Your Body: A Head to Toe Guide
More than the sum of your parts? Of course you are. But a part-by-part check can’t hurt.
Your body is an intricate assemblage of parts designed to work seamlessly together. And while it’s critically important to take care of the whole, it’s equally essential to make sure all those parts are in peak shape. We’ve combed through the research—and asked the experts— for info to help you maintain your body, part by part, so you can function like a well-oiled machine, throughout the coming new year and many years to follow.
SKIN: Cuts and scrapes are inevitable, but often scarring isn’t. Our instinct is to allow them to scab over, but airing out these wounds results in more scarring than covering them. “The best way to minimize scars from cuts and scrapes is to keep the wound clean, close edges if possible (sutures, biological glue, etc) and keep it covered with any number of wound dressings,” says Michael Morano, M.D., medical director of the Burn Center at Cooperman Barnabas Medical Center. “Warm and moist is generally better than dry for scrapes.”
HEAD: To avoid tension headaches, you don’t have to retire to an ashram. But do make sure that you’re getting sufficient vitamin D. Researchers at the University of Eastern Finland discovered that chronic headache sufferers had levels of vitamin D below the threshold for deficiency. Your primary care doctor can measure your D levels through a simple blood test. If yours is low, he or she may suggest you take a supplement.
BRAIN: If you’re looking for a way to amp up your ability to commit facts to memory, look no further than your kitchen coffeemaker (or your neighborhood barista). Neuroscientists have long known that caffeine, in moderate amounts, can improve brain function overall, but a new study out of Johns Hopkins University found that participants who were given 200-milligram tablets of caffeine (roughly equivalent to two cups of brewed coffee) after looking at a series of images were significantly better at remembering those images than their noncaffeinated counterparts. Just make sure that your daily intake doesn’t exceed 400 milligrams, the amount deemed safe by the Food and Drug Administration.
TEETH: Teeth need healthy gums to stay healthy themselves, and an analysis of eight recent studies published in the journal Clinical Oral Investigations showed that omega-3 fatty acids can help keep gums in the pink. You’ll find omega-3s in supplement form, as well as in fish such as mackerel, wild-caught salmon, herring, bluefin and albacore tuna, lake trout, whitefish, bluefish, halibut and sea bass.
HAIR: These days, everyone is talking about the gut microbiome—the microscopic flora and fauna that live in the intestines and, in balance, promote good health and overall immunity. Turns out that our scalp is home to a microbiome of its own, and, according to a study in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition, coconut oil can supply the vitamins and amino acids necessary to keep that microbiome happy—which, in turn, can help banish scalp itch, dry scalp and dandruff and promote healthier hair in the process.
EYES: To protect against macular degeneration, the leading cause of age-related blindness, go for the goji. Researchers at the University of California–Davis found that eating a handful of goji berries five times a week increased the eye pigments that ward off the disorder. The same wasn’t true for goji supplements, so toss an ounce or so of gojis in your cereal, smoothie or yogurt parfait to perfect those pigments.
EARS: If you’re like most Americans, you’ve never had a baseline hearing test. But the folks at the American Academy of Audiology say it’s the best way to monitor the health of your hearing, now and over time. You needn’t see an audiologist unless you suspect you’ve suffered significant hearing loss; just ask your family doctor to perform the test at your next checkup.
SHOULDERS: To avoid those all-too-common shoulder injuries that can happen as a result of a workout, Peter DeLuca, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon at Cooperman Barnabas Medical Center, says you need to make sure your workout routine includes strengthening exercises of the rotator cuff to protect the shoulder, not just exercises that will strengthen the visible muscles such as the biceps and triceps. Additionally, “lifting weights creates microscopic tears of the muscle,” he says, “so the body needs time to heal those tears.” He recommends resting your shoulders for 1-2 days in between sweat sessions. It’s also important to eat a balanced diet and stay hydrated to decrease your chances of a workout-related injury, says the doc.
NECK: Sitting is a pain in the neck—literally. Jessica Springstead, athletic training manager at the Matthew J. Morahan III Health Assessment Center for Athletes at Cooperman Barnabas Medical Center’s Ambulatory Care Center, advises those of us with sedentary jobs to take frequent breaks during the workday to stand up and walk around, ideally once per hour. And, she notes, while seated, “perform shoulder rolls going forward and backward each 10 times each way.” Sleeping can be just as hard on your neck as sitting. Springstead says to buy a pillow specific to what type of sleeper you are—side, stomach or back—because this will help keep your head, neck and back in alignment.
WRISTS: When you think of strength training, you likely don’t envision your wrists. But a 2022 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research showed that building up the muscles of the wrist protected against the development of common disorders such as wrist tendinitis and carpal tunnel syndrome. Yes, you can pump iron—two small dumbbells—to develop your wrist muscles. Ask your doctor or orthopedist for recommended exercises using light weights and involving extension, flexion, supination and pronation.
