Dr Michael Mosley’s greatest skill – and his lasting legacy – was his ability to distil complex scientific concepts into simple, actionable advice that everyone can understand and try out for themselves. 

He made it his mission to unearth small changes which can have a big impact on our mental and physical health. 

Here, in the final part of our tribute series highlighting 160 of the life-changing tips he gave the nation, are a selection of insightful tweaks and tricks he shared for boosting body strength and brainpower.

In the final part of our tribute series here are a selection of insightful tweaks and tricks Dr Michael Mosely shared for boosting body strength and brainpower

In the final part of our tribute series here are a selection of insightful tweaks and tricks Dr Michael Mosely shared for boosting body strength and brainpower

Dance away depression and dementia

Dancing has been shown to be more effective at improving your muscles, balance and brain health than traditional fitness exercises. 

It can alleviate depression, reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke, boost memory and protect against dementia. Brain-imaging studies reveal that it can boost the areas associated with memory and processing as you work out what to do with your arms and legs, and dancing with others can have powerful, stress-reducing effects.

Fire up your brain with squats and press-ups 

Press-ups and squats are some of the best exercises for your heart and brain. Squats – where you bend your knees as if you are about to sit on a chair – work the biggest muscles in your body (your thighs and buttocks) and are probably the best single exercise you can do. 

And press-ups are a fast and very effective way to increase upper-body strength. The amount you can pump out in one session also seems to be a good predictor of heart health. A healthy man in his 50s should be able to do 20, a woman at least ten.

Read poetry out loud

Reading poetry aloud is a great way to reduce stress. 

The rhythm automatically slows down our breathing which in turn activates the parasympathetic nervous system to slow down the heart, reduce stress and incite a feeling of calm.

Both exercises are good for the brain. Studies show they help to stimulate blood flow to the hippocampus, a part of the brain responsible for learning and memory.

Squats have also been shown to stimulate the release of a hormone called BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), which encourages the growth of new brain cells and connections. Think of it as fertiliser for your brain.

Interestingly, research shows squats have a more powerful brain-boosting effect than walking or jogging. Three to five minutes of squats three times a week is even more effective in terms of boosting brain health than a brisk 30-minute jog three times a week.

Press-ups have a similar effect. Experts believe it is the action of your head moving up and down, working against gravity, that benefits the brain.

The good news is you can still get the brain benefits even if you only try squats and press-ups for the first time later in life.

The key is to start gradually to avoid injury. If you have an existing back problem or high blood pressure or are frail, talk to your doctor before starting.

HOW TO DO A PRESS-UP: Lie face down with the palms of your hands under your shoulders and the balls of your feet touching the ground. Keep your body straight. With your elbows at right angles with the floor, push up. When you start, it might be easier to do this with your knees on the ground.

HOW TO DO A SQUAT: Stand with your feet hip-width apart. Bend from the hips, keeping the weight in your heels. Keeping your back straight, bend until your thighs are parallel to the floor — imagine you are preparing to sit in a chair. Clench your buttock muscles and push back up.

Ten tweaks to get more active

To improve your sleep and almost every aspect of your health, it is important to find ways to incorporate activity into your day. Housework and gardening count but try these other tips to increase your activity levels:

  1.  Buy a bike and cycle when you can.
  2.  If your destination is less than a mile away, why not walk? It will take you less time than waiting for a bus or finding somewhere to park.
  3.  Stand while talking on the phone. You’ll burn calories and sound more assertive.
  4. Use a basket at the shops rather than a shopping trolley. That way you do a bit of resistance training at the same time. 
  5. Drink lots of water. This not only keeps you hydrated but also increases the need for bathroom breaks, which means in turn more short, brisk walks. 
  6. Try, where possible, to take the stairs and run up escalators. 
  7. If you normally take a bus or train to work, get off at an earlier stop than usual and walk the rest of the way. 
  8. If you drive to work or the supermarket, park at the far end of the car park. 
  9. Keep resistance bands – stretchy cords that offer resistance when you pull on them – or small hand weights near your desk. Do arm curls between meetings or tasks. 
  10. Organise a lunchtime walking group. You might be surrounded by people who are just dying to lace up their trainers. Enjoy the camaraderie and offer encouragement to one another when you feel like giving up. 

