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Things you can do to look after your health

Take HIV treatment

Why? Effective HIV treatment has benefits for your overall health, including protecting against cancer, heart disease, kidney disease and liver disease. Among people living with HIV, rates of these conditions are lower in people who take HIV treatment than people who do not. This may be because HIV treatment helps reduce inflammation and immune activation.

What? Take your medication exactly as prescribed. This means taking all the doses of the medicines that make up your HIV treatment combination, at roughly the same time each day, following any instructions you’ve been given about food (such as taking the medicine with food, or on an empty stomach).

How? If you find it difficult to always take your HIV treatment, support and help will be available. If side-effects are the problem, it may be possible to change to a treatment that you find easier to take. If you simply forget, you could keep a diary, set an alarm or keep track of doses with a pill box.

There may be other reasons why you are finding it difficult to take your treatment as prescribed. Talking to your doctor, someone in your healthcare team, or another person you trust can help you to deal with any problems you are experiencing.

Stop smoking

Why? If you are doing well on HIV treatment but smoke, quitting is the single most important thing you can do to improve your health.

Smokers who take HIV treatment and have an undetectable viral load are far more likely to die from a smoking-related illness than they are to die from an HIV-related illness. In particular, smoking causes a quarter of cancers and two in five heart attacks that occur in people living with HIV. It appears that people with HIV are more vulnerable than other people to the harmful effects of smoking.

What? Even smoking one cigarette a day is harmful, so your aim should be to stop altogether. Even if you have been smoking for a long time, it’s never too late to quit – big health gains are seen within a year of stopping smoking.

How? Some people do manage to stop with willpower alone. But research shows that more people are able to quit when they get professional help or use medications to help deal with the craving for cigarettes.

These medications include Champix and Zyban. Also, nicotine replacement therapy (patches, gum, or lozenges) or e-cigarettes can help by giving you a small, short-term supply of nicotine, while you get out of the habit of smoking. Unlike tobacco smoke, they do not contain carbon monoxide and tar – the chemicals which contribute to heart disease and cancer.

You can get advice on different ways to quit from your GP or from the NHS Stop Smoking Service.

Eat a healthy, balanced diet

Why? Eating the right kinds of food and maintaining a balanced diet are important for everyone’s health. A balanced diet can help reduce the risk of most of the common health conditions that affect people as they get older. It will help you maintain your strength, have more energy, and have an increased sense of wellbeing.

What? Try to eat a wide variety of foods in sensible amounts. Healthy eating isn’t about cutting out specific foods or just having a few ‘superfoods’. Eating a balanced diet from a variety of food groups should mean that you get the full range of energy, fibre and nutrients that you need.

Most of us need to eat more fruit, vegetables and other foods high in fibre (such as beans, lentils, nuts, wholegrain bread and wholewheat pasta). At the same time, most people need to eat less red meat and processed meat (like ham and sausages). We only need a small amount of foods high in fat (especially saturated fat), salt and sugar.

How? You can make changes to your diet gradually. You could start by writing down what you normally eat for a few weeks. Compare this with the information on healthy eating at Then set yourself some small, realistic goals, and decide how you will achieve them. For example, you could bring fruit to work to have as snacks instead of chocolate or crisps.

Get more physical activity

Why? Regular physical activity reduces your risk of most of the health conditions that sometimes affect people living with HIV when they get older – not just heart disease and bone problems, but also depression and cognitive impairment. It will help you maintain the strength, flexibility and stamina that you need in daily life.

What? You should aim to do both aerobic activities that raise your heart rate and strengthening activities that help you maintain your muscles.

Aerobic activities make you breathe harder and raise your heart rate. They include brisk walking, cycling, jogging, swimming and most sports. A lot of everyday activities are aerobic, including walking up stairs, doing housework, playing outdoors with children, and gardening.

Strengthening activities involve making your muscles work harder than usual, against some form of resistance. They strengthen muscles, bones and joints. They include lifting weights, using elastic resistance bands, exercises that use your own body weight (like sit-ups) and yoga.

Some vigorous activities including circuit classes, running, football and rugby count as both aerobic activities and strengthening activities.

Activities that help with flexibility and balance are also good for you. They include stretching, yoga, Pilates and tai chi.

How? There are lots of ways you can build physical activity into your daily routines and your home life. You could walk or cycle rather than drive; get off the bus or train a stop early and walk the rest of the way; go dancing; follow exercise videos on YouTube; or do strengthening exercises at home, using water bottles as weights.

You don’t have to join a gym – the key thing is to choose activities that you enjoy and which fit in with your life.

