Live to tell the tale

You're young and you're going to live forever. Right? Well, it's not that I want to spoil your fun, but here's how to put on the seat belt when you're in the roller coaster of life.

Let's be honest - looking after your health is not exactly number one on your list of things to do today. Right now you're possibly planning what you're going to wear to the party on Friday night or wondering whether that cute guy in Grade 11 was really looking at you during assembly. But read this nevertheless - it might be the best thing you do today.

Look out for these things:

Junk food. Junk food tastes nice and is everywhere. A burger now and then won't kill you. But recently, a man in America ate nothing but junk food for thirty days. Three times a day, he had sodas, burgers, chips and whatever else could be found on the menu. After a month he had gained 13 kgs and had dangerously high blood pressure, as well as liver problems. These results speak for themselves. Eating healthy foods will help you grow and help your body fight diseases. Six glasses of water a day are recommended, and at least five portions of fresh fruit and vegetables. Proteins are essential, but try and stay away from animal fats. Eat lots of fish and wholewheat grains, such as brown rice and wholewheat bread. Dairy products are essential, as they up your calcium levels.

Safe sex or no sex. Deciding to have sex is one issue, but having unsafe sex an entirely different one. One sexual encounter without using a condom could cost you your life. A generation or two ago, the worst things that could happen to people who had unplanned and unprotected sex, were pregnancy or a sexually transmitted infection (STI), which could be treated with antibiotics. Now HIV/Aids has transformed things on the sexual front. There is no medication that will cure HIV/Aids, so once you've got it, you've got it. And you could be passing it on to others. Point is, there is nothing casual about having casual sex these days.

Avoiding getting fat. Being fat might not be good for your social life, but it's not good for your health either. One in every ten schoolkids in the world is overweight, according to a report by the International Obesity Task Force. For a variety of reasons, diets seem to be getting more calorie-rich and are made up from fatty junk foods. It doesn't mean that you can't ever enjoy anything. One doughnut a week is not going to make you obese – but one or two a day might very well. So, the secret lies in not going overboard and getting out there in the great outdoors for a walk or a run, or a sports match. It is so much easier to control your weight now, than having to lose 35 kg at a later stage in your life.

Safety and security. The crime stats in South Africa are frightening: every day in South Africa, 60 people are murdered, 95 people barely survive violent attacks, 142 women are raped, and 725 people are assaulted with the intention to inflict grievous bodily harm, according to statistics from the South African Police Services (SAPS). So how do you protect yourself? You can get quite far by doing a self-defence course, by not walking around alone after dark, never hitch-hiking, avoiding getting into fights as far as is possible and avoiding areas that are known to be unsafe. Make sure you always have enough money or airtime to make a phone call in an emergency.

Quitting smoking. Researchers say it is just as difficult to stop smoking as it is to stop taking heroin. Worldwide, more people die of smoking-related diseases than of tuberculosis and Aids combined. About seven million South Africans smoke about ten cigarettes per day. And 90% of them started smoking before the age of 18. Cigarette smoke does damage to every organ and every function in your body and every cigarette you smoke, shortens your life by about five minutes. In short, it is just so much less hassle never starting than it is to try and stop once you've acquired a pack-a-day habit.

Get out there. Friends are important. They keep you company, they make you laugh (and cry, sometimes) and they're mostly there for you when you need them. But they're not going to come to you - you need to make the effort to find them and to keep them. It's also good to get out. Playing video games in your darkened room is fun for a day or two, but do it for weeks on end, and watch your social life dwindle.

Avoiding an unwanted pregnancy. Having a baby when you're still in your teens, is difficult, to say the least. Your friends are out partying and discovering the world and you're at home changing nappies. And then, of course, there's the whole issue of finding money to buy nappies, to pay for medical expenses, buy baby food and clothing. If the father is as young as you are, chances are that he doesn't have oodles of cash either. Having a baby at such a young age, also means that your own plans are put on hold. Bottom line is, that if you're having a sexual relationship, you should take responsibility for what you're doing. If you're too shy to speak to your GP or go to the clinic for contraceptives, you shouldn't be having sex in the first place.

Staying away from drugs. Every single person who starts taking drugs, think they will be able to control their drug intake. No one ever plans to end up as an addict. Point is, drugs are everywhere and you've probably already been offered some. "By the time a boy has reached Grade 11, between one third and half will have tried illegal substances”, says Grant Jardine, director of the Cape Town Drug Counselling Centre. Drugs drain your finances, ruin your health and make it almost impossible for you to have healthy relationships. It might buy social acceptance in the short run, but once you've got a serious problem, chances are you'll be fighting it alone.

Hitting the bottle. South Africans drink a lot. There is a liquor outlet of some kind for every 191 people in South Africa, according to statistics provided by the Medical Research Council. Liquor may not be sold to anyone under the age of 18, according to the South African law. Within five minutes of consuming alcohol, it enters the blood stream via the stomach. The effects can last for several hours. Alcohol can make you feel more relaxed, but after a few drinks it will make you depressed. If more alcohol is consumed, double vision, nausea, loss of balance and vomiting can occur. Further drinking may lead to unconsciousness and memory loss. Alcohol affects every organ of the body, but its most dramatic impact is on the liver. Also, many people die as a result of accidents caused by drunken drivers. Many people manage to be social drinkers, but if you suspect you might have a problem, get help before things get really difficult.

Abusive relationships. Relationship patterns are often started in your teens. If a relationship is causing you pain for much of the time, or your partner does not make you feel good about yourself, get out as quickly as possible. Life is difficult enough as it is that we don't need to have to deal with partners who are emotionally or even physically abusive. And no, you are not to blame for your partner's behaviour, whatever he/she might say. People themselves choose how they react in certain situations – you cannot be held responsible for their choices. And don't for a moment believe that by changing the way you behave, you will be able to solve the problem.

Depression/suicide. Suicide among children and adolescents in South Africa is on the increase, according to statistics released by the University of Natal School of Medicine. On average, 9% of deaths in young people are due to suicide. For every one fatal suicide, there are 20 suicide attempts. One of the leading causes of suicide is psychological disorders, such as depression. The signs of depression in teens include feeling sad, anxious or empty; school performance that gets worse; loss of interest in social or sports activities; too little or too much sleep; changes in weight or appetite. If you feel constantly depressed, it is essential that you do something about it. You can go to your family GP, or if you have suicidal thoughts, phone the Suicide Helpline at 0800 567 567.

Dropping out of school. School can be boring, frustrating and exasperating at times. So it's not surprising that every now and then you feel as if you want to go away and not come back. But not having your Grade 12-certificate closes many doors for you and several years down the line will limit your earning potential severely. Dropping out of school can have real long-term effects on the rest of your life, making it a lot more unpleasant by comparison than the joy you experienced in waving goodbye to the school in the first place.

Dieting too much. Constant dieting can cause your metabolism to slow down. If your body thinks it is starving, it will hang onto everything that you do eat, in case there's a shortage of food looming. The eating disorder anorexia nervosa is also associated with obsessive dieting, long past the point where someone has reached normal goal weight. See the above section on junk food for healthy eating recommendations.

Not exercising. Exercise helps burn calories and also helps with weight management. It will also help to control things such as blood sugar, stress and depression. So how much exercise do you need? Experts generally recommend at least 30 minutes a day. Walking, swimming and cycling are good ways of exercising. Taking part in team sport at school can also improve your social life.

(Susan Erasmus, Health24, updated June 2010)

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