When it comes to fine-tuning ourselves in preparation for the year ahead, most of us make plans to become healthier. In fact, one recent ComRes poll found that exercising more and losing weight accounted for 38 percent and 33 percent of people’s New Year’s resolutions, respectively, and eating healthier trucked just behind, accounting for 32 percent. But while these are certainly noble aspirations, most doctors say these lofty, generalized goals aren’t just difficult to achieve, but they’re also easy to give up on. For this reason, they recommend narrowing your focus on some more attainable resolutions that are equally impactful. We asked some of the top experts in medicine to share what they’d like their patients to change to become healthier and happier.
Experts agree that there are literally no more excuses. “You know how bad it is for your health, and we have options covered by insurance to help you stop,” explains Kristine Arthur, MD, internist at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California. Needing help to quit is totally okay and, in fact, very common. If you think you need help to stop, Dr. Arthur suggests reaching out to your doc who can prescribe you the patch or pills that can taper your cravings. “Set a stop date, throw away all cigarettes and lighters and stick to the plan.” She also adds to be wary of cigarette alternatives that may not be healthy for you, particularly if you have any underlying lung disease like asthma.
Cut back on drinking
“Many Americans are drinking too much alcohol—particularly women, who are not able to drink as much as men,” says Dr. Arthur. “This may not seem fair, but it is true.” And knocking back a few too many drinks can lead to liver failure, cancer and infertility, not to mention its potential negative impact on work and relationships. “The maximum about per day should be two drinks for men and one drink for women,” Dr. Arthur explains. “Keep in mind that one standard drink is a 12 ounce beer, 5 ounces of wine or a 1.5 ounce shot of hard liquor.” Not sure how much you’re really drinking? Try keeping track for a full month and reassessing.
Meet with your doctor at least once a year
This might sound like a given—after all, you’re supposed to have a check-up with your primary care physician at least once a year—but statistics show that fewer Americans are visiting their doctor. “Knowing your health history and staying up to date on preventative care is vital,” says Dr. Arthur. “No news is not always good news and you cannot assume that just because you didn’t hear back about a test in the past, that it was normal.” If you moved or changed doctors, she suggests calling for your old records and bringing them to your next appointment. Additionally, check if any vaccinations are overdue (like tetanus) or if you need a PAP smear (usually every couple of years if they have been normal).
Take a break from social media
Though the extent of our social media use is relatively new, more and more studies are showing the negative side effects of using social media daily. “It not only prevents us from interacting with actual humans on a day to day basis but can cause anxiety and depression,” says Dr. Arthur. “If this seems like an impossible task, start with a small goal like putting your phone and computer aside for 30 minutes daily.” This isn’t only good for your mind, but it can give you more time to participate in activities that are also relaxing and destressing, such as going outside for a walk or enjoying dinner with your family free from technological interruptions.
Start reading food labels
It’s easy to read the claims in large print on the front of the food products you buy, but often times they’re not telling you the whole truth. Just because something is “reduced fat” doesn’t mean it’s good for you or that it doesn’t contain harmful ingredients you shouldn’t be consuming in large amounts. Dr. Arthur recommends trying your best to avoid processed foods—aka the ingredients on the labels you cannot pronounce—and instead opting for fresh fruits, veggies, lean meats, fish, and whole grains.
Plan your future fertility
Experts agree that the discussion of fertility and family planning should take a front seat in your early 30s. “We know that fertility declines significantly in your mid-30s and declines even more closer to 40,” explains Sherry Ross, MD, OB/GYN and author of She-ology. “If you are single and you’re not even thinking about future fertility, it may be time to have a conversation about egg freezing.” Your OB/GYN can provide you with the information you need to know about your own fertility, as well as information about the options available to you should you plan to have children. “You may have to be the one to start this conversation with your healthcare provider in order to make plans for a possible future family,” Dr. Ross adds.
Enforce the “safe sex” rule
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are far from a thing of the past, no matter your age. In fact, recent cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis are higher than ever before, according to data released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Chlamydia led the charge with approximately 1.6 million diagnoses in 2016. “For women, untreated STIs can have shattering long-term results,” says Dr. Ross. “It can lead to infertility, stillbirth, and leave women more vulnerable to HIV infection.” Another major epidemic when it comes to sexually transmitted infections is HPV, which affects over 79 million men and women. For these reasons and more, prevention is more important than ever. “Male and female condoms are the only dual protection methods available to help reduce your risk of these common sexually transmitted infections,” says Dr. Ross. “Women now have a viable option to the male condom with the new FC2 Female Condom, which gives them the control to protect themselves against STIs.”