HEART: Want to boost heart health? Get to bed on time. For years, the American Heart Association maintained a list of seven lifestyle factors associated with heart health: nicotine exposure, diet, physical activity, weight, blood glucose, cholesterol and blood pressure. In 2022 the AHA added an eighth factor: sleep. To support a healthy heart, they recommend that adults get between seven to nine hours a night (and even more for kids, depending on age).
GUT: Boosting the good bugs in your gut and banishing the bad ones does more than promote gastrointestinal health; it also revs up immunity; protects against inflammation, cancer, and diabetes; helps with weight loss; delays the onset of Crohn’s disease; and extends life. Two recent studies in the journal Gut found that one of the best ways to boost the health of your intestinal microbiome is to follow a Mediterranean diet, high in fresh fruits and vegetables, fish, legumes, whole grains and nuts.
SPINE: A surprising study out of Berlin’s Humboldt University found that elite athletes suffer from lower back pain as often as the rest of us, most likely because they, too, have weak lower back muscles. To strengthen these muscles and gain greater control of the spine, the study’s lead author, Maria Moreno Catala, recommends incorporating Pilates into your fitness routine. In another study, Catala found that adding some instability to your workout, like trying to balance on a workout ball, actually relieved lower back pain. (As with any exercise regimen, consult your doctor before trying this.)
LEG MUSCLES: If you experience spasms or cramps after a workout, you may be dehydrated, pushing yourself too hard or doing something incorrectly, warns Springstead, the athletic trainer. “You can’t ‘cram’ in enough water, nutrients and electrolytes, so you need to make it a habit, along with your workouts, to maintain proper nutritional and hydration levels,” she notes. It’s also imperative to engage in a dynamic warm-up prior to any activity, she says, and to follow the workout up with “a static stretch cool down to help decrease soreness and help improve the muscle maintain its range of motion.” Be sure to check in with your medical team if you have any additional concerns.
LIVER: From 2012 to 2019, the number of annual hepatitis C cases in the U.S. more than doubled, from to 24,700 to 57,500. Because untreated hep C, a viral inflammation of the liver, can lead to liver disease and even liver cancer, and because in its early stages it’s asymptomatic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently recommended that every American be tested at least once for the disease and that women be tested during each pregnancy.
KIDNEYS: Want to avoid kidney stones? Stay hydrated. Rahuldev Bhalla, M.D., a urologist at CBMC, notes that dehydration is the single greatest contributing factor to the development of the painful condition. The National Kidney Foundation recommends consuming at least eight cups of liquid a day, in any form, including water, tea, soup, juice, etc. And if you’ve been sweating a lot—in warm weather, during exercise or hot yoga, in a sauna—you should drink even more. A bonus: Staying hydrated helps protect against urinary tract infections as well. In addition, don’t take too much supplemental vitamin C. “When we take extra Vitamin C greater than 1g/day in the form of supplements,” the doc notes, “it increases the risk of kidney stones by 50 percent.”
COLON: Want to do your colon a favor? Forget cleanses (research shows that they do little good and could even be harmful) and eat yogurt instead to keep your colon clean— of the polyps that can be precursors to cancer. A recent analysis of data from the famous Nurses Study revealed that regular consumption of yogurt—one or more servings per week—was associated with a decreased risk of colon cancer. (And if you want another reason to snack on the fermented milk product, it’s been shown to help protect against colds as well.)
BUTT: At the height of the pandemic, as The New York Times reported, doctors received a record number of complaints of buttock pain. It turns out that the pain in the butt, for most, was brought on by long hours spent sitting on soft surfaces (think “pandemic couch potato”). If it feels like your derriere is in need of repair, consider switching to a more supportive seat.
FEET: Whether, like 12 million Americans, you suffer from toenail fungus or, like pretty much everyone else, you’d like to avoid it, taking good care of your feet is a must. Don’t wear shoes that press on your nails, and do wear socks that wick away moisture. (Manmade fibers are actually better at this than 100-percent cotton.) If you use a common shower (at the gym, say), always wear flipflops or shower shoes. And use separate nail clippers for infected and uninfected nails.
KNEES: Walking has often been touted as the perfect exercise, and if your knees could talk, they’d almost certainly agree. A British study published in the journal Arthritis Care and Research indicated that walking 6,000 steps a day could stave off the development of osteoarthritis in the knee—a cause of knee pain and disability in 27 million Americans and 250 million people worldwide. In addition, recent research out of Northwestern University’s Northwestern Medicine suggested that just one hour a week of rapid walking—the kind you do when you’re late for an important appointment—can decrease the chance of disability in people already suffering from knee osteoarthritis. If you don’t have a solid hour free for brisk walking, don’t worry—researchers say you can break those 60 minutes into six 10-minute intervals per week.