The Psychologist Guide to… Healthy Living

Our journalist Ella Rhodes talks to psychologists for evidence-based tips. The Guide is kindly sponsored by Staffordshire University.

The following tips were included in an 8-page, A5 leaflet to be sent out with copies of the May edition of The Psychologist, kindly sponsored by Staffordshire University. You can download it below, or request hard copies if you can get help us to get significant numbers to the right audience.


1. Small changes can add up

Professor Jason Halford, Chair in Biological Psychology and Health Behaviour at the University of Liverpool, says it’s important to consider the myriad physical and psychological effects losing weight can have. ‘Dieting requires considerable cognitive resources which impact negatively on mood, while energy restriction increases hunger and can induce cravings. Avoiding energy-dense, high-fat, high-sugar foods is important; however, both portion size and alcohol contribute considerably to excess calorie intake.’ For weight loss a daily calorie reduction of 500 calories is recommended.

Tip: Look for several methods that are lasting, sustainable and even enjoyable!

2. Get it off your chest

Most people are familiar with the feeling of relief that comes from speaking openly about something that may be troubling them. Dr Michael Smith (Northumbria University) says: ‘James Pennebaker’s Written Emotional Disclosure paradigm, in which people write about a past trauma for 15–20 minutes per day, has been associated with improvements in both physical and psychological wellbeing. Similar benefits have also been observed from writing about intensely positive emotions.’

Tip: Try writing exercises to reduce stress levels.

3. Don’t give up giving up

Quitting smoking isn’t easy. Professor of Behavioural Medicine Paul Aveyard (University of Oxford) advises that while many believe the key to stopping smoking is having strong willpower or ‘really wanting’ to stop, this can act as a delaying tactic. ‘We know that the key to success is to attempt stopping smoking often. If you can bring yourself to do it, try to have a day on which you commit yourself never to smoke again and make that day soon.’

Tip: Don’t think cutting down first will make stopping smoking easier – commit fully.

4. Keep on moving

Prolonged sitting is detrimental to both physical and mental health. Dr Stuart Flint, Senior Research Fellow in Public Health and Obesity (Leeds Beckett University), says that ‘exercise as medicine’ is a cheap way to prevent problems. ‘There is clear evidence that we should all engage in physical activity and reduce sedentary behaviour throughout the day. Where possible, try to reduce your sedentary time at work, in the home and when travelling – it’s much easier than you think!’

Tip: Move more and sit less.

5. Can’t sleep? Don’t snooze!

Director of the Sleep Research Laboratory at Northumbria University, Professor Jason Ellis, said we shouldn’t panic after one or two nights of bad sleep. ‘Over a third of us suffer, each year, from a short period of sleep disturbance, with stress, worry or anxiety being the main drivers. It’s what we do during that period that can determine whether we’ll naturally revert to being a “normal” sleeper or go on to develop a longstanding problem.’ Lying in, napping or going to bed earlier have the potential to disrupt our normal sleep rhythm.

Tip: A short period of bad sleep is natural and should correct itself.

6. Beware emotional eating

It’s well established that stress affects health directly, through changes to biological systems, but also indirectly, through modifications to health behaviours. Professor Daryl O’Connor (University of Leeds) told us: ‘Research shows that high levels of stress can disrupt normal healthy food intake, and it can increase consumption of unhealthy high-fat foods, such as between-meal snacks.’

Tip: Make ‘if-then’ plans to have healthy snack alternatives available for when you’re stressed.

7. Get your food cues right

Eating well is not only about what but also about when, where and how you eat. Professor Jane Ogden (University of Surrey) said food should be varied, balanced and include lots of fruit and vegetables. She added: ‘Meals should be eaten at regular times and in specific places, preferably at a table and not on the go or in front of a computer. This avoids distraction and creates a sense of occasion. If it’s called “a meal” it’s more likely to be eaten mindfully, processed and remembered.’

Tip: Return food to its rightful place as an important but small part of our lives. Eat to live, don’t live to eat.

8. Stress isn’t universally bad for us

Consultant Health Psychologist Dr Nicky Thomas (Guy’s Hospital) says there’s an old saying that a little bit of stress can be good for you. ‘Stress management theory proposes that the relationship between stress and performance is kind of bell-shaped… the top of the curve is our optimal level of stress. Insufficient stress causes boredom and lethargy.’ So while too much stress can be bad for us, the closer we get to that ‘sweet spot’ the more energised and engaged we can feel.

Tip: Don’t fear stress as a whole, but keep levels in check.

9. Drinking behaviour is psychological and social – give it some thought

Despite media stories suggesting that drinking moderate amounts of alcohol can benefit health, the evidence is stacking up in the opposite direction, with even low levels of drinking associated with an increased risk of cancer. Dr Emma Davies (Oxford Brookes University) said: ‘Drinking is a highly psychological, and social, activity. Research suggests we overestimate what our peers drink, and drink more ourselves when we are with them. Try not to exceed 14 units a week, and definitely don’t save them all up for one day!’

Tip: Have a few alcohol-free days each week, and try the increasing number of alcohol-free drinks on the market.

10. Have a clear plan to make a change

Professor Charles Abraham, Head of Psychology Applied to Health at the University of Exeter, advises setting a clear, measurable goal, planning how to achieve it, and asking yourself whether you want to achieve the goal enough to commit the required time and effort. ‘If you answer yes, make a plan that specifies what, when and how you’ll do it each week. Monitor and record your progress on each target.’ If the goal turns out to be too challenging, set a lower target and start again, but don’t set different goals until you’ve achieved the one you’re working on. Allow yourself to celebrate when you get there!

Tip: Careful planning, monitoring, and realistic goals can lead to healthier living.


There's no way we could cover everything in a brief leaflet for the public… what have we missed? Engage with us on Twitter @psychmag or send your letters to [email protected].

Please help us to get this Guide to anybody who might appreciate it or benefit from it. For individual copies, please share this online version or download the PDF below. We do have hard copies, but don't have the resources to send them out one by one: if you think you could help us get to significant numbers of the right people, for example via events, do get in touch on [email protected].

See also 'The Psychologist Guide to… You and Your Baby' and 'The Psychologist Guide to… Leadership'. Find lots more relevant material by searching our archives and our Research Digest blog. You can also download our free iOS/Android apps for both The Psychologist and the Research Digest.

We are very grateful to Staffordshire University for sponsoring this Guide. Their message is below. If you are interested in sponsoring a future guide, please get in touch.

At Staffordshire University we train psychologists from their undergraduate degree right through to their Professional Doctorate or PhD. Located in the heart of Stoke-on-Trent, our £30 million Science Centre has state-of-the-art research labs and teaching spaces.

We like to call ourselves the ‘Home of Health Psychology’ (as the first UK university to run accredited Stage 1 and Stage 2 courses). All our BPS-accredited courses are designed to equip you with the knowledge and skills to have a positive impact on your own and other people’s lives:

• BSc (Hons) Psychology

• BSc (Hons) Forensic Psychology

• BSc (Hons) Psychology and Child Development

• BSc (Hons) Psychology and Counselling

• BSc (Hons) Psychology and Criminology

• BSc (Hons) Psychology with a Foundation Year

• MSc Health Psychology

• MSc Psychology (Conversion)

• MSc Sport and Exercise Psychology

• Professional Doctorate in Clinical Psychology

• Professional Doctorate in Health Psychology

Please contact us for further information about our courses and take your first steps towards a rewarding career in psychology.

Staffordshire University: or +44(0) 1782 294000

Staffordshire Centre for Psychological Research

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