Eat a more plant-based diet
Combining a well-balanced plant-based diet, limiting red-meat and high-fat dairy intake, and consuming ‘good’ fats (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats) promotes healthy aging and reduces your risk of cardiovascular disease and breast cancer, says Dr. Ross. She recommends focusing on consuming more plant-based foods that contain a ton of nutrients, healthy fats, and fresh and unprocessed foods. “The Mediterranean diet is a perfect model to follow in avoiding the two most common causes of death in women, which are heart disease and breast cancer, and promote healthy living,” she says. “By controlling your diet, you will reduce your risk of obesity which affects 27 percent of people in the US. Being overweight or obese increases your risk of these diseases.”
Get plenty of sleep
As with eating and drinking, sleeping is a basic necessity in life. Getting a good night sleep, says Dr. Ross, is critical to good health, mentally and physically. “Sleep deprivation can affect your ability to be efficient at work, school, and home, and it compromises your ability to focus, think clearly, and react to everyday activities.” Not only is your risk of car accidents significantly higher when you’re running on little sleep, but there are long-term health consequences as well. “Sleep deprivation and chronic sleep deprivation is associated with heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, stroke, obesity, and depression,” says Dr. Ross. The recommended hours an adult should sleep is seven to eight per night.
Care for your mental health
When it comes to caring for our health, we often turn to the physical changes, such as diet and exercise, leaving our mental health neglected. But experts agree that mental health is paramount to our well-being. “Your mental health informs the quality of coping patterns and skills, relationships, stress management, energy level, problem solving skills, emotional regulation and resiliency to confront, manage and solve challenges,” says Mayra Mendez, PhD, LMFT, a licensed psychotherapist and program coordinator for intellectual and developmental disabilities and mental health services at Providence Saint John's Child and Family Development Center in Santa Monica, California. “Considering mental health-informed resolutions includes giving time and attention to self-care, openness to learning and exploring options that allow for increased problem-solving opportunities, engaging in tasks and activities that reinforce meaningfulness to life and support confidence in self and enhance relationships.”
Set priorities to manage stress
One fundamental way to ensure you’re healthy mentally, as well as physically, is to monitor your stress levels. Dr. Mendez suggests considering a resolution that supports setting limits and boundaries. “Take time to consider obligations, daily living tasks, personal desires, family responsibilities and work responsibilities and establish a list of priorities regarding how to go about meeting life expectations in a way that promotes balance and efficiency,” she says. “Perpetual experiences of high stress, trauma, and emotionally charged interactions compromises mental well-being, but stress management will significantly support interpersonal coping and reserve emotional energy necessary for managing unavoidable life challenges.” This, she adds, is obtained by identifying your limits and giving yourself permission to hold to the boundary for the benefit of maintaining and promoting mental stability.
Take time for self-care
We live in a more fast-paced world than ever before, which leaves little to no time for standard self-care practices, like meditation, taking a bath, or simply relaxing and pondering life. This lack of introspection often leaves people feeling unfulfilled and unsatisfied, explains Dr. Mendez. “Ensuring time to do desirable tasks and activities by selecting specific days and times on a realistic schedule may prompt a sense of gratification,” she says. “Even a few minutes of an engaging and pleasurable activity can lift negative mood states, clear the mind for more accurate and effective problem solving and support energy needed to face challenges that inevitably occur.” Some ways you can practice self-care on the regular include volunteering in an area that is meaningful for you, for example tutoring young children, helping the elderly or serving food at a soup kitchen.
This one’s a biggie and something all of the experts we interviewed agree the world needs more of is self-love. “I have so many patients who do not value themselves enough, don’t see themselves as vital and important, and lack the self-confidence to move forward on any sort of resolution,” says Kristin Oliver, MD, sports medicine and regenerative orthopedic specialist at Bluetail Medical Group in Chesterfield, Missouri. “Loving yourself does not mean being selfish—it means recognizing how a better you will reflect in all you do–at home, work, and in bed!”