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Doctor How to live longer and help the planet at the same time

Dr Lisa McNamee outlines some simple changes you can make to save your body any future challenges.

IRISH PEOPLE ARE living longer, but often their quality of life in later years is marred by chronic disease. Many of the current recommendations for living more years in good health are equally climate friendly as they are health friendly.

With rates of cardiometabolic disease (including type 2 diabetes, fatty liver, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, kidney disease and obesity) on the rise in Ireland, many doctors are focusing on preventative medicine.

It can be a hard sell to make changes now to help your future self, but if you just make one or two adjustments before your older years, they can make all the difference. 

Here are some concrete changes you can make today to improve your family’s health while being green:


Medics are increasingly aware of the value of movement as medicine. Getting more active can add years to your life, even if you’ve already been diagnosed with a chronic disease. Movement does not necessarily mean high-intensity exercise, it means regular activity in line with recommendations to keep your body healthy.

In terms of actual exercise, 44% of Irish adults don’t meet the recommended weekly exercise targets. The guidance is 150 minutes a week of moderate intensity exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity exercise. It’s important to include some weight training in your weekly exercise to keep your bones and muscles strong at any age.

This doesn’t have to be gym barbells, it could be as simple as lifting a small bottle of water with each arm in the kitchen at home.

To stay healthy your body needs a certain amount of exercise but it’s also crucial to avoid long periods of sitting. Sitting all day in one position is a reality in many jobs but sedentary behaviour can be as bad for you as obesity or smoking.

closeuprearviewstressedyoungmantouchinglowerback Shutterstock / Perfect Wave Shutterstock / Perfect Wave / Perfect Wave

If your job requires long periods of sitting, it’s important to break these up with some movement breaks whether that be a quick trip upstairs, a brisk hourly walk for a few minutes or even some jumping jacks if you have a private space, or uncritical colleagues. This will reduce your future risk of cardiovascular disease.

You are what you eat

Rates of high cholesterol and related heart disease are increasing in Ireland. Making a few dietary changes can lower your cholesterol and consequently reduce a person’s risk of future heart attack, stroke and certain types of dementia.

Increasingly, the focus for many doctors is getting patients to swap a meat or dairy-based meal for a plant-based one. Most people are now aware that the emissions from producing meat and dairy are globally twice that of producing plant-based foods but fewer are aware of the health benefits from making the switch to a predominantly plant-based diet. 

vegan-vegetarian-plant-based-diet-gluten-free-selection-of-cashew-nuts-blueberries-spinach-mange-tois-peas-avocado-and-broccoli-on-marble-and-board-background Switching to plant-based can make all the difference. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Ultra-processed foods are also associated with an increased risk of cardiometabolic disease. A recent Lancet study looking at 266, 666 patients and their patterns of food and drink intake found that animal product based ultra processed foods had the highest association with cancer and other comorbid illnesses.

When giving advice, it is clear that patients do not have to go vegan to benefit from dietary changes. Quantity, frequency and level of processing are important when choosing foods.

A large analysis found that substituting butter with olive oil, processed meats with nuts, vegetables and whole grains could lead to large reductions in the risk of developing cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.

The Irish Heart Foundation encourages a diet rich in fruit, vegetables, nuts and grains while keeping your intake of red meat and processed meats low. They have a recipe section on their website which can help you make small, concrete changes to your own diet.

The Irish Society of Lifestyle Medicine also recommends a balanced, nutritious diet that is rich in plants. Small steps, like finding one plant based dinner recipe that the whole family likes and can be cooked on a weekly basis, can be the start of improved heart and bowel health. A handful of cooked lentils can be added to a bolognese sauce, with the meat reduced to 50%, then if popular, eventually eliminated.

Nature prescription

Until now, a ‘nature prescription’ is something that Japanese patients are more used to encountering than Irish patients when they attend their GP. This may take the form of walking in nature, gardening, wild swimming or forest bathing. Emerging evidence shows that introducing short bursts of activity outdoors in nature can lower blood pressure, help prevent cardiometabolic disease and promote mental well being.

In 2023, the NHS funded seven pilot projects in England to show the benefits of green social prescribing and it is an approach that has been adopted with great success. There are many initiatives to get patients outdoors and exercising in a social environment, such as the ‘Walk with a Doc’ programme which began in North America and now has 500 chapters worldwide, including one in Ireland led by Dr Kate McCann.

Dr Lisa McNamee is a medical doctor and the national primary care sustainability lead for Irish Doctors for the Environment.

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