From counting moles to making a string belt: 12 super simple health checks you can do in your living room
From blood tests in the post, to watches that track your heart rate, we’ve never had so many ways to monitor our own health.
Even the NHS is getting in on the act, with Royal Devon and Exeter NHS Foundation Trust launching a private blood testing service for curious consumers, offering checks for vitamin D levels, thyroid problems or diabetes, with prices starting at £24.
But here we’ve collated simpler — and cheaper — ways to give yourself an MOT in the comfort of your own living room.
Note: None of these should be considered a substitute for professional medical advice — always consult your doctor about any health concerns.
Did you know? According to King’s College London researchers, those with more than 11 moles on their right arm were likely to have more than 100 moles on their body in total
COUNT MOLES ON YOUR ARM: Skin cancer risk
People with more than 100 moles are more at risk of developing melanoma — the most dangerous skin cancer.
But as counting every mole is time-consuming, in 2015 King’s College London researchers came up with a quicker method.
Based on a trial of 3,694 people, they calculated that those with more than 11 moles on their right arm were likely to have more than 100 moles on their body in total; people with seven on their arm were likely to have around 50.
Writing in the British Journal of Dermatology, the team concluded this check could be a very useful tool in assessing melanoma risk.
When doing the test, include moles measuring at least 2mm in diameter. A score of 11 or more suggests you may be at five times the risk of melanoma; seven moles or more is thought to double the risk.
A count of 11 moles isn’t cause for panic, but as well as taking sensible precautions in the sun, it is worth being extra-vigilant. Store pictures of your moles using the app SkinVision, suggests Justine Hextall, a consultant dermatologist at the Tarrant Street Clinic in West Sussex. ‘Review these every few months for changes,’ she says. ‘If there’s anything that worries you, seek advice from your GP, even if the app says it’s OK.’
STAND ON ONE LEG AND TIME YOURSELF: How well you’ll age
The length of time you can stand on one leg has been shown to be a simple way of predicting how well you will age — and even your risk of stroke or dementia.
Research published in the journal Stroke in 2015 found that being unable to stand on one leg for more than 20 seconds was linked to an increased risk of ‘silent’ stroke — tiny brain bleeds that don’t cause symptoms, but raise the risk of both full-blown stroke and dementia.
A U.S. study published in the Journal of Geriatric Physical Therapy in 2007 found that for someone in their 70s, a score of 22 seconds would be typical (so above that would be a good score); for someone in their 80s, the average is nine seconds.
John Brewer, a professor of applied sports science at Buckinghamshire New University, suggests that people in their 40s, 50s or 60s should be able to balance on one leg — with eyes open — for one minute.
‘This is a good test of your core stability and also the strength of the ligaments that support the knees,’ he says. ‘If you can’t do it for this long, it’s definitely worth trying to build it up.’
FILL A HOT WATER BOTTLE: To track down cause of aches
Heat helps muscles to relax, so apply a hot water bottle and then ask yourself how much the pain has settled and whether your movement has improved
Chartered physiotherapist Zoe Birch recommends a simple check for aches and pains: put a hot water bottle on them.
If the pain eases with the heat, that suggests it’s muscle tension rather than an injury (such as a pinched nerve).
‘A lot of people come to see me with pain, particularly neck pain, which is simply being caused by tight, tense muscles,’ says Zoe, who works at PhysioMotion in London.
‘Heat helps muscles to relax, so apply a hot water bottle and then ask yourself how much the pain has settled and whether your movement has improved.
‘If the pain has significantly reduced and the movement is better, then it’s muscle tension; if it’s made no difference, you may want to see someone to find out what’s going on.’
MAKE A STRING BELT: Heart disease risk
body mass index (BMI) can be a flawed way of assessing if someone is a healthy weight, as it doesn’t taken into account muscle or where they store fat.
Dr Margaret Ashwell, a nutrition scientist and researcher, recommends her easy test.
First measure your height using string and cut it to length. ‘Now fold it in half, then see if it goes comfortably around your waist,’ says Dr Ashwell.
‘The golden rule is your waist should be under half your height. This waist-to-height ratio is a more sensitive measure of health than weight alone or calculating your BMI, because it takes fat distribution into account.’
