the life doctor
Meet the Life Doctor. Starting this week, she'll be advising you on matters physical and mental with the aim of increasing health and well- being. But we promise: no New Agism, no nagging, no "giving up" things that are bad for you, no loony diets and no more exercise than can reasonably be squeezed into a civilised person's day. Read on, enjoy, but above all, take it easy...

TWO DAYS BACK from holiday and what is there to show for it? Sadly often no more than the four pounds excess body baggage and the weary, sinking feeling that it is barely possible that you actually went away. Thirty- five per cent of people feel no better after their annual holiday, and many claim to feel worse. Disrupted sleep, over-eating, over-drinking, stressful travel and, ironically, having achieved blobbed-out bliss a bit too successfully, all conspire to leave you drained. What's more, it may be permanent. Recent research found that many people lose IQ points on holiday, and they don't necessarily get them back.

How can you stay healthy on holiday? For it's all very well for size eight health writers to tell you to eat fresh fruit for breakfast, but you can bet they weren't standing next to the pancakes and maple syrup at the time. No, deprivation is not the answer. You need to think small. Just a little mental effort - equivalent to remembering to put the beer in the fridge - can make the difference between feeling restored and fit afterwards and feeling like someone tied weights to your legs.

The good news is that, recent research now being promoted by the Health Education Authority suggests that, for health, several short bursts of exercise are just as good as one longer session. And even on holiday, one can tolerate almost anything for ten minutes. Try the ten-minute swim. Several times a day. The ten-minute sit-up session before you go out. The ten-minute leg lifts. Before your mind realises it's doing exercise, it will be over. It's a good idea to have a break from your normal exercise routine (if you ever had one). But avoid the sad hotel gym - the only other person there will be a stringy Scandinavian businessman reading a book entitled How to Relax on Holiday as he peddles angrily on the stationary cycle.

"There are four categories of holiday health," says Rachael Strain, assistant director of training at the central London YMCA, "nutrition, stress-busting, exercise and fun. Overeat the holiday salads, drink plenty of water, take opportunities to be active whenever they arise, relax into the 'alpha state' [the mellow stage between sleep and wakefulness which lowers blood pressure and stress levels] by meditating, glazing over at the sea or having a massage, and have fun." A more lateral view of physical activity is less intrusive. Sadly shopping doesn't count - not even if you're buying something heavy - but exploring ruins can be a good idea, especially if the ancient steps are still intact. Then think up entertaining ways to counteract the cream-filled moussaka you will be throwing yourself into later. Try beach volleyball, hill walking (300 calories an hour), energetic clubbing, hand tennis or synchronised swimming competitions, which always amuse onlookers.

Not that calories count for anything, but it can be motivational to visualise the ice cream you are running off in a 20 minute run (sand jogging is particularly good for muscle tone and you can pretend you are Sylvester Stallone in Rocky III). But do it early. It's more inspirational, emptier and later in the day you will be forced to excuse yourself because it is too hot. In any case, nothing beats the feeling of superiority enjoyed by the early-morning exerciser. You march into the breakfast area, "glowing" (as Enid Blyton described smug hockey players) "with good health and happiness".

There is a temptation on holiday to "catch up" on sleep. But since a long lie-in can actually leave you more sluggish and bad-tempered, you are better off trying to keep some semblance of a routine. That said, the odd night of sleep-deprivation and excess is good for the soul. It changes your thinking. Dr Stephen Palmer, director of the Centre for Stress Management and a specialist in travel psychology, says "Cutting down on sleep is a well-known cure for depression."

Finally, it you are totally unfit then holidays are a good time to re- evaluate your lifestyle - there will be plenty of time for contemplation when paralysed after the first burst of sporty enthusiasm. So says John McCarthy, sports scientist at the National Sports Medicine Institute: "On holiday it's a great opportunity to be inspired to do something. It's what we call the pre-contemplative stage. It's actually an incredible step to make." Come back feeling positive without actually moving from the sun-lounger? Sounds perfect.

The Life Doctor invites questions on health and lifestyle dilemmas. Write to: Eleanor Bailey, Life Doctor, Ganton House, 18-22 Ganton Street, London W1V 1LA