-term damage we're doing to our bodies and the subsequent health problems.

Here's how to fight back ...

1. Why does too much alcohol lead to problems?

The number of associated calories easily explains the negative aesthetic effects of alcohol consumption. Weight management is a simple balancing act – consume more than you burn off and you'll gain poundage, which for men is usually around the middle and for women more commonly around the hips and thighs. This explains why well-known footballers have managed to keep their addiction a secret, the huge amount of exercise they do helps to burn off the calories they drink, so it's not obvious to the naked eye they have a problem. Since the man or woman on the street is not likely to be training for hours every day and then playing a game at the weekend, more of those excess calories tend to take residence.

2. What long-term health problems could they cause?

In addition to the well-documented health issues, such as increased risk of heart disease, liver malady problems can also occur in the pancreas and the nervous system, while a failure to absorb vitamin B1 can lead to co-ordination, sight and memory problems. There is also an increased risk of cancer of the mouth, pharynx and breast.

3. There's obviously no magic bullet for busting a beer belly (other than drinking less and getting more exercise). But are there exercises which can help focus on a problem area (bellies, love handles, 'moobs')?

To remove the belly, cardio sessions need to be built around the use of intervals, as this will allow for a greater volume of work to be done during each session, significantly boosting metabolic rate and expending more calories. A period of slow pace should be followed by a shorter period of medium pace, followed by a short burst of sprint and then back to slow pace. This can be applied to running, swimming, cycling and rowing.
For example:
Running: 8 lampposts jog, 5 lampposts run, 2 lampposts sprint, then repeat.
Swimming: 5 lengths breast stroke, 2 lengths backstroke, 1 length front crawl, then repeat.
Cycling: 10 mins slow, 5 mins medium, 2 mins fast, then repeat.

To tone up the moobs and even increase the pectoral muscle size, there are no shortcuts – it has to be to be resistance work to failure. Ideally, in the gym, varying bench press, incline press and flys, also switching dumbbells and barbells. If you're not keen on the gym, just be creative with press ups. For instance, place your feet on a chair, incline with hands on two chairs, on a fitness ball, one hand, etc.

Dietary Questions

Q. I enjoy eating out but struggle to work out which options are healthiest. What are some obvious dishes to go for on a restaurant menu that aren't chock full of calories?

A. The Italian diet, like that in most of the Mediterranean, is extremely diverse, colourful and has plenty of flavour. It's characterised by a variety of fruits, vegetables, bread, rice, pasta, cereals, beans, nuts, olives and fish. In general, the Italian diet is high in mono unsaturated fats (mainly from olive oil) and low in saturated fats.

1. For starters, why not have a fresh salad and olives. Eat plain, fresh bread and avoid dipping into the olive oil. Minestrone soup is a good traditional choice, too.

2. Try to choose pasta dishes that are tomato based rather than creamy or pesto-based.

3. Avoid adding too much parmesan cheese; a small amount is big on flavour!

4. Order half a portion or a pasta starter, as UK restaurants tend to serve more than the average amount of pasta than is served in Italy.

5. Choose grilled and baked fish, chicken or veal, and order a side dish of roasted vegetables. Fish are a great source of omega 3 and 6 fatty acids, which are thought to help prevent heart disease.

6. Tiramisu and other traditional Italian desserts are extremely tasty, but laden with calories. Better choices would be fresh fruit and sorbet.

Q. I recently read that crash dieting is actually a better way of losing weight, as ultimately you will shed more weight more quickly. Is this true or safe?

A. Crash dieting is a definite no-no for several reasons.

Firstly, it involves assuming habits that are not usual and often result in not intaking a wide enough range of foods. Consequently, essential nutrients can be missed, e.g. vitamin B12, calcium, sodium and potassium. Lack of B12 can lead to anaemia and so not enough red blood cells to carry vital oxygen around the body. Calcium is crucial for healthy bones and to reduce risk of osteoporosis. Lack of sodium and potassium can negatively affect nerve and muscle function and affect regulation of the heartbeat.

The strict regimes are unsustainable, so when you go back to normal eating your body starts to store all the vital fuels it's been missing, resulting in you putting on more weight than when you started – the dreaded yo-yo effect.

Crash diets are also mentally challenging and can lead to emotional stress, which could even progress to full-blown eating disorders. Crash dieting results in not enough fuel to give you energy to exercise, without which your muscle tone will slacken, leading to a slowdown in your metabolic rate. This will make it even harder to lose weight in future.

To summarise, I challenge you to find one single qualified fitness, nutrition or medical expert to endorse crash dieting – if you do, check their certificates!

Q. I'm determined to lose weight but terrified of giving up carbs. Can I still eat pasta and bread if I want to shift the pounds or should I ditch them completely?

A. Reducing carbs is a sensible approach, as they are calorie dense – but you must get enough on board or you'll start to feel lethargic and not have enough energy to exercise, which is vital for sustained weight loss and improved shape. Therefore, pasta and bread are fine, in small regular quantities (i.e. five small meals per day rather than 2-3 big ones) but opt for brown varieties rather than white.

Q. I'm 50 and never exercised a day in my life, but I'm eager to start – what's the best way to go about it?

A. Walking is the cheapest and easiest exercise mode available to us – and it's mighty effective in weight management. To improve your health and begin to burn fat, you need to hit a target of 30mins at a moderate pace (i.e. gets you breathing a little faster but you can still talk) five times per week. The good news is that, firstly, you don't have to do it all in one go, two lots of 15mins are just as effective. Secondly, as your fitness improves, which will definitely happen over time, you can swap to just 20mins of vigorous pace only three times per week. In addition, I would advise a visit to your GP before embarking upon a new exercise regime, just to make sure you're OK to get started.

Q. What are the best exercises to tone my body shape quickly?

In combination with the above walking plan, 2-3 sets of 15 repetitions of the following will sculpt the muscles – squat, press-up, lunge, tricep dip, sit up.

If you'd like to learn more about keeping in shape, feel free to check out the rest of our fitness articles – or book a stay at Ragdale Hall, we'd love to welcome you.

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