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Celebrity Health - Dr Dawn Harper

Dr Dawn Harper chats to us about her support for a new healthy pregnancy campaign and her evangelical approach to eating vegetables

© Image of Dr Dawn Harper courtesy of John Carey.

From haemorrhoids to halitosis, Dr Dawn Harper has seen it all during her time as a presenter on Channel 4’s Embarrassing Bodies. The 54-year-old TV medic can also be found helping long-suffering parents on Born Naughty as well as dishing out medical advice on This Morning and Woman’s Hour. A mum-of-three, Dawn also works part-time as a GP in Stroud, Gloucestershire, and has a private practice in Harley Street. She has written a series of Dr Dawn’s Guide To ... books on subjects ranging from heart health to diabetes.

Here she takes some time out of her busy schedule to chat to us about her own health and wellbeing plus a new exercise in pregnancy campaign she is supporting.

I’ve just finished writing my latest book, which will be called Live Well to 101. It’s been an absolutely fascinating project to work on. Whilst writing it I interviewed various centenarians who are living really active lives across the country and also on the continent. I visited a place called Acciaroli on the coast in Italy where one in 10 people in that town lives to over 100. It was really interesting listening to them. They all came from very different backgrounds but they had all lived through two wars and they are a real testament to a healthy diet and staying active.

The gap between longevity and healthy longevity is increasing. Although we’re living longer, more of us are living more years at the end of our lives in ill health. I asked all the people I interviewed what they thought the secret to their longevity was. They all ate lots of vegetables, they were all fish-eaters, they all had a very positive attitude, they didn’t get stressed and they were all very active. I think there is a strong message to be learned there.

As individuals we all cope with different levels of stress and we respond to stress differently. Some people might get skin problems, others might get bowel problems and others might get heart problems. A lot of patients I see are suffering with stress and I think it is important to talk to your GP if you are struggling.

The first thing to do is to recognise that you are stressed and to realise that it’s ok to admit that you are under stress. A lot of women in particular are juggling so many different things and feel that they have to do everything, but none of us can keep that up in the long-term. I advise my patients to write down all the things that are stressing them out and to work out which things they can tackle and which things they cannot do anything about. I also recommend delegating things to other people. By learning to manage your stress you will be a better mum, a better partner and a better work colleague in the long run.

When it comes to my own health, I always make sure that I eat a balanced diet. I had my gut flora analysed recently and as a result I have changed my diet to incorporate more vegetables.

I now eat at least seven portions of veg and I vary the types of vegetables that I eat. I always make sure that I eat a rainbow – different coloured vegetables – and I’ll accompany that with some fish for protein. When I had my gut flora analysed again, after the change to my diet, I found I had lost a stone in weight without even trying so I’m very pleased!

My guilty pleasure was always Diet Coke, but there is evidence that artificial sweeteners are not good for our gut microbiome so I’ve given that up now. I feel so much better for it.

I’m generally very active. If I’m going into London I take my flat shoes with me and I walk as much as I can, but my main form of exercise is cycling. I was struck by a car several years ago in a hit and run and my knee was shattered. My rehab involved learning to do one revolution on a static bike at the gym to help my knee to bend again. When I was able to manage that, I got my bike out of the shed and I started cycling regularly. I now cycle around 10 miles three or four times a week and I really enjoy it. I have done a few charity cycle events for Action Medical Research, which is a charity close to my heart because two of my three children were born prematurely. When I’m in training for an event I do significantly more cycling to prepare for it.

I’m currently acting as ambassador for the Aptaclub Active for Two campaign which is all about educating mums-to-be about the benefits of exercise during pregnancy. Aptaclub recently carried out a survey which revealed that more than a quarter of pregnant women in the UK stop exercising due to fears of harming their unborn baby. This really highlights the fact that there is a great deal of misunderstanding and confusion surrounding exercise during pregnancy.

For many women, as soon as they get their first positive pregnancy test two words come to mind: guilty and worried. I think it’s a great shame that there is so much confusion around the issue of exercise during pregnancy. We know, in fact, that women who exercise during pregnancy are healthier themselves, they put on less excess weight during pregnancy and they also tend to have easier births and have healthier babies. So far from it being a negative thing it’s actually a very positive thing. I think it’s very individual as well and it depends on how active you were prior to getting pregnant. If you used to be a bit of a couch potato then your pregnancy isn’t the time to start training for your first marathon.

I always say that during pregnancy it’s the one time when you should really listen to your body. Make sure you are getting enough rest, accept offers of help and be sure to eat a well-balanced diet. It’s an important time to look after yourself and your unborn baby and if you have any concerns then speak to your GP or your midwife.

If I could offer just one tip for how to live more healthily it would be to eat more vegetables. It has improved my own health greatly and it was a key theme with all the centenarians I interviewed. I’m quite evangelical about it!

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