In 2017, ditch the drama: Get healthier with common sense and moderation

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Dear Reader,

As surely as the calendar page turns over to a new year, many people start to flip out about their health. They fret about how they and their loved ones ate and drank too much during the hectic holidays. They regret how much they partied, or vegetated on the couch. This will all change, they swear! In a snap, once another year launches. And as soon as they make huge health resolutions, the guilt begins to hang over them.

Here’s a prescription for this chronic, wellness lapse-itis. Toss the grand expectations. Instead, pledge that you and yours will embark on a common-sense approach to better health. Yes, you can see many doctors, gulp down myriad pills, spend tons of money, and hope for sweeping changes. But why not try moderation? Don’t diet like contestants on a reality TV show. Don’t throw yourselves into exercise as if you hope to join the Redskins or Wizards. You may need willpower if you’re smoking (give it up) or imbibing to excess. But an evidence-based  health improvement plan can be simpler. And that will make it easier to make it work for you.

Resolved: In the new year, eat more healthful foods in reasonable amounts. Better manage your weight, especially if you are too heavy. Make a concerted effort to get up and move. Cut down on (or out) the booze and smoking. See the world in a sunnier light, avoid crazy stress, enjoy friends and family more, and get more sleep.

You can accomplish these goals if you enlist powerful allies to help you, including your loved ones and your bank account. With big changes in the finances of American health care looming on the horizon, you may need to safeguard your health more than ever in 2017. Let’s get started.

Don’t go diet crazy. Eat healthfully.

Staying healthy not only feels good, but can save a lot of money in this time when politicians are looking at big changes in health insurance that could spell a larger hit to the American pocketbook.  Alas, eight out of ten of  us will fail in our health resolutions, which typically start with ambitious dieting and exercise. Peek at a retailer like Amazon, and the number of diet books is head-spinning. But there’s hope.

Struggles with major weight loss

As the New York Times reminded readers, major weight loss can require arduous, unrelenting effort. The paper followed-up with heftycontestants on the popular “Biggest Loser” reality television show, finding that even with the intensive expertise they got from diet and exercise gurus, program participants struggled not only to drop pounds but to keep them off.

The paper helpfully detailed some published, peer-reviewed research with key points pertinent for new year’s resolutions, including:

The paper also examined diet and nutrition research that suggests overweight and obesity are complex, highly individualized conditions that require varied, targeted “treatment,” just as experts no longer talk about cancer generally but rather about its attack on specific organs or body systems. Why else do individuals on the same diets and exercise regimens lose or gain weight with such great variation?

Eating healthfully

Still, there’s broad, deep expert consensus that specific, basic, sensible approaches to diet result in better outcomes for most of us. I’ve written about these. They readily can be made part of your daily consciousness and routines, and include:

Eat more healthful foods, those with less processing and lower amounts of fats, sugar, and salt.  Be sure your meals include plentiful amounts of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and nuts. Put more fish on the menu, particularly the sustainable kinds. Cut down carbohydrates and proteins, especially red meat and highly processed meats like hot dogs and sausages.

Cook and eat at home, where you control ingredients and portion sizes. You also can better develop and enjoy the taste of food, as well as lower costs and serve up more affordable fun times, in the company of friends and loved ones. Grab a cool cookbook or two—I’ve recommended J. Kenji López-Alt’s geek-pleasing The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science—to give you novel food ideas so you avoid falling into a culinary rut.

A healthier menu for the kids

For the kids’ sake and your own—and especially for the household budget—reduce the eating out, especially fast food restaurants. Recent research has shown that items on kids’ menus at the nation’s top 200 restaurant chains exceed calorie counts recommended by nutrition experts. I’ve written how evidence is mounting about the health banes tied to sugar, especially its excessive consumption by kids through candies, sweets, and sugary beverages, whether these are sodas, “fruit flavored” beverages, or so-called sports and athletic drinks. Soda or sugar taxes imposed by increasing numbers of governments across the country can help cut down youngsters’ consumption of unhealthful drinks. Water is an outstanding thirst quencher.

