Instead of making those same old health-related New Year’s resolutions such as losing weight or quitting smoking — promises that most of us fail to follow through on — I decided to ask some experts to think outside the box for 2012 and recommend smaller changes that can also have a big impact on your well-being. Here are their top suggestions for a healthier, happier year:
Work on your focus, says Susan Lehmann, a psychiatrist at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “In our hectic lives with ready access to texting, e-mail and social networking sites, it’s easy to feel that ‘multi-tasking’ enables us to accomplish more,” she said. “But in fact, our brains are not as good at juggling various duties at the same time as we may think, and interruptions in attention can negatively affect memory and degrade our efficiency.” Research shows this is especially true after age 60, though people of all ages are vulnerable if they regularly use electronic media. Thus, Lehmann suggests trying to limit distractions and instead concentrate “on whatever task is at hand, whether it’s remembering where you just parked the car or what you just read.”
Eat more fiber, says Georgetown University Hospital gastroenterologist Robynne Chutkan. “Though many of us are aware that we need more fiber in our diets, most Americans only consume about 12 to 15 grams of the stuff each day,” she said. “But recent studies have shown that increasing fiber intake to 25 to 30 grams per day is linked to a lower risk of death from all causes, especially cardiovascular, respiratory and infectious ailments.”
In addition, she said, “Boosting the amount of fiber in your diet will lead to more-regular bowel movements, which is the ultimate detox, since waste matter in stool is not supposed to sit in your colon for prolonged periods of time.” Other benefits include improving or even preventing colon cancer, diverticulosis and irritable bowel syndrome along with other GI conditions. So eat more fruits, vegetables, beans and unprocessed whole grains.
Give sleep a chance, says Helene Emsellem, medical director of the Center for Sleep and Wake Disorders in Chevy Chase. People in this area, she says, are so busy and stressed out that it’s often hard to find time to sleep long enough to function optimally — ideally, at least seven hours a night.
“Getting the proper amount of rest has many positive health advantages, including a reduced risk of heart disease, increased concentration and memory, and enhanced creativity,” according to Emsellem, who adds that the latest research shows that sleep also plays a critical role in weight control, with many studies linking insufficient zzz’s to being overweight or obese. So this year, she said, “Try setting and keeping to a regular seven-to-eight-hour sleep schedule; don’t deviate by more than an hour and a half or so on the weekends. In addition, if someone in your life says that you’re snoring or not breathing right at night, don’t be insulted — believe them and follow up with your doctor or a sleep specialist!”
Improve important relationships, says clinical psychologist Robin Haight, who practices in Vienna. “Meaningful rapport with friends and family is an important source of resiliency, providing a buffer against stress,” she said. “It’s no surprise that good relationships can have a positive impact on many aspects of health, from a reduced risk of stroke, mental illness and even the common cold to enhanced mood and well-being.” So this year work on interactions, whether it’s with your mom, spouse, colleague or best bud: Do you avoid sensitive topics? Is there too much criticism or judgment? Are you being competitive rather than collaborative? Assess how a relationship works for both parties. Does it feel balanced? If not, talk about when you need support and ask for what you want. “Using humor, empathy and optimism will go a long way towards getting any relationship out of a rut,” Haight said.
Eat dark chocolate daily, says family medicine and chronic pain specialist Gary Kaplan, of the Kaplan Center for Integrative Medicine in McLean. “Treat yourself to up to two squares of ‘the good stuff’ — meaning dark chocolate with at least 50 to 70 percent cocoa — each and every day,” he says. This small indulgence will not only taste delicious and satisfy even the sweetest of sweet tooths, but, Kaplan said, research also suggests that the antioxidants in dark chocolate can help decrease blood pressure (in some studies the effect is equivalent to exercising for 30 minutes a day); lower insulin resistance and the risk of Type 2 diabetes; and help protect the lining of the blood vessels, reducing the possibility of stroke and heart attack. Consuming this candy may also help prevent certain types of cancer. But Kaplan added, “Just remember to avoid milk chocolate, high-calorie add-ons like marshmallows and caramel fillings, and to not get carried away with portion sizes. You don’t need much dark chocolate to do a lot of good!”