This time of year, my patients often tell me they want to make their health a priority. Often, they don’t know how to get started making these changes. Together, we talk about their goals and the impact they can have on their overall health.
Of course, the hope is to not only improve their health for the short-term but also to increase their longevity (how long they live) and their health span (years living without significant disease) and quality of life.
What often surprises my patients is how incorporating healthy habits can also have a positive impact on their wallet. Think about it: if you can eliminate, or decrease, preventable visits to the doctor, you can save money on co-pays, prescriptions or over the counter medications. At the same time, you won’t have miss work or arrange childcare for appointments or call out of sick. Remember, the majority of common diseases can be prevented by healthy daily habits.
Living and maintaining a healthy lifestyle is a journey. When setting goals to improve healthy habits, I recommend advice from James Clear, author of “Atomic Habits.” He writes that individuals should think about who they want to be and develop a daily plan to get there. He recommends taking little steps each day to help reach the bigger goal.
Here are some great ways to take care of yourself and avoid preventable trips to the doctor:
• Schedule a well exam or physical with your primary care physician (PCP)
• Eat a healthy diet and maintain a healthy weight
Maintaining regular appointments with your PCP allows your physician to regularly evaluate your medical history and your family medical history to identify and test for potential risks, and treat if necessary.
During these appointments, your physician can also work with you to develop a health plan going forward. The plan should be driven by you with advice and guidance from your PCP. At this appointment your primary care physician can also recommend any necessary health screenings and vaccinations.
Exercise is an area many people want to improve but often have difficulty because of time constraints with work and family obligations. While it is ideal to achieve 30 minutes of aerobic activity most days, it’s easy to sneak in exercise with a little creativity.
If your schedule is full of kids’ activities and sporting events, consider adding your workout while your kids are practicing. When my children were younger, I would go to their practices and would run around the track at their practice fields. I was still able to be present and watch them practice while fitting in exercise on hectic days.
Exercise can be fun! Find a friend who has similar workout interests and goals. Instead of meeting for dinner, schedule a weekly workout session.
I also recommend incorporating strength training to your routine to build and maintain muscle mass. As we age, we naturally begin to lose muscle mass. Loss of muscle mass can lead to imbalance and falls, which can cause devastating injuries, particularly for elderly persons.
Beginning an exercise program can feel overwhelming. If you are looking for a place to begin, I usually recommend walking, because it’s free and most already have a good pair of supportive sneakers.
People who exercise also tend to sleep better. If you are looking to improve your sleep, try incorporating some of these well-known practices: go to bed at the same time each night, in a dark room, with the temperature set at 68 degrees or less. Limit screens two hours before going to bed. Other things that may help are a white noise machine and taking a warm shower before bed.
If you can’t fall asleep within 15 minutes or wake up and can’t get back to sleep within 15 minutes, get out of bed. Reading or listening to an audiobook is a good activity until you are ready to try to fall asleep again.
When a patient asks for my advice on diet or incorporating healthier foods, I always recommend the Mediterranean Diet. This lifestyle diet has been proven to support better health with its focus on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, seeds, nuts, legumes, healthy animal/fish protein and healthy fats. This diet also limits alcohol and processed foods.
As you work to incorporate any of these healthy habits into your lifestyle, you should speak with your physician so that, together, you can set small goals to help you work toward the larger overall goal you hope to reach. When you accomplish the small goal, take time to reflect on what worked and what didn’t so you can adjust moving forward. Reward yourself when you reach a milestone to encourage yourself to stay on this healthy journey.
Dr. Brian Kane is chief, Division of Family Practice, at Tower Health.