Make This Your Year!

Common health pitfalls can be avoided. Here, tips for maximum success.
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With the new year fast approaching, it’s time again for New Year’s resolutions. If you’re like me, you see this time as an opportunity for a fresh start. I thoroughly enjoy making these annual vows, especially those that involve bettering myself physically. What I don’t like is breaking them, which I inevitably do after a couple of weeks when the novelty wears off. But there is good news: According to a study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, people who explicitly make resolutions are 10 times more likely to attain their goals than people who don’t.

“New Year’s is a good time to reflect on the past year and identify realistic goals for the coming year,” says Francine Rosenberg, a clinical psychologist in private practice with Morris Psychological Group. Unfortunately, there are some common pitfalls that derail the best of intentions and stand in the way of achieving our health and wellness goals. We’ve asked experts for their advice on how these health hazards can be avoided.

Pitfall #1: There’s no time for exercise.

Start small. “I ask people, ‘Do you make time to brush your teeth?’” says Jodi Godfrey, a registered dietitian. “And when I ask that question, it’s a way of saying there are certain things we need to do in a given day. We have to start thinking about physical activity as one of those things that isn’t a choice but a necessity.” If you can’t commit to an entire hour at the gym, Godfrey suggests fitting in short walks in the morning, during your lunch break or after dinner. Other opportunities for exercise include taking the stairs instead of the elevator, walking to get the mail instead of grabbing it when you drive by the mailbox, and parking at the far end of the lot instead of right next to your destination.

Use free time wisely. You actually have more time than you think. How many hours do you spend chatting on the phone, surfing the Internet and watching television? That time could be spent working out, but if you’re not willing to give up your favorite TV show, do exercises such as push-ups and jumping jacks during commercials. Alternatively, save 15 to 20 minutes by recording the show and watching it later, minus the commercials; then use that extra time to get in a quick workout, says James Hill, Ph.D., co-founder of the National Weight Control Registry, the largest study of long-term successful weight loss maintenance. Don’t worry if your schedule won’t allow for a nonstop 40-minute workout. According to a study funded by the National Institutes of Health, four 10-minute exercise sessions in a day produce the same health benefits as a continuous 40-minute workout.

Pitfall #2: I always forget to floss my teeth.

Make it a habit. To help reduce bacteria that cause bad breath, gingivitis, more serious periodontal (gum) disease and tooth loss, you need to brush and floss your teeth. “Brushing is very effective at cleaning plaque along the chewing surface and the gum line, but it is relatively ineffective at cleaning in between teeth,” says Paul Feldman, D.M.D. “Flossing, on the other hand, cleans in between teeth, where you’re most likely to get dental disease.” Also, recent evidence links periodontal disease to a higher risk of heart attack, stroke, diabetes and arthritis.

If you find yourself consistently forgetting to floss those pearly whites—according to a 2008 survey, only 49 percent of Americans floss daily and 10 percent never floss—put floss in plain view, next to your toothbrush. Also, try flossing before you brush; you’ll be more likely to floss since you won’t want to go to bed without brushing. Another trick: Keep floss or a floss pick in various strategic places, such as in your purse or on your nightstand, so that when you see it, it’ll serve as a reminder. The American Dental Association recommends flossing at least once a day, so make flossing—in addition to brushing and visiting the dentist for cleanings—part of your routine.

Pitfall #3: I have a serious sweet tooth.

A key to avoid gobbling down an entire chocolate bar or a bag of chips is to keep healthy snacks handy. “Sometimes you don’t have a meal prepared and easily accessible when you walk in the door already famished; it’s always good to have a healthy snack that buys you time until the meal is on the table,” says Godfrey. Instead of junk food, she suggests reaching for carrots and dip, a Clementine or celery and hummus as a healthy alternative that will tide you over until the meal is ready.

Make your own. Godfrey encourages people to do their own cooking and baking: “You can best control what you’re eating that way,” she says. You can still fulfill your sweet craving, but “when you bake cakes and cookies with whole grain flour, you’re getting the fiber you need without making it a complete calorie void.”

Also, don’t forget to plan ahead. “For most people, it’s ideal to try to cook for the upcoming week on the weekend, when you have more time; then freeze portions so that you have something ready to heat up during the week,” explains Godfrey. Eating on a regular basis—every 3 to 4 hours—also makes it easier to resist temptation because you won’t be starving when you do eat. And if you know ahead of time you are going to be eating out, cut back for a few days before the event in order to “save up” calories that can then be “spent” on your night out.

Pitfall #4: There’s no way to avoid stress.

Just because you can’t avoid stress doesn’t mean you should ignore it. Experts estimate 60 to 90 percent of all doctor’s visits are stress-related, and chronic stress can lead to severe health problems, including high blood pressure, an increased risk of stroke and heart attack, depression, a weak immune system and infertility. “It’s quite important for people to develop healthy ways of relieving stress,” says Rosenberg. “Without an outlet, stress will contribute to or exacerbate current physical problems such as headaches and gastrointestinal issues.” Luckily, stress reduction has been proven to help mitigate symptoms of health problems brought on by stress.

So make it a point to de-stress. “One of the best ways to manage stress is through exercise,” says Rosenberg. Other techniques include relaxation, meditation, playing or listening to music, reading a book and socializing with friends. Even the simple act of stopping to take several deep breaths when you start to feel anxious can help relieve stress.

Pitfall #5: I have trouble getting a good night’s sleep.

It’s easy to put sleep on the back burner when you’re trying to cram everything into the day. And let’s face it, it’s not easy to ignore the constant barrage of distractions such as the Internet and television. But sleep is crucial to your health. “Lack of sleep can cause fatigue, trouble concentrating, mood swings and depression, as well as have an impact on memory and learning and the ability to keep proper perspective on emotional events,” says Gloria Paknis, a psychotherapist and licensed clinical social worker. “Sleep deprivation can also contribute to a number of lifestyle diseases such as obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and heart problems.” In fact, being well-rested impacts everything from mood and job performance to alertness and health.

The first step to ensuring you get all your zzz’s is to create the right ambiance. Make your room inviting with soft lighting, a cool temperature (around 65 degrees Fahrenheit) and a comfortable bed. Don’t forget to minimize all sources of light—this includes clocks and computers—and sound before settling down. Uncontrollable noises such as barking dogs and sirens can be masked with a fan, soothing music or earplugs.

Also, follow a routine. If you’re not used to going to bed at the same time every day, it can be difficult to make yourself follow a strict bedtime. But your body will thank you when you do. Pick a bedtime when you usually feel tired, and stick to it—even on the weekends. It’s OK to change that time, but do so gradually, moving it 15 minutes every day or two.

As important as it is to go to bed at the same time every day, it’s equally important to wake up at the same time each morning. This allows your circadian rhythm, your body’s natural sleep-and-wake cycle, to remain consistent, which helps you get a good night’s sleep.


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