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: Digital eye strainis real—personal devices and computer screens emit a blue light that isn’t great for our eyes. Allow your eyes to take a break and blink more frequently in 2020 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.

EARS: We know that loud, pounding music isn’t great for our hearing. But it turns out that even household items like microwaves and hair dryers can generate noise at levels that lead to permanent damage, according to David Owen’s new book, Volume Control: Hearing in a Deafening World. Though you can’t just stop using most of these items entirely, 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.

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!

TEETH: While the importance of fluoride toothpaste, vitamins and rinses to prevent dental decay is well documented in medical literature, saliva also plays a major protective role against dental decay, says R. Craig Miller, D.M.D., a dentist at The Miller Center in Livingston and a member of Barnabas Health Medical Group. “In many cases, people breathe through their mouths because the airway through their noses are blocked,” Dr. Miller says. “If people are breathing through their mouths and not their noses, their saliva dries up and the mouth becomes extremely susceptible to decay.” Try to keep yours and your children’s nasal passages clear and avoid dry mouth so you can breathe more easily through your nose.

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 were 15 to 19 percent less likely to be diagnosed with lung cancer than those who consumed little to no fiber and yogurt, possibly because these ingredients keep inflammation at bay. “Lung cancer kills more people than breast, colon and prostate combined,” says medical oncologist Andrew Brown, M.D., co-director of Saint Barnabas Medical Center’s Lung Cancer Screening program. Women should aim to consume 25 grams of fiber per day and men 38 grams, according to the Mayo Clinic.

SHOULDERS: Do you sometimes feel as if you have the weight of the world on your shoulders? Well, 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. When carrying heavy bags “it is best to distribute the weight over both shoulders and avoid holding it over just one,” says John Feldman, M.D., an orthopedist at Saint Barnabas Medical Center and a member of Barnabas Health Medical Group. “It also important to lift and carry objects close to the body as opposed to with outstretched arms in order to avoid putting excess stress on the rotator cuff.”

HEART: If you haven’t yet jumped on the avocado toast craze, here’s a reason you should join. Researchers at Penn State University found that eating one avocado a day could lower your LDL (“bad cholesterol”) count. When LDL builds up in the blood, it can narrow passageways, cause clots and lead to heart attacks or stroke. And it’s no coincidence that avocados are a major component of the Mediterranean diet. “The Mediterranean diet is one of the few diets that has evidence to suggest that it may be most consistent with improved cardiovascular outcomes,” says Gary Rogal, M.D., chief of cardiology at Saint Barnabas Medical Center and medical director at RWJBarnabas Health Cardiac Services. “And combined with reasonable calorie limits and routine physical activity, these lifestyle choices may be just as important in preventing cardiovascular disease as any single medical intervention.” As for that toast part, opt for 100 percent whole-grain bread. The soluble fiber of this healthy carb has been shown to lower LDL too.

"The Mediterranean diet is one of the few diets that has evidence to suggest that it may be most consistent with improved cardiovascular outcomes. And combined with reasonable calorie limits and routine physical activity, these lifestyle choices may be just as important in preventing cardiovascular disease as any single medical intervention.” —Gary Rogal, M.D., chief of cardiology, Saint Barnabas Medical Center

SPINE: Our spines are suffering as a result of spending too much time in front of our computers and at our desks. “Research shows that back pain is predominantly movement- and position-related,” says Tim Mahoney, P.T., DPT (Doctor of Physical Therapy) and supervisor, Saint Barnabas Medical Center Rehabilitation at Millburn. “The appropriate treatment is movement, position, exercise and activity.” Try to get a standing desk at work to help you move around more during the day, but even if you can’t, frequent positional changes and posture checks during your day can help to reduce sustained load on your spine.

GUT: Going to bed on time doesn't guarantee good sleep, but maintaining a healthy gut will improve your nighttime zzz’s. “The gut and the brain are constantly talking to each other via the gut-brain axis,” says Robert Schuman, M.D., a gastroenterologist at Saint Barnabas Medical Center and a member of Barnabas Health Medical Group. “Healthy guts are filled with multiple diverse and unique types of bacteria and that micro biome changes with a variety of factors including eating processed foods, being stressed out or not sleeping enough.” Eating foods high in probiotics—“such as yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kombucha and pickles,” Schuman says—will “improve your gut function and help you sleep better at night, and may even promote a healthy heart and healthier skin.” Bonus: They’re tasty too! 

KIDNEYS: There’s nothing wrong with taking a couple of ibuprofen to relieve a sudden backache, but ask your doctor for other remedies—heating pads, for instance—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. 

COLON: The American Cancer Society (ACS) recommends that regular screening for colorectal cancer should begin at age 45, but preventive measures can start at any age and continue through senior years. “The three most important things you need to know about colorectal cancer are screening, screening and screening,” says Delia Radovich, M.D., a medical oncologist at Saint Barnabas Medical Center. Filling up on colorful fruits and veggies helps too; they’re pretty to look at and are beneficial to your colon (they’ll help maintain regular bowel movements). Just keep your reds, as in red meat, to a minimum. The ACS notes the risk of colon cancer increases by 20 percent if you eat 100 grams of red meat a day— that’s equivalent to a small hamburger.

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. Whether you’re hurting because of exercise, overuse, arthritis or minor injury, compression sleeves provide immediate comfort by increasing blood flow, says the American Vein & Vascular Institute, 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 to 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 8-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 tootsies. “Moisturize to keep your skin healthy; stretch by raising, pointing and curling your toes for five seconds; rotate your ankle and repeat 10 times; and rest with your feet raised if you’ve been on them all day to reduce any swelling,” advises Suzanne Verbesky, DPM, a podiatrist at Saint Barnabas Medical Center and a member of Barnabas Health Medical Group. “And last but not least, wear comfortable shoes with good arch support whenever possible.”

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