Wednesday, 24 May 2017

The benefits of a good night’s sleep

It’s estimated that we spend around a third of our lives (around 25 years) sleeping -  that’s a long time - but entirely necessary, if we are to live a long and healthy life.

So, what’s so special about sleep anyway? Why is it important to us and our wellbeing?

While we sleep


Getting enough sleep – and specifically, deep sleep – is vital not only to our physical wellbeing, but to our mental wellness also. When we sleep, our body continues to work, hard. It resets and balances our brain function and fights off anything that threatens our physical health. In children and teens, sleep also helps support growth and development.

Sleep is the mind and body’s opportunity to refresh and restore itself. During periods of deep sleep, growth hormones are released and our immune system rebuilds itself. This doesn’t happen when we’re awake. There are four reported stages of sleep:

Light Sleep: this is the transition from being awake to being asleep. Your breathing slows, and you drift away from consciousness. This stage only occurs once when you first fall asleep.

Unconscious Sleep: during the second stage of sleep, your body temperature decreases and your heart rate slows down. At this stage, you are ready to enter deep sleep.

Deep Sleep: it will be difficult to wake you from a deep sleep. Not much is known about what actually happens to us during a deep sleep. But, given that we don’t dream during deep sleep, it could be the time when our brain refreshes and consolidates our memories.

REM sleep: this is when we dream. If we’re woken up during REM sleep, we can vividly remember what we were dreaming about. Scientists believe that we experience muscle paralysis during REM sleep, so that we don’t injure ourselves while trying to act out our dreams!

Once we’ve actually dropped off, an average sleep cycle averages between 100 to 120 minutes and we could go through up to five sleep cycles each night.

What happens when we don’t get enough sleep?

Accidents happen


Studies show that sleep loss and poor-quality sleep can lead to accidents and injuries. Indeed, drowsiness can slow reaction time to the same extent as alcohol can.

Memory loss


Sleep helps us to think clearly and a lack of sleep impairs our cognitive processes. We become less aware and find it more difficult to concentrate. When we’re asleep, our minds consolidate what we have learned that day, so a lack of sleep makes it difficult to recall what we have previously experienced.

Health hazards


Sleep disorders and general lack of sleep put us at risk of a number of other conditions, such as heart issues, blood pressure problems, diabetes and stroke. It is said that many people who suffer from insomnia also have another health condition too.

How can we get more sleep?


If you find falling asleep difficult or struggle to sleep when you would like, there are a number of things you can do to help:

Retire and rise at the same time – try and get your body into a routine with regular bedtimes and wake-up calls each morning. Aim for between six to nine hours each night. Use your alarm to wake you and try and stick to the routine – even at the weekends.

Take time to wind down – and that includes turning off the technology! Try a warm bath. Some people find that writing a to-do list for the next day helps to clear the mind, ready for sleep.

Exercise with caution – gentle stretches and yoga type exercises will encourage sleep, but while we may think that exercise leaves us exhausted, it actually reinvigorates us and makes sleep harder to achieve.

So, whatever else you have going on in your life, make sure that you take sleep seriously. Your mind and body will thank you for it!

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Getting down with the kids – how to play with your children

It’s the International Day of Families on 15 May 2017.  There is no shortage of blogs detailing the trials and tribulations of being a parent – there is much joy to be had – however, there is no denying that the changes in our society have impacted the lives of our children. They spend more time indoors than previous generations and much less time ‘playing out’ than we may have done when we were young.

This puts pressure on adults to spend more time directing the activities of their children and playing with them. In the main, parents really enjoy playing with children. However,  there is confusion around how adults can best to do this constructively and in a way that fits everyone’s abilities and interests.

Play is a natural learning process for all children. It helps them build confidence and develop physical skills, it teaches them empathy and about caring for others and the environment. For younger children, it also plays a vital role in developing language and communication skills. When children play with their parents, this helps them to feel loved, valued and safe.

In order to play constructively with our children, we need to do two things.

Figure out why we are playing with them


Do we just want to spend more time getting to know them? Is it not safe for them to play outside with their peers? Are their certain social skills that are holding them back from making positive friendships with other children? By being honest about why you are engaging in play, you can develop an activity that will help your child.

