By Harvard Health Letters, Premium Health News Service
If you’ve ever made New Year’s resolutions that include adopting better health habits, you probably know they aren’t easy to keep. The reason resolutions often don’t work is because lasting change is usually not accomplished in a dramatic leap but through a series of incremental steps. However, research suggests that any effort you make is worthwhile, even if you find yourself backsliding from time to time.
Even if you don’t want to make a formal list of promises to yourself, the dawn of a new year is still a good time to take inventory of your health and to consider what beneficial changes you can reasonably accomplish. Dr. JoAnn Manson, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and chief of preventive medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston, Mass., cautions not to embark on something you’re not committed to.
“No matter how good an activity is for you, you’re not going to be able to sustain it if you hate doing it,” she says.
If you make resolutions this year, you may want to consider some of the following. They’re ranked in order of difficulty, easy ones first:
1. Floss every night
Flossing keeps plaque (collections of bacteria) from building up on your teeth and reduces gingivitis and periodontal disease—two conditions that can lead to tooth loss. Recently, scientists have also discovered that flossing might save more than your smile.
A series of studies have revealed associations between periodontal disease and increased risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, and even death. In a study of 5,600 healthy people in a retirement community, people who flossed nightly had a 30 percent lower risk of dying within the decade than those who didn’t floss or who flossed at other times of the day.
It’s hard to find an excuse for failing to floss. Dental floss is readily available and comes in a variety of widths, textures, and flavors. There’s even a special version for people who have bridges or braces. Flossing isn’t hard to work into your schedule: it takes less than two minutes.
2. Walk 30 minutes a day
A brisk 30-minute daily walk is one of the most efficient ways to reduce your risk for heart disease, stroke, dementia, diabetes, osteoporosis, and colon cancer. It will also help you sleep better and ward off depression.
Walking is the simplest and least expensive form of exercise. You don’t need to join a gym or health club or invest in special clothing or equipment. If you’ve tried to get going before and have had trouble keeping with the program, you may want try the following:
—Enlist a buddy. Most things are easier when you don’t try to do them alone, and the obligation to meet a friend for a walk may be just what you need to get started and keep you going. Just make sure that your friend is as committed as you are.
—Dress appropriately. If you’re not comfortable, you won’t want to keep going. Wear shoes with good support. In any climate, it’s wise to dress in layers that you can shed as you heat up. It’s also a good idea to use sunscreen and to wear sunglasses on bright days, even in the winter.
—Start slowly. If 30 minutes seems daunting, begin with a five-minute walk and add another five minutes each week. You’ll be up to 30 minutes by six weeks.
3. Learn something new
Dementia research is indicating that becoming a perpetual student may help to preserve your memory and reasoning ability. This doesn’t mean maintaining a pursuit you’ve already mastered, like crossword puzzles or chess, but gaining a new competency. And physical exercise is as important as mental exercise. Here are some of the best things you can do:
—Study another language. If you’re already bilingual or multilingual, don’t let your second or third languages languish. A study published in 2013 indicated that now-bilingual immigrants to the United States who couldn’t read or write English when they first arrived in this country pushed dementia back an average of four years later than similar people who spoke a single language. If you haven’t mastered a second language, try to learn one.
—Learn to play a musical instrument. You might also resume playing one you put away years ago. Now that the pressure to make the high school orchestra is off, you may enjoy making music for your own enjoyment.
—Acquire a new physical skill. Any form of exercise can reduce the risk of dementia, but mastering a new physical skill has additional benefits. Take up a new sport, try a pottery or dance class, or even make an effort to do more tasks with your non-dominant hand.
—Enroll in a class. See what the local college, university, or community college has to offer. Many communities also have adult education courses that offer opportunities as varied as poetry writing, painting, and web design.
4. Eat better
Like exercise, a healthful diet will reduce your risk of most major diseases. In short, that diet contains at least:
—five servings of fruits and vegetables a day
—protein primarily from nondairy sources, such as fish, poultry, nuts, beans and other legumes
—polyunsaturated and monounsaturated oils
—no foods containing trans fats.
Unlike exercise, good eating isn’t free, and it may take some effort to change your grocery shopping and cooking habits. If you’ve been using a lot of processed convenience foods, you may want to start by making one substitution at a time.
For example, replace white bread with a whole-grain version, use olive or canola oil instead of butter, or snack on nuts or fruit instead of chips or cookies. If you’re unsure about what changes to make in your diet because of your medical problems, your primary care doctor can refer you to a nutritionist to help get you started.
5. Make new friends
Expanding your social connections can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and dementia and increase your chances of living longer. And adding new friends later in life can be particularly important if your circle is shrinking because of death or relocation.
There are all kinds of ways to form new connections. Joining groups of people who share your interests or goals, especially in your neighborhood, is one of the best. It also helps if the group you join includes people of different ages, backgrounds, and perspectives. Volunteering can be a particularly good way to introduce yourself to new people and social circles.
6. Lose weight if you need to
If you are overweight—particularly if you have excess abdominal fat—your risk of heart attack, stroke, diabetes, and breast cancer is higher than it should be. Carrying too much weight can also contribute to arthritis, tendinitis, and sleep apnea. A loss of 5 percent to 10 percent of your body weight can reduce your health risks substantially.
The pledge to lose a few pounds might be the most commonly made—and broken—New Year’s resolution. If you’re considering trying to shed pounds, don’t set a low weight or a small clothing size as a goal. Instead aim for a body mass index (BMI) of 25 and a waistline under 35 inches.
If you’ve tried and failed to lose weight before, ask your doctor to refer you to a nutritionist for counseling. A nutritionist can help you identify the foods and eating habits that may be keeping you from losing weight and design an eating plan that is both nutritious and satisfying. And if you’d like some emotional support in sustaining a new way of eating, your nutritionist should be able to help you find a group program.
7. Stop smoking
Smoking ranks at the top of the practices most likely to harm your health, increasing the risk of heart disease, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and lung cancer, as well as many other cancers. If you’re still a smoker, you know how hard it is to stop. If you need some encouragement, consider the following:
One year after quitting, you’ll have cut your excess risk of heart disease in half.
Five years after quitting, you will have eliminated your excess risk of stroke.
Ten years after quitting, you will have reduced your excess risk of lung cancer by half.
Fifteen years after quitting, you will have eliminated your excess risk of heart disease.
If you’ve failed before, don’t try to go it alone. A medically based cessation program can help you develop a realistic plan for quitting. Such programs can provide the appropriate drug treatments and psychological support and your insurance is likely to cover most of the costs. — Harvard Women’s Health Watch
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