We’ve all had those well-intentioned moments when we resolve to make sweeping lifestyle changes: Quit smoking. Lose 20 pounds. Join a gym and start exercising every day.
While we should always strive to accomplish these types of health goals, the road to better health doesn't always have to mean making huge leaps.
According to Joel Augustin, MD, a family medicine physician at Rush, there are also many smaller steps you can take that will help improve your overall health and quality of life — and because they're things you can easily incorporate into your routine, they'll be easy to maintain for the long haul.
Experts recommend regular exercise, meditation and breathing techniques to reduce stress, but even something as simple as listening to soothing music, reading a good book, soaking in a hot tub or playing with your pet can help you relax.
"Spending just 30 minutes a day doing something you enjoy can go a long way toward beating the stressors of everyday life," says Augustin.
That's advice you should take to heart because prolonged stress can cause or exacerbate a number of health problems, including heart disease, stroke, hypertension, depression, ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome, migraines and obesity.
Swap white bread, rice and pasta for healthier whole grain versions. Use skinless chicken in your recipes instead of skin-on, and leaner cuts of other meats such as beef or pork. For instance, choose 97 percent lean ground beef instead of 80 percent lean. And try occasionally serving vegetables as side dishes instead of starches.
There are plenty of great recipes in cookbooks and online for tasty yet healthful veggie dishes. If you get hungry between meals, snack on a handful of almonds or cashews, a piece of fruit or carrot sticks rather than reaching for candybars or potato chips.
These simple substitutions, Augustin says, will trim fat and calories while boosting your fiber intake, which can help you maintain or lose weight. He also recommends trying to replace at least one sugary drink (soda, juice, etc.) with water every day.
Researchers at Rush have found that mentally challenging activities, such as reading, doing crossword puzzles or Sodoku and playing chess, may have a protective effect on your brain.
According to research studies, regularly engaging your mind may help lower your risk for the dementia associated with Alzheimer's disease.
Studies have shown that the powerful antioxidants found in red wine protect against heart disease, colon cancer, anxiety and depression. So unless there is a medical reason why you shouldn't imbibe, go ahead and enjoy that glass of merlot with your nightly meal — you can even toast to your good health.
However, cautions Augustin, don't drink excessively, because just as a small amount of red wine has health benefits, too much alcohol — even red wine — can cause a variety of health problems, including liver and kidney disease and cancer. Women, in particular, need to be careful about alcohol consumption.
"Women are at higher overall risk of liver problems than men, so they are more likely to experience liver problems from smaller amounts of alcohol," cautions Augustin. "They simply shouldn't drink as much as men." For a healthy man, two drinks a day is not likely to do harm; women, on the other hand, should limit themselves to one daily drink.
If you work at a computer, look at the ergonomics of your workstation — how you fit and move in your environment — to help prevent back and neck strain, carpal tunnel syndrome, eye strain and other occupational injuries.
"A few simple adjustments, such as repositioning your computer monitor, switching to a chair that provides more low back support and taking regular breaks throughout the day to do stretching exercises, can go a long way toward creating a healthier and more comfortable workspace," Augustin says.
For more information about ergonomics, visit the Division of Occupational Health and Safety's website.
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