29 doable changes to help you be healthier and happier
AN APPLE A DAY - Tyrone M. Reyes M.D. (The Philippine Star) - July 27, 2015 - 10:00am

Making major changes in lifestyle habits isn’t easy.  But we know that there are people who have successfully made remarkable changes in their lives — even if they achieved these changes one small step at a time.  Today’s special article, written on the occasion of the 29th anniversary of The Philippine STAR, highlights 29 small changes you can make in the different aspects of your life that can enhance your health and happiness.  In essence, here are the important doable changes you should make:  stick to exercise, eat healthier, lose weight, ease stress, control spending, harness the power of positive psychology, and nip unhealthy habits in the bud.  Experts say efforts to change are more successful if they are smart — that is, specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-based. Here are the 29 smart changes we recommend:

Exercise

1. Wear a pedometer. In an analysis of 26 studies published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, pedometer users added more than 2,000 steps per day to their baseline over an average of 18 weeks. More important, they lowered their blood pressure and body mass index.  Having a step goal helps.  Many experts recommend aiming for 10,000 steps a day.

 2. Add core exercises. Strong core muscles support your back.  Working these muscles can help you avoid backaches and possible injuries, plus it tones your tummy nicely. Ask your gym instructor or physical therapist about it or enrol in a Pilates class.

 3. Double up.  Stepping up from 150 minutes to 300 minutes of moderate activity a week nets you additional health benefits.  Your risks of dying prematurely or developing chronic ailments like heart disease, diabetes, and hypertension drop further.  What’s more, the extra exercise aids in weight maintenance and chips away at excess abdominal fat that contributes to chronic health problems.

 4. Keep it up a notch.  Being moderate — at least in terms of the intensity of an activity — wins you most of the health gains offered by exercise. But switching to vigorous activities offers enhanced benefits such as greater protection against breast and colon cancers; high levels of “good” cholesterol or HDL; a marked drop in insulin levels; and for men, a better sex life, since it lessens the likelihood of erectile dysfunction.

5. Take up strength training.  Two weekly sessions that work all the major muscle groups (legs, hips, chest, back, stomach, shoulders, and arms) are ideal.  Progressively challenging muscles with increasingly heavy resistance supplied by machines, weights, stretching tubes or bands, or your body weight, strengthens them.  These workouts strengthen bones, too, because the muscles tug on tendons attached to the bones.

Diet

6. Go nuts (and seeds). Almonds, cashews, hazelnuts, peanuts, pecans, pistachios, walnuts and our own pili nuts pack plenty of beneficial nutrients, including vitamin E, folic acid, potassium, and fiber.  The fat is mainly unsaturated — a healthy choice.  And nuts are low-glycemic foods.

7.  Spice it up.  You don’t have to rely on the salt shaker to flavor foods. The tantalizing flavors of herbs and spices can either replace salt or allow you to use less. There are multiple health benefits to making the shift. Many herbs and spices contain health-promoting antioxidants.  And the reduction of salt brings its own benefits.

 8. Make sure your salad is healthy. While salad bars can offer a great way to pack your plate with healthy vegetables, they also present plenty of opportunities to indulge in unhealthy choices.  Creamy salad dressings, cheese, and mayonnaise-based salads are just some of the downfalls that await.  To quote Dr. Joel Fuhrman, author of the bestseller Eat to Live, “Pasta is not a salad.”

9. Sneak in more vegetables and fruits. Vegetables and fruits contain hundreds of healthful components called phytonutrients.  Studies show that diets rich in fruits and vegetables help lower blood pressure and may reduce risks for esophageal, stomach, and lung cancers.  Fiber found in plants slightly lowers LDL cholesterol and is linked to lower rates of heart disease.

Weight loss

10.  Skip the sipped calories.  The US Center for Science in the Public Interest calls soda, sugar-packed juice drinks, and other sugar-sweetened beverages “liquid candy.”  It raises the risk for type 2 diabetes.

 11. Watch out for those TV snacks.  Studies show that eating in front of the TV stimulates you to eat more calories overall — and worse, more calories from fat!

 12. Fidget more.  A lot more!  Get up and move around frequently.  One study showed that obese people sat an average two-and-a-half hours more per day than their lay counterparts.  The lean people stood or walked more than two hours longer each day.

 13. Eat mindfully. Mindful eating asks you to sidestep distractions and tune into body signals.  It also slows you down, a true boon since speed at the table may encourage you to eat more food.

Stress

14. Take a deep breath. Breathing shallowly, which people often do when tense, restricts the diaphragm, a strong sheet of respiratory muscle below the lungs. Breathing deeply allows for better oxygenation.  Not surprisingly, deep breathing slows the heartbeat and can lower or stabilize blood pressure.