Consider how they would play if they were with other children


In order to create a constructive play environment, we should first observe how children play with others. There is a tendency for adults to take control and direct the play, as they would any other interaction with their children (do the dishes, get ready for bed, etc.), but all that’s teaching your child is to be able to take orders! On the other hand, this is not an opportunity for children to boss us about either - parents should be willing to assert themselves as their peers would, or they are not helping them develop the negotiation skills they need in the future.

If we look at animal behaviour, the young will roughhouse and run, just for the sheer fun of it. But in doing so they are learning more about their bodies, what it can do and what their limitations are. It’s easy for us as adults to forget how to play – our bodies don’t work the same as when we were young and we can feel awkward and self-conscious.

An interesting study  (Gray and Feldman, 2004) looked into how teenagers play with younger children. They find it much easier to tap back into their inner child and have less reservations about standing up to a child’s unacceptable demands than we adults do, but they are less likely to offend when they do say no!

So, once we’ve decided we’re going to play, what are we to do? We’ve got a few ideas for you here:

Outdoor play


  1. Throw balls – catch is a good way to improve hand eye coordination, and communication skills.
  2. Go to the local park and push your kids on swings, catch them as they come down the slide – have a go yourself! 
  3. Make mud pies in your garden; if you have a sand pit make sandcastles and get another family to choose the best. 
  4. Go on a nature walk around your local area – make things with what you find.

Indoor play


  1. Play card games/ board games /party games – they teach children (and us) how to win, lose and follow instructions.
  2. Embark on a craft project together – paint, build, stick, sew, bake – kids get a real sense of satisfaction out of creating an ‘end product’.
  3. Listen to music together – sing, play percussion, dance, share stories of music that was popular when you were young.
  4. Read a book together – take it in turns, ask questions, write an alternative ending or make up a new story altogether.

Playing with your children should never replace the time that they spend with their peers, but it is an important opportunity for you both to learn more about each other – and this can only serve to strengthen your family relationships.

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

How to give your kids more freedom as summer approaches

The lighter evenings are here and people generally share a desire to spend more time outside than during the autumn and winter. The same is true of our children too – it’s much more appealing to play outside with their friends than to stay home with us.

It’s a dilemma for parents though. Lighter nights provide the perfect distraction to get our children away from all the social media and technology gadgets that claim so much of their time indoors; however, it’s a big, bad world out there. How exactly do we assess whether our children possess the skills they’ll need to survive outside the safety of their home? This interesting article about 'helicopter parenting' looks at the challenges that parenting in today’s modern society brings.

What we need to remember is the fact that we’re trying to build a balance as they move from childhood to adolescence to adulthood. We need them to develop the skills they’ll need to be independent, while still appreciating the role their parents play in terms of advice, guidance and general safety.

As parents, we have a natural tendency to underestimate our children’s readiness to be more independent. We only need to look to our own childhoods to appreciate that the children today do not enjoy many of the freedoms afforded to us by our own parents and carers.

If you think your child may be ready for more freedom – or indeed they are requesting it - our advice is to take baby steps, start off small and build on it. This serves two purposes: it eases the transition for parents between them being visibly safe at home, to spending more time out of eyesight, with their friends; it also enables parents to assess their child’s ability to abide by the rules they are set. Gradually increase the time they’re able to play out by a half an hour at a time and see if they comply. Ask them to call at regular intervals – not just to ease your mind, but also so that they are clear about their responsibility to keep in touch when away from home.

Before making any decisions, it doesn’t hurt to do your research first. Don’t be pressured into agreeing to things just because your child says everyone else is ‘going there’ or ‘doing that’ – do your due diligence first. Ask around the other mums to find out what levels of freedom their peers have and couple this with some of your own online research, using parenting forums and education websites.

Don’t be afraid to build increased freedom rights into your home discipline routines too. Use increased independence as a reward for excellent behaviour and good choices made at home. This reinforces the concept that parents remain the guardians of their children’s time – and how they spend it, which helps to build a mutual respect.

Giving our children the independence they crave – and possibly need, in order to become well rounded, responsible adults – is one of the hardest jobs we have to do as parents. In some ways, the advances in mobile communication make it easier for us to keep tabs on our children in ways our own parents never could. However, our children still need to learn that independence is a privilege – we hold the key to their freedom, but they need to earn it first.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

It’s national humour month – what makes laughter the best medicine?