If the string won’t go around your waist, this suggests you’re carrying more weight around the middle — known as visceral fat.
Higher levels of visceral fat are a warning sign you could be at an increased risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes, explains Dr Ashwell. ‘We know now that fat is not inert; fat cells produce active substances that influence appetite and cause inflammation, among other things.
‘Fat deposits around the liver and heart seem to deliver more of these potentially harmful factors than fat on your bum and thighs.
‘Research has shown that if you apply waist-to-height ratio to a group of people in the “normal” BMI range, nearly a third will come up as “at risk”,’ she adds.
TIME YOURSELF ON THE STAIRS: How you will cope with surgery
Insight into your overall health: Timing how long it takes to walk up and down a single flight of stairs gives a good indication of all-round frailty
Timing how long it takes to walk up and down a single flight of stairs gives a good indication of all-round frailty — and some researchers suggest it could be a useful tool to predict how well you’ll cope with surgery.
In 2016, researchers at the University of Alabama asked 362 patients who were due to have elective abdominal surgery to walk down and then up a single flight of stairs (seven steps each way). Twenty-four patients were too frail to attempt the task, but of the remaining ones, the average time was 18 seconds.
Those who went on to have no complications from surgery completed it in 15 seconds; those who took more than 25 seconds needed an extra 3.5 days in hospital.
The average age of people who had complications was slightly higher — 65 years old compared to 59 for the group with none. But out of all possible factors that might affect how well someone fared during and after surgery (such as age, muscle strength or what medication they were on), how well they performed on the stair test was found by researchers to make the biggest difference.
Nick Markham, a consultant surgeon and spokesperson for the Royal College of Surgeons, says: ‘If you don’t do very much in the way of exercise, suddenly during surgery your heart and lungs face a challenge they’re not used to. Whereas the fitter you are, the more your body is able to treat it as just another trip up the stairs.’
TAKE THIS ONLINE TEST: Brain function
While there is no single test that can diagnose forms of dementia, the Self-Administered Gerocognitive Exam (or SAGE test) is a useful check to do in middle age and be kept as a baseline record of your mental function.
This is a short set of questions developed by scientists at Ohio State University to test memory and thinking abilities, and help doctors spot signs of mental decline. Tasks include being asked to copy simple pictures and answer questions such as ‘how far did you get in school?’
The SAGE test is designed to be evaluated by your own doctor. But its creators have suggested that it’s a useful baseline, as well as helping to spot worrying signs. Take the test at: sagetest.osu.edu
See your GP immediately if you have any concerns.
TOUCH YOUR TOES SITTING DOWN: Artery health
Sit on the floor with your back against the wall, legs extended straight out in front of you, and slowly try to reach for your toes, bending at the waist. This sit-and-reach test could indicate how supple (or not) your arteries are.
Arteries tend to get stiffer as we age. This means it’s not as easy for blood to move around the body, which can increase the risk of heart disease and stroke.
A 2009 study, published in the American Journal of Physiology, found that middle-aged adults who performed poorly on the sit-and-reach test also tended to have stiffer arteries.
But the good news is that other research in 2015 found middle-aged men who did 30 minutes of gentle static stretches — targeting the major muscle groups — five times a week for a month saw a significant reduction in arterial stiffness.
TRY JACK-IN-THE-BOX IN A CHAIR: Overall fitness levels
Sit in a chair, then stand up and sit down, repeating for a full minute, using the ticking of a clock to control your speed.
‘Move once a second: up then down,’ says sports scientist Professor Brewer. ‘Do this for one minute and then immediately measure your pulse rate for 30 seconds.’
Multiply this figure by two to give you your recovery heart rate in beats per minute.
The difference between this and your resting heart rate (your pulse when at rest — take it when you get up in the morning for an accurate reading) gives an idea of your overall fitness level.
This is a really useful way to check your all-round cardiovascular fitness, says Professor Brewer. ‘The heart is like any muscle, it gets stronger when it is exercised.
‘As you get fitter, your recovery heart rate goes down. The closer it is to your resting heart rate the better. Though you’ll never close the gap completely.’