If you didn’t believe the earlier passage on how much more we appreciate fresh and fresh-made food, consider recent research that finds better school lunch programs feature these, including salad bars and healthy snacks in vending machines. (By the way, we all need to keep an eye out for partisan proposals to reintroduce less healthy standards and foods in school lunch programs.) Save yourself as much as $1,000 annually by thinking ahead and packing tastier and more healthful lunch for yourself and your kids. To get your teens to eat better, it may help to re-frame dietary discussions so they aren’t about health and nutrition but instead make eating well a means to assert their autonomy, resist authority, and battle for social justice. Young people, at least in one study, adopted healthier eating habits when teachers fed their rebellious streak and let them “fight the man” rather than “just” improving their health or nutrition.

Better outcomes

As mentioned, your diet and eating demand attention because of their huge effect on weight and nutrition, and, thus, your health and well-being. Studies have tied excess weight, of course, to multiple, leading killers of Americans, including heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. Although consumers in this country spend north of $60 billion annually on diets and other ways to lose weight, 70 percent of Americans remain overweight or obese. Clearly, fad measures aren’t working for most of us, even as experts continue to debate just how svelte we collectively need to be. You’re unlikely to drop huge pounds and slide into clothes several sizes smaller without significant interventions. Savvy, more healthful eating, combined with other steps (see below), can help reduce or control weight. Your loved ones and your doctor also can be helpful on this issue, and you should consult your physician before undertaking any major weight loss efforts.

But know this: every bit helps, and, in goal-setting and resolution-keeping, it pays to start small and build on success. Recent research suggests that even for those with predisposition to heart disease, simple steps like healthful eating, weight management, exercise, and more can produce measurable gains. These may add up so you stay healthier, feel better, and enjoy yourself and your life more. Now move ahead to another key element to a common-sense approach to a better 2017…

Get up and move to boost well-being

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Some of you will start this new year by joining fancy health clubs, or running through the neighborhood wearing new high-tech health-related gadgets that were holiday gifts. That, in general, is great. But will you stick with your resolution to exercise more?

Probably not, if the studies hold true.

That’s a problem, and it may stem in part from the considerable change that so many people demand of themselves when they plan to get fitter. Ambitious exercise goals also fail to deal with a serious challenge to many of us: Even if we do bouts of strenuous aerobic exercise, that may be insufficient to erase the harms of our long sedentary spans, when we sit nearly motionless for hours at an office desk or crash on a too-comfy sofa at home glued to a screen of some kind.

The harms of just sitting around

Yes, it’s important to play tennis, basketball, squash, and touch football, to jog, skate, dance, or  take whatever hot new aerobic exercise class may crop up. I’ve written about this. But it also is  important during the day to get up regularly and move. Take frequent breaks. Stand up and walk around. Pace while thinking. Take the stairs instead of an elevator or escalator. Park a little farther away or get off the bus or train a stop sooner. Don’t only email or phone; walk over to a colleague in the office for a face-to-face chat.

Work in some weight training, stretching, aerobic exercise, and movement throughout your day and week, because studies increasingly show this approach has real benefits: It might save you $2,500 annually in medical costs related to heart disease, and it will better your odds against the stunning statistic that those who are out of shape have a 42 percent higher risk of premature death. Exercise also can be very good for the brain, memory, and mental health. (I’ve written about this topic for seniors, and you can see more by clicking here.)

Beware of over-exertion

If the choice comes down to being an over-exerting weekend warrior or couch potato, pick the former. But warm up, know your limits, and try to stay out of urgent care or the hospital emergency department due to your athletic exertions. Such sports-related mishaps happen to millions of Americans annually. The point of your 2017 better health plan is to make you feel better and save you medical costs. It’s counterproductive to break a sweat for 45 minutes on a Saturday in an athletic contest with the gang, only to spend the next several weeks hobbling around with a bum arm or leg and regretting that pricey ER visit. Because moderation matters, consider the value of regular, long, brisk walks—particularly with the enforcement of a friend or buddy (your best friend Fido?), and with due attention to avoiding cold-weather problems, especially dangers from falls on wet or icy paths.

As I’ve written, be judicious in relying on technology to boost your exercise and fitness. “Wearable” tech and new software and apps can help monitor and record your efforts. They haven’t reached the point where they’re great for testing body functions, analyzing such results, suggesting regimens, or processing diagnostics. Be wary if makers over-promise what relatively low-cost devices can do. Be careful, too, with that new holiday gift and any registrations or sign-ups you do with their makers. You don’t want to compromise the privacy of your personal health information—and, though it may seem innocuous enough to share step counts or heart rates during various levels of exercise, that data is becoming increasingly valuable and telling. There’s already a health care firm that works with physicians and hospitals to collect and analyze analogous and seemingly basic data on seniors (how often they’ve been hospitalized, how often they report shortness of breath or bouts of pain), saying it can be useful in predicting which patients will die in a year and might benefit from palliative care.