Lose weight, if you are overweight

Why? People who are overweight are at higher risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and some cancers. Ageing causes the proportion of fat in the body to increase and muscle mass to reduce.

Weight loss is particularly important if you have excess fat around your waist (a ‘pot belly’). A lot of this fat is actually deep inside the body, wrapping around internal organs. It is linked to metabolic and hormonal changes, causing more health problems than fat in other parts of the body, like the hips or buttocks.

What? Your body mass index (BMI) is calculated using your height and weight measurements. It gives you a rough idea of how healthy your body weight is. A BMI between 18.5 and 25 is considered to be within the healthy range. If it’s above 25, you probably need to lose weight. A BMI above 30 indicates obesity.

How? To lose weight you need to take in less energy and use more energy up. This means you need to get fewer calories from food and burn more calories through physical activity. You should follow advice on healthy eating, with a particular focus on reducing the size of your portions and cutting down on things high in calories (such as cakes, chocolate, sugary fizzy drinks and alcohol). To maintain a healthy weight, you also need regular physical activity.

Reduce your intake of alcohol and drugs

Why? Long-term or heavy drinking or drug use increases the risk of serious health conditions. Heavy drinking contributes to high blood pressure, heart disease, some cancers and dementia. Alcohol can damage the liver, which is needed to process medications. It seems that alcohol is more harmful for people with HIV than other people – after drinking the same amount, people living with HIV have higher blood alcohol levels.

Long-term use of cocaine, crystal meth and other stimulant drugs raises the risk of heart disease and stroke, as well as contributing to depression, anxiety and paranoia. Heavy use of alcohol or recreational drugs can contribute to cognitive impairment.

What? UK guidelines recommend drinking no more than 14 units of alcohol a week. A unit is around a third of a pint of beer, half a small glass of wine or a single measure of spirits. Avoid drinking a lot on the same day.

How? Think about situations when you tend to drink more or use more drugs than you want to, and try to come up with a plan for how you can avoid those situations or behave differently in them. For example, have a non-alcoholic drink in between your alcoholic drinks, don’t go to hook-ups when you think drugs will be involved, or don’t buy rounds. Tell your friends that you want to cut down.

Remain socially connected and mentally engaged

Why? Staying connected with friends and family, and taking part in meaningful social activities, are good for your mental health and emotional wellbeing. Other people can help you stay active, keep you grounded and help you deal with practical problems.

Meeting new people and strengthening your social connections may also help prevent cognitive impairment. Trying new activities and learning new skills is also likely to help.

What? Get involved in social activities and help other people when you can. Keep your brain active with puzzles, quizzes, reading or anything else you enjoy that stimulates your mind. Set yourself a challenge that you will enjoy achieving.

How? Make an effort to stay in regular contact with friends, family members and neighbours who are important to you. When you can’t see people face-to-face, chat to them online, phone them or arrange a video call on FaceTime or Skype. Keep the lines of communication open.

You may meet new people if you join a club, a group, a class or a voluntary organisation to do something you enjoy or that interests you. It’s often easier to be with others when there’s a shared interest.

Find out more

A long life with HIV

Published September 2018

Last reviewed September 2018

Next review September 2021

Contact NAM to find out more about the scientific research and information used to produce this booklet.

Living with HIV as you get older

This booklet is part of a range of resources on health problems, co-morbidities and challenges that people living with HIV may face as they get older.

The full range is available on aidsmap and also includes factsheets, an online Side-effects checker tool, Side-effects information booklet and resources in other languages.

Visit our Living with HIV as you get older page >
This content was checked for accuracy at the time it was written. It may have been superseded by more recent developments. NAM recommends checking whether this is the most current information when making decisions that may affect your health.
Community Consensus Statement on Access to HIV Treatment and its Use for Prevention

Together, we can make it happen

We can end HIV soon if people have equal access to HIV drugs as treatment and as PrEP, and have free choice over whether to take them.

Launched today, the Community Consensus Statement is a basic set of principles aimed at making sure that happens.

The Community Consensus Statement is a joint initiative of AVAC, EATG, MSMGF, GNP+, HIV i-Base, the International HIV/AIDS Alliance, ITPC and NAM/aidsmap

This content was checked for accuracy at the time it was written. It may have been superseded by more recent developments. NAM recommends checking whether this is the most current information when making decisions that may affect your health.

NAM’s information is intended to support, rather than replace, consultation with a healthcare professional. Talk to your doctor or another member of your healthcare team for advice tailored to your situation.