Whatever your style when it comes to New Year’s resolutions, there’s one thing science can say for certain: Small changes can have a big impact.
Whether the topic was weight loss or brain science, the power of going slow is a theme that popped up repeatedly in our health reporting throughout 2018. University of Pennsylvania neuroscientist Amber Alhadeff put it well in a recent interview: “There are billions of neurons in the brain, and we can change behavior with only a few hundred neurons. In other words, it only takes a small change in neural activity to influence behavior.”
With that in mind, our journalists have been reviewing the year in health news to come up with tips that could help with a shift toward healthier behaviors. Each idea comes from a specific story you’ll find on philly.com. Use our checklist to zero in on a few that speak to you, and consider adding others as you go. If you’d like to share how this approach is working for you, please drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
It may be tempting for devoted resolvers to incorporate a lot of changes at once. For others, perfection may be a temptation best avoided. Wherever you fall on that spectrum, we hope our tips prove useful for a healthy 2019.
American Red Cross recommends everyone be able to tread water for a minute and swim 25 yards.
Teach kids (and yourself) to wear sunscreen year-round. Those damaging UVA and UVB rays don’t take the winter off. Apply sunscreen of at least 30 SPF about 15 to 30 minutes before you go outside and don’t forget a hat or other protective clothing.
A shot of cancer prevention. The HPV vaccine has a superb safety record. It prevents infections that cause malignancies of the cervix, head and neck, as well as rarer genital cancers. But many youngsters don’t get it, perhaps because parents think only sexually active people need worry about HPV. The vaccine is available for ages 9 to 45.
Make sleep a priority. How much sleep you need depends on age. School-age kids need about nine to 11 hours, teens about eight to 10 hours, and adults about seven to nine hours. Insist on making bedtime a cellphone-free zone at all ages — their light messes with your natural rhythms, and you may even end up sleep texting.
Set a good driving example. Don’t talk on the phone when you’re behind the wheel. Distracted driving leads to about one in four motor vehicle accidents in the United States. And it’s a good opportunity to listen to the kids you may be schlepping around.
Check your workplace or school for an automated external defibrillator. Each year, more than 350,000 people suffer a sudden cardiac arrest, and most of them die from it. If used promptly, AEDs could revive many of those victims.
Know the symptoms of the leading cause of infertility in women. Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) affects the reproductive and metabolic health of many women, yet it’s still widely misunderstood. Check out PCOS.org for information and support.
Goal: A fitter form
Exercise. Getting up and moving even if it is just a few times a week is a great way to keep healthy. It will help to strengthen your heart, keep weight in check, improve posture, and help with balance.
No gym membership or equipment required. Search around your home for objects that can be used as fitness tools. Simple staples such as laundry detergent bottles, hand towels, even paper plates work as effectively as the expensive exercise equipment found at your local gym.
Short on time? Even if you have only 10 minutes for fitness, you can burn calories and improve your cardiovascular health by performing a circuit that requires maximum exertion with very little rest between exercises.
Goal: Healthier eating
Can’t figure out why you can’t lose weight? It’s time to get real with yourself. Have you set reasonable goals, and do you have a solid plan to reach them? Are you holding yourself accountable? Are you asking for help (as in, “Honey, please don’t bring home my favorite ice cream!”). If the scale still won’t budge, see your doctor.
Avoid sugar and artificial sweeteners. They fuel urges for more, and they can hide in the most unlikely foods. Read labels carefully, looking for words that end in “ose” (dextrose, fructose) or “ol” (sorbitol, xylitol, mannitol) and know that maple syrup and honey are delicious, but not really any better for sugar-watchers.
Low fat or low carb? Actually, it’s a little more complicated than that. Some fats are good in moderation (avocados, olive oil), and so are some carbs (high-fiber fruits and veggies). Try the Mediterranean Diet for a plan that is consistently linked with good health.
Be wary of trendy diets. The ketogenic diet can lead to weight loss — but there is not enough research to conclude whether the keto diet causes a weight loss due to its high-fat, low-carb profile or a reduction in calories. But research does suggest that after rapid weight loss, keto dieters can expect rapid regain.
Don’t fret fast-food meals. On a busy day, fast food may be your only option, so enjoy a meal now and then. Don’t supersize the fries, skip the sugary drinks, and opt for a side salad instead of fries with your (single) burger, and you can have a fairly healthy meal.
Goal: Better mental health
Spend time in green spaces. Taking a walk in a park or similar green space can lower depression rates and reduce symptoms of stress.
Try art therapy. If you’re dealing with depression, anxiety, or stress, creative arts can help by forcing you to be mindful, find purpose, and connect with others. The next time you’re overwhelmed, try painting, playing music, or journaling.