The saying goes that laughter is the best medicine and there’s no denying the fact that our spirits lift when we smile or laugh. But why exactly is it so therapeutic and what can we do to make sure humour remains a constant component of our everyday lives?

National Humour Month kicked off on 1st April, April Fool’s Day, a day when it’s culturally OK to laugh, joke and prank our friends and family. The sentiment behind National Humour Month is more serious – it’s about raising awareness of the therapeutic value of humour; what happens to our bodies, our mental wellbeing and our quality of life when we laugh and joke.

As good for you as exercise – and much more fun!


The fact that laughter is good for you is grounded in scientific research too. In this video link
we see how the blood sugar levels of diabetic patients rise less after eating a meal at a comedy show, because laughing improves digestion and speeds up respiration and blood circulation. It also claims that laughing 100 or more times a day may have the same health benefits as 10 minutes of aerobic exercise!

We laugh at people, more than we do actual jokes


In another study reviewed here, students observed more than 1000 people laughing spontaneously in their natural environments. They found that mostly we laugh at other people rather than actual jokes – the way they relay stories, observe everyday life and provide commentary on the ordinary and mundane. This goes to suggest that if we surround ourselves with happy people, it will rub off on us too. It's the act of laughing that makes people feel better – rather than what we laugh at – so a good sense of humour and a positive attitude play a role in the health benefits we experience, too.

It’s OK to fake it


The best news is that the benefits you get from laughing can be realised whether your laughter is real – or forced! It’s all about the physical act of laughing. While you may feel awkward at first, the people who attend the Laughter Club mentioned in this Huffington Post article say that you soon lose your inhibitions and natural laughter follows – along with the benefits to your wellbeing.

So, why exactly is laughing so good for us?


  • A good laugh relieves tension and stress, leaving your muscles relaxed for up to 45 minutes after.
  • Laughter decreases stress hormones and increases immune cells and infection-fighting antibodies.
  • Laughter releases endorphins, the body’s natural feel-good chemicals, which makes us feel happy and can help relieve pain.
  • Laughter improves the function of blood vessels and increases blood flow.

Remember, laughing is for life – not just April, but why not use National Humour Month as the catalyst to welcome more laughter into your life? It can only be good for you.

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Exercising for health and wellbeing – making the most of the great outdoors

Do you have a spring in your step, now that the seasons have changed?

There is something about the lighter evenings and brighter weather that make us yearn to be outdoors. The great news is that this can be as good for your mind, as it can for your body.

The link between exercise and our physical wellbeing is well documented, however it is now becoming evident that exercise has benefits beyond our body. It can be good for our mental wellbeing too – and when we feel good on the inside, it shows on the outside. We’re not talking hours in the gym either, the NHS website outlines lots of ways that you can start to incorporate healthy activity into your busy daily schedule.



Now that Spring has sprung, we have no excuse not to be outside more. A study back in 2012 by the University of Glasgow found people who exercise outdoors experience half the mental health risks of those who exercise inside, and that a jog through the forest was much better for you than an hour of high impact activity in the gym! Just twenty minutes moderate exercise outside is enough to put a smile on your face and give you a feeling on inner wellbeing that will continue throughout the day.

So why does physical activity make us feel good?


When we exercise, our body releases endorphins which are the body’s natural sedative. These help us calm down, focus our thoughts and approach situations with greater clarity. Put simply, endorphins make us feel as though we can take on the world!

The hardest part is always getting started. So we’ve developed a round-up of some outdoors activities, that are good for you without you even realising it…

Gardening


Digging, planting, clearing leaves, moving pots, mowing the lawn are all more strenuous than we realise – and much more enjoyable than an hour on a treadmill. At this time of year, our gardens really could you with a bit of TLC, so why not?

Cleaning the windows


No-one wants to spend time and effort cleaning windows when the weather is lousy, so chances are your window’s really could do with a spruce up at this time of the year. All the bending and reaching really does give your body a workout.

Washing the car


Wax on, wax off… In the twenty-odd minutes it takes to give your car a really good clean, your heart will have started to pump more blood around your body than usual, producing the endorphins you need to raise your mood.