 15. Take a mindful walk.  Rooted in Buddhist practices, mindfulness teaches us to live each moment as it unfolds and accept it without judgment.  By doing so, you slow the breakneck pace of modern life and participate more fully in life.

16. Try daily meditation. Meditation can evoke a relaxation response, a physiological sea change that slows the heartbeat and breathing by focusing you on a word, phrase, prayer, or repetitive physical activity.  The relaxation response lowers high blood pressure and eases many stress-related ailments.

 17.  Simplify your days.  If you feel like you’re being tugged in too many directions, it’s probably true.  Ease your stress by seeking ways to simplify.  Identify tasks and social commitments you could drop without missing them.  And practice saying “no” when asked to tackle tasks that make you feel overextended or activities you simply don’t want to do.

Control spending

 18.  Rein in impulse purchases.  Slow down or entirely skip non-emergency purchases.  Impulse buys may be fun but usually, they’re an unnecessary drain on your wallet.  And, truth to tell, you probably won’t enjoy the lift for long if it generates anxiety about finances.

 19. Track your budget.  It’s hard to control spending if you don’t know where the money goes.  Once you get a handle on it, it will be easier to trim unnecessary expenses.

Positive psychology

20. Harness positive psychology.  Positive psychology involves positive emotions, full engagement in activities, personal virtues and strengths, and paths to fulfillment and a meaningful life.

21. Smile. Why? Smiling is contagious, and inner feelings may mirror the outer face.  A smile — at least a genuine one — telegraphs inner happiness to everyone around you.

22. Give thanks. Gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness.  All of us have much to be thankful for — a sunny day, a loving spouse, a full belly, a joyful moment shared with a friend, or even light traffic on the way to work.

23.  Seek out happy people.  A study in the British Medical Journal reported that people surrounded by, and at the center of, many happy people are more likely to become happy in the future.  Happy people appear to beget new clusters of happiness. Upbeat moods radiate as far as friends of friends of friends.  And each additional friend counted as happy increased a person’s likelihood of being happy by about nine percent.

24. Volunteer. Helping other people kindles happiness, as many studies have demonstrated.  When researchers at the London School of Economics examined the relationship between volunteering and measures of happiness in a large group of adults, they found that the more people volunteered, the happier they were, according to a study published in Social Science and Medicine

25.  Tally your strengths. Signature strengths can be defined as character traits you identify with, appreciate, and enjoy using.  A study published in American Psychologist noted that happiness increased and depression decreased for six months in participants who were asked to identify their signature strengths and then use one in a new way every day for a week.

Unhealthy habits

26. Nip an unhealthy habit in the bud.  Take stock.  What’s your bad habit?  How often are you indulging? How much time and money do you spend on it each week?  What cues set you off?  Why are you doing it?  To relax?  To escape?  To stay alert?  To relieve boredom?  Anxiety? Anger? Loneliness?  Log the habit for one or two weeks.  Then write down why you should make a change.

27. Practice saying no. Peer pressure doesn’t end after high school.  Many people who drink or smoke like to have others join in.  Activity seeking out people who share healthier interests will help: Volunteer in your community or church, join a sports club or gym, take an adult education course, and so on.

28. Derail your routine. Powerful cues help keep us on autopilot.  If you’re a smoker, for example, the cue might be as direct as the lingering smell of cigarettes in your car, or as indirect as the route you take home, which swings by a bar where your friend’s car is often parked.  When you stop to chat, you end up with a drink in hand, and whenever you drink, you feel like having a cigarette.  Breaking longstanding routines linked to your habit helps get you out of this loop.

 29. Try going without. Try bypassing your habit entirely one day a week.  Too easy?  Try two days (or more).  Write down on the calendar the day or days that you’ll go without TV, alcohol, social media, online poker, or another questionable habit.  Plan ahead for obstacles:  When you feel like indulging, what will you do to stave it off? Keeping your hands and mind busy is often a boon:  Work out in the gym, play Scrabble, invite a friend along to see a movie or show, and other healthful activities.

The day-to-day choices you make influence whether you maintain vitality as you age or develop life-shortening illnesses and disabling conditions like heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and stroke. Hopefully, this special article may help you understand exactly what you need to do to enjoy a healthier, happier life.

* * *

Sources:  American Council on Exercise (www.acefitness.org); Benson-Henrey Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital (www.massgeneral.org/bhi); Institute of Lifestyle Medicine (www.instituteoflifestylemedicine.org); The Nutrition Source – Knowledge for Healthy Eating (www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource); Shape Up America (www.shapeup.org); and VIA Institute on Character (www.viacharacter.org)

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