Tips for a Healthy 2020

Want to take good care of yourself in the New Year? Part by part, here’s a body of knowledge you can use.
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At the start of each year we resolve to eat better, work out more and focus on our health, but a comprehensive overhaul of our habits can seem daunting. By February many of us have turned from making resolutions to making excuses. But what if we break our task into small, doable parts? Here’s a head-to-toe anatomy of small steps you can take to improve your health and well-being in 2020. Do what you can—and don’t beat yourself up!

BRAIN: Yes, what you put into your body influences your health, but your social circle also matters—for the gray matter. A University of Michigan study found that as few as 10 minutes per day of conversation with another person improved memory and cognition. So join a club, invite over a new neighbor or allot time in your schedule for a weekly get-together with pals—and stay sharp.

SKIN: Sometimes what you put into your body affects your skin more than the creams and oils you apply to your face. Load up on collagen-boosting foods such as salmon (with the skin on!), tomatoes, red peppers and berries, as they contain amino acids that increase collagen production to give you that youthful glow.

EYES: There is no evidence that blue light emitted from personal devices and computer screens is harmful to our eyes, but screens can significantly reduce our blink rate, leading to dry eyes, says David Benderson, M.D., medical director of ophthalmology and ophthalmic surgery at Valley Medical Group,. “Use artificial teardrops if your eyes feel dry, and make sure there are no air conditioning or heating vents close to your eyes,” he advises. “Consider using a humidifier if possible.” You should also give your eyes a break from screens by following what the American Optometric Association calls the 20-20-20 rule—take a 20-second break every 20 minutes to look at something 20 feet in the distance. “In addition to the 20-20-20 rule, keep in mind a proper working distance—don’t hold your iPhone right up to your face,” says optometrist John Lee of Valley Eye Associates in Westwood.

HAIR: Stop spending so much money on hair masks and treatments, and instead treat yourself to silk pillowcases. The smooth fabric improves hair while you sleep, as it creates less friction on tresses, naturally increases shine and helps prevent split ends. Talk about beauty rest!

EARS: We know that loud, pounding music isn’t great for our hearing. But it turns out that even household items such as microwave ovens and hair dryers can generate noise at levels that lead to permanent damage. That’s the verdict of David Owen’s new book, Volume Control: Hearing in a Deafening World, which draws on recent research on hearing and interviews with audiologists and ear, nose and throat docs. Though you can’t entirely stop using most of these items, try bringing earplugs along when you know you’ll be in a loud situation, such as watching a war film at the theater or checking out a live band.

TEETH: While the importance of fluoride toothpaste, vitamins and rinses to prevent dental decay is well-documented in dental literature, what’s less discussed is the connection between teeth and sleep. “There is a correlation between sleep apnea and teeth grinding,” says Warren Boardman, D.M.D., a dentist and sleep apnea specialist at Ridgewood Dentistry. Grinding the teeth at night may be a symptom of a sleep disorder, and may in turn impair sleep quality. If you believe you’re grinding your teeth at night (if you wake up with a tight, tired jaw, for example), consult your dentist. And if you also snore or wake up feeling unrefreshed despite adequate hours of sleep, ask your doctor if you should be evaluated for sleep apnea or another treatable sleep disorder. Says the National Sleep Foundation: “Luckily, managing sleep apnea may help nix nighttime teeth grinding.”

NECK: No thanks to 21st century technology, “smartphone slouching” and “text neck,” caused by constantly looking down at our devices, are legitimate ailments. An easy fix is to keep your phone, computer or tablet at eye level so that your head isn’t slouching down, or sit up straight so your ears and shoulders are aligned. There are also apps—one is appropriately called “Text Neck”—that give you real-time updates on your good or not-so-good posture, as well as reminders when you need to improve.

LUNGS: Probiotics and fiber are not just good for your gut. New research out of Vanderbilt University Medical Center found that people who regularly consumed high amounts of fiber and yogurt combined were 15 to 19 percent less likely to be diagnosed with lung cancer than those who didn’t.

“Fiber produces short-chain fatty acids, which act as anti-inflammatories throughout the body that help regulate the immune system,” says Srikant Kondapaneni, M.D., chief of pulmonology at Englewood Health. “It’s not totally clear yet why fiber combined with yogurt reduces the risk of lung cancer, but we think it’s because this combination results in less inflammation.” In fact, the doctor says, “those on a high-fiber diet are less likely to get asthma.” Women should aim for 25 grams of fiber per day and men for 38 grams, Dr. Kondapaneni suggests.

SHOULDERS: Even if you sometimes feel as if you have the weight of the world on your shoulders, you at least have the weight of your stuff on them. Carrying your belongings around in a purse or messenger bag can wreak havoc on your shoulders over time. To alleviate this discomfort, invest in a backpack, or at least alternate or balance your burden so that one shoulder doesn’t bear the whole weight.

“Fiber produces short-chain fatty acids, which act as anti-inflammatories throughout the body that help regulate the immune system. [Eating] fiber combined with yogurt reduces the risk of lung cancer, we think because this combination results in less inflammation.” —Srikant Kondapaneni, M.D., chief of pulmonology, Englewood Health

HEART: If you haven’t jumped on the avocado toast craze, here’s a reason you should. Researchers at Penn State University found that eating one avocado a day can lower your LDL (“bad cholesterol”) count. “Oxidation of your LDL leads to inflammation, which then deposits in the arteries and leads to heart disease,” says Justin Karl, M.D., an Englewood Health cardiologist. “And avocado functions as an antioxidant, which is beneficial.” But you need not pair your avocado with bread. “I don’t think whole-wheat toast is necessary,” Dr. Karl adds. “Avocado on salad would be just as good for you.” Other foods that benefit your heart and cholesterol? Blueberries and raspberries, nuts such as almonds and walnuts and proteins like salmon.