Five easy and effective ways to get fit 

  1. Begin the day with a brisk walk. Getting out within an hour or two of getting up gives you the benefits of exercise PLUS exposure to natural light, and this combination can improve your sleep (by helping to reset your body clock), boost your mood, increase your fitness and cut your risk of heart disease and diabetes. Any walk – short, long, fast or slow – will strengthen muscles and bones, reduce joint and muscular pain, burn a few calories and increase energy levels.
  2. Download a seven-minute workout app (they’re free) – it will get you doing a quick but effective series of cardio and strength exercises each day. No matter how busy you are, you’ve got seven minutes to spare.  
  3. Embrace the speedy effectiveness of High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) which condenses the benefits of a much longer workout into just a few minutes. You have to give maximum effort in three or four 20-second bursts (with a short rest in between), whether you’re on an exercise bike, doing sprints, jumping jacks or even running up the stairs. 
  4. Make a regular weekly (or bi-weekly) commitment to strength or resistance training using weights, bands or bodyweight. This helps maintain and build important muscle mass which naturally declines with age.  
  5. If you really haven’t got time to exercise, try ‘exercise snacking’ with each ‘snack’ (such as running up and down the stairs, taking a quick speed-walk around the block or jogging on the spot while you wait for the kettle to boil) lasting anything from 20 seconds to ten minutes. Studies show squeezing a few of these short periods of activity into your day can improve blood glucose and blood pressure more effectively than a 30-minute workout because when we stop exercising, our metabolism keeps going a bit more quickly for a while as we recover. It doesn’t matter what you do as long as you are elevating your heart rate and getting a bit warm. 

Top up on Vitamin D

Stand on one leg 

Balance is something most of us take for granted, but it slowly slips out of our grasp as we get older putting us at risk of falls.

But you can very swiftly improve your balance. By integrating balance exercises into your day, you can boost your core strength, posture and co-ordination and stand up straighter (which reinforces messages from sensors in your inner ear, muscles, joints and eyes that tell your brain where your body is in space and keep you from falling over).

The easiest way to keep your balancing skills active is to stand on one leg for a few minutes every day. Just shift your weight on to one leg while brushing your teeth or waiting for the kettle to boil. You might want to start by resting a hand on the sink, or the back of a chair.

When you can happily balance for 30 seconds on each leg, try doing it with your eyes closed for a more intensive challenge.

When the sun comes out, roll up your trouser legs and sleeves and spend 10-15 minutes soaking up those rays. Recent research suggests a short blast of sunshine each day in spring and summer could help lift our mood, lower blood pressure and keep our immune system in good shape.

Our skin is a Vitamin D factory which takes free sunlight and transforms it into this amazing nutrient. As well as being vital for strong bones, Vitamin D contributes to a well-functioning immune system.

Studies have shown people with very low Vitamin D are at greater risk of heart disease, dementia, diabetes, multiple sclerosis and even some forms of cancer.

Sunlight also triggers the release of serotonin, a natural mood-booster and it can help lower blood pressure.

Sing your heart out

Singing is a great way to boost mood, reduce anxiety and even relieve chronic pain. Whether you’re belting out show tunes in the shower or getting your vocal chords around Gregorian chants, singing stimulates the release of endocannabinoids.

These are chemicals naturally produced in our bodies that have a very similar structure to those found in the cannabis plant; in high concentration, they can have mood-boosting effects.

Studies show a single session of singing can be enough to lead to improvements in mood and measurable reductions in stress and inflammation. The natural high you get from singing can also help with pain relief.