Here’s hoping none of us get into such dire shape this year. Instead, may we all make a dash, with common sense and moderation, to a healthy, happy, peaceful, and prosperous 2017!

IN THIS ISSUE

Don’t go diet crazy. Eat healthfully

Get up and move to boost well-being

These vices aren’t nice for your 2017 health

Give a boost to your well-being in these ways


BY THE NUMBERS


42%

Higher risk of premature death in people who are out of shape.


$2,500

What each of us could save on average in a year  on medical costs related to heart disease if we walked for 30 minutes most days.


64%

Higher risk of early death for those who consistently smoked an average of less than one cigarette daily over their lifetime.


$411 billion

Cost to the U.S. economy of workers’ lack of sleep, with those getting six hours per night of slumber or less found to experience a 13 percent higher mortality risk.


130%

Increase from 1999 to  2015 in white women’s alcohol-related death rate.

These vices aren’t nice for your 2017 health

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Life’s too short to get scolded and nagged, so let’s keep the “don’t” list for better health in 2017 nice and brief.

Give a boost to your well-being in these ways

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Let’s be positive: The list of ways to improve your health and well-being can and should run long. Here are a few thoughts about what might work for you.

  • Enlist friends, family, and a rewards system to help you make changes. Improving your eating, motivating yourself to move more and to exercise, quitting smoking,  sleeping better—these are habits that can be hard to change. But author Charles Duhigg says a growing body of research suggests better ways to do so. He focuses on cues, rewards, and routines. To bolster your New Year’s resolutions, share them with friends and loved ones, asking them to help you accomplish them (peer pressure). You may want to break your goals into segments, promising yourself praise or rewards when each gets done. Incorporate small motivators into your exercise plans, say, reading a favorite magazine while on the stationary bike or donating a sum to charity for every gym visit missed.
  • Get more sleep. Lack of sleep has important health and economic consequence, research indicates. A third of us may not get enough for our health’s sake, one study reports, finding that “An individual [who] sleeps on average less than six hours per night has a 10 percent higher mortality risk than someone sleeping between seven and nine hours. An individual sleeping six to seven hours per day still has a four percent higher mortality risk.” That study also finds that America sustains a $411 billion annual economic loss due to workers’ insufficient sleep. I’ve written about this issue, and you can click here for a helpful collection of information about sleeping better.
  • Stay engaged with friends and family. Studies find that humans are social animals, and your health can suffer if you become isolated. You’ll note that throughout this missive, I’ve emphasized not only ways that you can improve your health but also the benefits of doing so with friends and loved ones: It’s not only eating more healthfully, it’s doing so with them. It’s not just taking brisk walks, it’s doing so with a companion. It’s not just jogging or swimming for miles, it’s doing it with others, including competitors. I’ve written how key it can be to share quality time with people, and, you can read a lot here and here about the major negative effects of social isolation.
  • Vaccinations matter. It’s disappointing how evil can live long: We’re almost two decades away from the publication of afalse so-called study on inoculations. But the anti-vax sentiment remains virulent still. I won’t dwell on all the shots and their virtues and shortcomings. See your physician to learn the science and to determine whether you and yours need vaccinations against a range of harms. Even as medical science advances with ways to combat deadly and debilitating scourges like Ebola and Zika, including by developing shots against them, it’s maddening to see new outbreaks of vaccine-preventable illnesses with serious harms —like measles, mumps, pertussis, and meningitis. Vaccines carry risks, and some shots aren’t as effective as some advocates hype them. But the risk that we lose “herd immunity” because of unfounded fears that fly in the face of proven science, well, that’s unacceptable.
  • Finally: Be more optimistic (and realistic), and let that help you control damaging stress. No one asks for Pollyannas to proliferate. But in 2017, it might help your health and well-being to at least try to be a little more optimistic, because pessimism may not be optimal for heart health. Being sunnier also could help you cope better with stress, a major part of contemporary living that isn’t always bad. Being dour and over-stressed won’t help your health, and it may be that you can ease the potential harms by eating more healthfully, exercising, sleeping, and socializing more.

HERE’S TO A HEALTHY 2017!

Sincerely,

Patrick Malone
Patrick Malone & Associates