A good score would be a difference of 20 to 30 beats per minute, while a poor score would be a difference of 40 and above. ‘It’s an indication you need to do more exercise,’ says Professor Brewer.
ASK YOURSELF FIVE QUESTIONS: Hearing
People often don’t realise their hearing is going, says Dolores Madden, an audiologist who works with the International Campaign for Better Hearing. She suggests five key questions. Do you:
– Often turn the TV or radio up when you come in the room?
– Tend to think that other people are mumbling?
– Find it difficult to follow the conversation in a crowded room?
– Struggle to hear while on the telephone?
– NOT always hear the doorbell?
‘If the answer to any of those is yes, it could suggest you have a problem and need to get it checked,’ says Dolores.
‘Side-effects of not treating hearing loss include anxiety, depression, and it can even play a role in dementia, as your brain isn’t getting that aural stimulation.’
‘I’ve tested many people who’ve let it go so long that hearing aids can no longer help them.’
Call 0844 800 3838 for a free hearing test over the phone, a service run by Action on Hearing Loss.
SIT DOWN HEN STAND UP USING ONE LEG
Sports scientist Professor John Brewer suggests the following exercise to test the strength of your leg muscles — crucial for maintaining mobility and, therefore, our independence as we get older.
‘Start sitting down in a chair,’ he says. ‘Then, putting all your weight on one leg only, try to stand up and sit down again. Do this until you can’t do it any more.
‘A very fit and strong person would be able to do 60 or 70, whereas some people will struggle to do one.’
The important thing, though, he says isn’t to achieve a particular number, but to focus on maintaining or improving what you can do now.
‘Focus on competing against yourself, whatever level you’re at currently,’ he says. ‘If you can only do two, try to build up to three or four. As you get older, the ability to get out of a chair becomes the single biggest determinant of retaining your independence — and strength in your leg muscles is key to that.’
PELVIC FLOOR TEST FOR MEN AND WOMEN
Everyone needs to do pelvic floor exercises — men as well as women — to protect against incontinence.
However, these moves, designed to keep the network of muscles that support the bladder, bowel (and womb) functioning properly, can be tricky to master.
Katie Mann, an NHS specialist pelvic floor physiotherapist and chair of the Pelvic, Obstetric and Gynaecological Physiotherapy professional network, suggests the following.
‘First, contract your pelvic floor — you want to contract the back passage as if stopping wind, and at the same time squeezing up at the front almost as if trying to stop the flow of urine,’ she says. ‘Men should see a dip at the base of the penis and feel the scrotum lift slightly.
‘It’s more difficult for women, as they go by feeling alone. Women can think pelvic floor exercises are supposed to feel like a gripping action, but it’s more subtle than that. Placing a thumb inside the vagina and pressing to one side as you contract can help you know if it’s working,’ she adds. ‘If you can’t feel anything happening, or have leakage, see a specialist physiotherapist.’
But don’t try to actually stop your urine mid-flow to test your pelvic floor — that’s an old wives’ tale.
ARE YOU REALLY SLEEP DEPRIVED?
There’s one surprisingly simple way to check if you’re getting enough sleep.
According to Dr Neil Stanley, an independent sleep researcher and author of How To Sleep Well: ‘Ask yourself how you feel in the day?’ he says. ‘If between 11am and midday you feel alert and focused, you’ve had enough sleep. If you still feel sleepy, then you haven’t slept enough — or there could be a problem with your sleep.’
He adds: ‘It’s worth noting that there’s a difference between feeling tired and feeling sleepy. Often we say we’re tired, but what we mean is we’re fed up, over-worked or faced with too many decisions. But this is a psychological fatigue; it doesn’t necessarily mean you need more sleep.’ You could also try the following experiment. You’ll need a spoon and a metal tray. Lie down in a darkened room during the day, placing the tray on the floor by the bed. Hold the spoon in one hand and dangle it over the tray. Check the time and see how long it takes you to fall asleep. When you drift off, the spoon will drop onto the tray, waking you up — at which point, check the time.
If you nod off within five minutes, you’re severely sleep-deprived; ten minutes is a cause for concern; anything over 15 minutes (or not at all) is fine. An even simpler version would be to set an alarm for 15 minutes’ time and see if you fall asleep before the alarm goes off.
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