There’s plenty of evidence that learning to play a musical instrument also offers waves of benefit for the brain – studies show regular practice offers significant improvements in working memory which is something we normally lose with age.

Eight ways to boost brain function 

  1. Take a snooze after lunch – studies show a 20-minute nap can improve thinking skills and strengthen your capacity to learn. It pushes the reset button, increasing alertness and attention as well as sharpening motor skills.
  2. Fill your office space with houseplants – studies by Nasa show certain plants can clear the air of toxic particles and experts believe a green indoor environment can help boost memory, productivity and mood.  
  3. Nibble on a square of dark chocolate – the flavonols in dark chocolate feed the good bacteria in the gut, prompting them to produce compounds which travel to the heart and brain and boost cerebral blood flow which aids learning and memory. 
  4. Jump on to the children’s video games – research shows that action-packed gaming (particularly those which involve quick thinking, navigating around environments, and finding visual targets) can be good for your brain and even for your eyesight. They have been shown to boost working memory (your ability to remember more than one thing at a time), your focus and your ability to multi-task.
  5. Commit to learning new skills – the process of learning, no matter what your age, forces your brain to generate new brain cells, forge new pathways and grow new connections, thereby boosting your brain power. One of the best skills you can acquire is learning a new language, because juggling between sounds, words, concepts and grammatical and social rules enhances blood flow and connections across the entire brain. It can even improve intelligence. But for maximum benefit, you have to practise for five hours a week.  
  6. Read books – particularly fiction. Reading is not only good for empathy and social skills, it can improve memory and protect against depression. Fiction acts as a ‘whole brain’ workout as your brain works to imagine the settings, sounds, smells and tastes described, and this activates the many different areas of the brain that process these experiences in real life. Research from Yale found those who read for 30 minutes a day lived, on average, 23 months longer than those who didn’t.  
  7. Count your blessings: There is solid science that getting into the habit of being grateful can make you feel happier, lower your blood pressure, improve sleep, ease pain and even rewire your brain.  
  8. Glug a glass of water. Studies show being hydrated can improve attention and help with problem-solving. It also enhances physical performance; helps you keep calm and can boost your mood. Water makes up 60 per cent of our body and 90 per cent of our brain and even losing 1 to 2 per cent of it is enough to impair our cognitive function. That’s why drinking more water leads to improvements in both working and short-term memory. 

Two unexpected ways to bolster immunity

  1. Take a cold shower – the blast of cold helps to fire up your body’s defence mechanisms which helps you handle stress and infection. Cold-water immersion has an anti-inflammatory effect, which is important given that so many conditions – Alzheimer’s, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, depression – have their root in chronic inflammation.
  2. Get outside into parkland, meadows or forest. Studies show being in green spaces helps reduce stress and anxiety and can boost your immune system. By taking deep breaths you will be inhaling phytoncides – the essential oils given off by trees which protect the trees from microbes and insects, but which have been shown to strengthen the immune system. 
Four ways to be more positive

As Dr Mosley pointed out in one of his Saturday Daily Mail columns, studies show that a positive outlook is a predictor for living a longer life. If you’re naturally a bit of a grump, try these tips to enhance positivity:

  1. Set yourself small simple health goals and pat yourself on the back when you’ve achieved them.
  2.  Keep your friends and family close and extend your social network. There’s abundant evidence that having close friends is one of the most important forms of protection against stress and premature aging.
  3. Strike up conversations with strangers in the supermarket or coffee shop.
  4. Smile – even if you have to fake it. Studies show the effect of curling your mouth into a grin triggers chemical changes which reduces stress and boosts happiness. 

  •  Adapted by LOUISE ATKINSON from Just One Thing by Dr Michael Mosley (Octopus, £9.99). © Michael Mosley 2023. To order a copy for £8.99 (offer valid to 30/06/24; UK P&P free on orders over £25) go to www.mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937.
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