Buying groceries


Yes, buying groceries is a chore, but why not turn it into part of your exercise regime? Pick a shop 15 minutes' walk away and head there to buy the shopping you need. The return journey will provide even more of a workout, as you’ll be carrying the bags but remember to distribute your shopping load equally and don't overload yourself.

How long do I need to be outside for?


As little as 30 minutes is enough to release the serotonin and endorphins we need to feel better mentally – and this can be split into two shorter 15 minutes stints if it helps. For more information about how to get the most out of your outdoor walks, a professor at by the University of Exeter looks at the reasons why walking is such an effective form of exercise and the ways in which we can get the most out of walking in this article: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-122898/Why-walking-workout-good-body.html 

Monday, 20 March 2017

International Day of Happiness - what would you write on your wall?

Today is international day of happiness, a day started by the United Nations in 2012. The first year that the day was celebrated, orange 'happiness walls' sprang up in many cities - places for people to share their ideas for achieving happiness.

So we thought we'd do our own happiness wall with some tips for achieving happiness in life.

What would you write on your own happiness wall? Visit Twitter and tell us what you'd put on your wall using #HappinessWall and we'll add our favourite tips to our own wall.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Nutrition and hydration week - how food can affect your mood

The saying goes that we are what we eat and what better time to look at whether there’s any truth in the saying than during Nutrition and Hydration week?

Drink


When it comes to drinking, people often choose alcohol to help change their mood. They may have a tipple to feel more relaxed, to help them engage more freely with others, or to give them that ‘happy’ vibe. However, evidence suggests that while alcohol does indeed change our mood, it’s not in the way we think. As a depressant, booze is likely to worsen symptoms of anxiety. So as we drink to alleviate feelings of stress, sadness or anxiety, in reality alcohol is exacerbating them.

The same can be said of caffeine. When taken in a drink, Caffeine quickly blocks the action of a brain chemical called adenosine. It’s a naturally occurring sedative so without it we feel more alert and sharp. That’s why coffee is a popular morning beverage However, for people pre-disposed to feelings of anxiety, it can actually leave you feeling more anxious.

Similar chemical changes occur in our body when we drink sugary drinks too. We get a rush and peak of energy as the sugar reaches our system – which can feel great and make us more productive – only to crash again soon after as our body over-produces insulin to absorb all the sugar. This leaves us feeling irritable and less able to focus. These highs and lows can be significant when it comes to managing our moods.

Food


There are a number of studies that have been done into the links between what we eat and how it impacts our mood. But the converse is also true – does our mood affect what we choose to eat, and in doing so does it create a vicious circle? We feel down so we make bad food choices that only serve to make us feel worse. This article in psychology week looks at the many ways in which our mood affects our food choices and the impact this then has on our body and brain.

There are a few golden rules to follow if you believe that your food choices could be impacting on your mood. It’s not rocket science, but it’s always best to look at the some of the most common contributory factors before we look at other ways of modifying our eating and drinking behaviours.

Five golden rules to boost your mood


  1. Eat regularly to avoid peaks and troughs in blood sugar – food fuels the body and without it we cannot function properly.
  2. Eat more carbohydrates – carbohydrates help your body produce serotonin which makes you feel ‘happy and healthy’. But make sure they are 'complex' carbohydrates from wholemeal foods rather than carbohydrates from refined foods, which will result in peaks and troughs in blood sugar (see point 1)
  3. Eat plenty of fish to make sure your levels of omega oils are topped up – a deficiency has been linked to low mood.
  4. Eat plenty of iron to keep energy levels up – without iron we can feel fatigued and preoccupied.
  5. Eat less fat – it quite literally weighs us down and leaves us feeling sluggish.

According to mental health charity Mind, improving our diet can lead to greater positivity, more energy, clearer thinking and calmer moods. They outline eight tips on how to improve your mood through food -  – including drinking more water and making healthy choices

Unfortunately, there is no one rule fits all when it comes to ‘clean’ eating and drinking habits that will improve our mood. Our bodies are all different and as such, we will each react differently when we consume certain food and beverages. What we can do, however, is get to know how our bodies react to what we put in our mouths and make more mindful decisions about what we consume in order to keep our spirits high.