Well, it’s that time of year, isn’t it? An opportunity for a fresh start with a fresh year and many of us make resolutions aimed at our health and wellbeing. Our good intentions don’t always translate into sustained action, but perhaps prioritizing our health goals would help. What follows is based on a Facebook post from the Cleveland Clinic – I have listed the suggestions for healthy living in what I consider to be their order of importance and added comments on evidence behind the recommendations.
- If you smoke bend all of your will to quitting. There is no more impactful change you can make. On average smokers lose 10 years of life expectancy, largely due to heart and lung disease, a variety of cancers, stroke and inactivity. It often helps to think about or even list the reasons why you would like to quit smoking and to list the things that are preventing you from succeeding. It also helps to think about how ready you are to quit. If you have tried without success previously, keep at it! Most people who quit for good have tried multiple times before they kick the habit. And the day you quit your health can start to improve and the damage from smoking begins to reverse itself.
- Get moving. I have been impressed throughout my career that the seniors who are the happiest are those who have stayed physically active. I am not talking about running marathons or power lifting. Regular exercise (as in daily) for relatively short periods of time (as little as 30 minutes and it can be split up) has benefit for your heart, lungs, muscles and bones, and for your sense of wellbeing. Remember that it is good to push yourself – the harder the exercise the more benefit. But this should be done within reason and relative to the point from which you’re starting. Walking, exercise equipment, strength exercises, Yoga, Tai Chi, biking, whatever you enjoy is great. And remember that flexibility matters too!
- Eat well. A proper diet is critical to health and the majority of Americans tend to eat in very unhealthy ways. Avoid saturated fats, refined carbohydrates and sugars, trans fats, fast food and highly processed foods. In addition to contributing to high cholesterol, heart disease and vascular disease these foods cause inflammation in your body, which has all kinds of negative effects. On the other hand fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, legumes and fish oils all reduce inflammation. Herbs and natural spices do as well, and they taste better!
- Get some sleep. Poor sleep contributes to inflammation and to a variety of chronic diseases. Good sleep is critical to natural restorative processes and to maintaining good physical and mental health. The chronic use of prescription medication is NOT the answer for sleep problems. These medicines do not increase restorative sleep and they cause all kinds of issues including falls, daytime drowsiness, depression, dependence and addiction. Diet plays a key role; more complex carbohydrates, lean protein, and unsaturated fats can help, as can exercise, yoga and good “sleep hygiene” (Google it!).
- Know your blood pressure and check it a few times a year, more often if you are being treated for high blood pressure. Home BP kits work pretty well and you may be able to use a friend or relative’s equipment. Or stop by your doctor’s office and ask for a BP check. Normal BP is below 140/90. High blood pressure contributes to heart disease, stroke, vascular disease and kidney disease and can usually be treated easily and effectively.
- Know your risk of heart disease. I think this is far more important than just knowing your cholesterol levels. Indeed, it helps you to make informed decisions about whether medicines for high cholesterol are likely to help you (“possibly” if you have a personal history of heart disease, “possibly” if you are at high risk for heart disease, “unlikely” if your risk is low). Here is a heart disease risk calculator: http://cvdrisk.nhlbi.nih.gov/
- Get to and maintain a healthy weight. Note that this is 7th on my list. I don’t want to minimize the importance of a healthy weight and if you are significantly overweight this goal should move up the list. But exercise, good sleep and a healthy diet all contribute to weight loss and for people who are mildly or modestly overweight but not obese these other six priorities are more important.
Best of luck in meeting your goals for the new year and happy 2015 to all!