SPINE: Our spines suffer when we spend too much time in front of our computers and at our desks—lower back pain is one of the top three reasons patients consult a doctor. But such discomfort is preventable in many cases. “The best way to prevent lower back pain is to pay attention to body biomechanics, which is what your mother told you—sit up straight, put your shoulders back,” says Marc Arginteanu, M.D., chief of neurosurgery at Englewood Health. “But there are only three scientifically proven ways to reduce the incidence and severity of back pain: (1) keep off excess weight (especially a big belly that pulls you forward); (2) don’t smoke cigarettes because it decreases the oxygen that goes into the discs in your back; and (3) exercise regularly three to five times a week.” And if you’re stuck behind a desk all day? “Set the alarm for every two hours so you can walk around the office for five minutes,” he adds. “It’s not so much how you sit; it’s how often you get up and walk around.

GUT: Going to bed on time doesn’t guarantee good sleep, but maintaining a healthy gut will improve your nighttime zzz’s. “It is pretty clearly established that people with healthy guts have less depression and anxiety and fewer sleep problems,” says Rosario Ligresti, M.D., chief of gastroenterology and director of The Pancreas Center at Hackensack Meridian Health Hackensack University Medical Center. “Two important aspects of a healthy gut are reduced reflux and a good microbiome—the bacteria that live in our GI tracts—and there are many studies that implicate the gut microbiome in sleep and mental state.” To improve your body’s microbiome, the doctor advises, eat fermented foods such as kefir, miso, pickles and unpasteurized sauerkraut, and/ or take a daily probiotic supplement. “Look for two things on the label: at least 10 billion CFUs (colonyforming units) per serving and two strains, Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium,” Dr. Ligresti says.

KIDNEYS: There’s nothing wrong with taking a couple of ibuprofen to relieve a sudden backache, but ask your doctor for other remedies if you’re taking over-the-counter drugs to battle nagging, chronic pains. According to the National Kidney Foundation, overuse of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as aspirin and ibuprofen is one of the leading preventable causes of chronic kidney disease. “In patients with chronic kidney disease, certain medications, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs—ibuprofen, for instance—can be potentially harmful,” says Clenton Coleman, M.D., a nephrologist at Holy Name Medical Center in Teaneck. “We recommend alternatives, which may include Tylenol for mild pain or physical therapy, exercise or acupuncture.”

COLON: The American Cancer Society recommends that regular screening for colorectal cancer should begin at age 45, but the age of screening changes if you have a personal or family history of the condition or if you have inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). “People with a family history should be screened 10 years prior to the affected relative’s diagnosis or at 40 years old, whichever comes first,” says Anna Serur, M.D., chief of colon and rectal surgery at Englewood Health. “Those with genetic conditions should be screened in adolescence or late teens and patients with IBD should have a colonoscopy eight to 10 years after the disease has started.” Colorectal surgeons suggest getting checked every five years instead of waiting the recommended 10-year interval “because five years is how long it takes for cancer to develop,” Dr. Serur says. As for how to maintain a healthy colon the rest of the time? “Certain chemicals in fruits and vegetables may protect against colon cancer but the research is not conclusive,” says Mitchell Rubinoff, M.D., chief of gastroenterology at Valley Medical Group. “Still, we know that processed foods, red meats and fats seem to increase the risk of cancer.”

KNEES: They say great athletes perform best under pressure—so can you. Use an ice pack if your workout leaves you with achy knees, but slide the joint into a compression sleeve to effectively manage pain. According to the American Vein & Vascular Institute, whether you’re hurting because of exercise, overuse, arthritis or minor injury, compression sleeves provide immediate comfort by increasing blood flow while improving stability, preventing the loss of body heat and keeping the joint in proper position.

HIPS: Crossing your legs while you sit may feel comfortable, but it can bring plenty of discomfort down the road. A Journal of Physical Therapy Science study found that sitting with crossed legs causes the pelvis to rotate and tilt, an awkward position that over time can produce numbness, irritation and pain. It’s best to keep your hips aligned and sit with both feet firmly planted on the ground.

ELBOWS/WRISTS: Playing a racquet sport isn’t a prerequisite for developing tennis elbow—you can get it by simply using a screwdriver while completing a DIY project. The pain near the bony part of the elbow on the outside of the arm is usually the result of a muscle imbalance in the forearm. The easiest way to prevent it? The University of Michigan Medical School suggests stretching all the forearm muscles with wrist rolls and wrist flexes before your activity, whether you’re preparing to paint a house or getting ready to start an eight-hour day at the computer.

FEET: Sure, expensive running and basketball sneakers offer plenty of support, but there are other simple ways to strengthen your feet and even prevent them from hurting. “Heel pain is a common condition often caused by a lack of flexibility in the Achilles tendon and plantar fascia,” says Jacob Reinkraut, D.P.M., a podiatrist at Complete Foot and Ankle in Ridgewood. “Strong preventive measures are stretching, warming up before activities and tapering up to athletics. Sprinting in a softball game or the quick stop-and-go in tennis could be trouble if you don’t work up to it.”

LEG MUSCLES: Remember when toe touches and the heel-to-butt quad stretch were considered ample warm-ups before a jog around the neighborhood? While those and other static stretches are perfectly fine, dynamic movements will do your leg muscles more good. Healthline recommends putting your legs through a full range of motion before starting your activity: Try leg swings, lunges and hurdle trails to get the muscles of your lower half warmed up and ready to go.

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