It’s that time of the season when we tend to take stock of the year that’s passed and determine what we want to change in the year ahead. But why go year-to-year? If you’d prefer to have not just a better year — but better decades — I suggest taking a good look in the mirror and making a New Year’s resolution to adopt a healthy lifestyle. Here are 7 Deadly Habits and what to do about them in the year — and decades — to come:
1. Quit smoking. And quit e-cigs, too.
Smoking is the No 1. cause of preventable death in the U.S., and while electronic cigarettes are touted as a safe alternative, they contain nicotine and nearly 29 other known carcinogens that are released when they are ignited. It’s no wonder the surgeon general has declared them to be a significant public health risk. Traditional cigarettes are associated with lung cancer, heart disease and lung disease, among numerous other ailments, but your lung tissue can heal and your lungs can slowly return to normal function if you quit smoking. Quitting can reduce your risk of heart disease, too — even if you have smoked for decades. The best way to quit is to set a quit date and stick to it. Ask for support from friends and family, and avoid situations that you associate with smoking. There are many drug and behavioral therapies available to help you quit, so ask your doctor for help, too.
2. Quit mindless eating and fast food.
Obesity and obesity-related illnesses cost our health care system nearly $150 billion last year. Obesity leads to high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, heart disease and stroke. Nearly 1 in 3 Americans, including children, are obese — and if we do not make a change soon, it is estimated that half of us will be considered obese by 2030. Solving the epidemic is dependent upon many factors, the biggest of which is diet. Eating wholesome, nutrient-rich foods is the single most important thing we can do to help control our weight, but it is imperative to take note of not only what we eat, but how and when we eat. Mindless eating — such as routine snacking on chips while watching TV — quickly leads to obesity and sets a poor example for our children. Convenience foods, such as fast foods and frozen dinners, are calorie-dense and loaded with sodium and preservatives. Rather than consume thousands of needless calories and tons of extra fat, prepare healthy meals on the weekends that can become quick family dinners after a long and busy day of work or school.
3. Turn off that screen.
Rather than have real conversations during family outings, many of us are individually engaged in online activities. Electronic devices consume an enormous amount of our free time, and screen obsession has resulted in a generation of young Americans who have lost the art of conversation. While mobile devices and tablets can be wonderful teaching tools, it is important that young children engage in real world activities with adults and children of similar age. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting young children’s screen time to less than two hours a day. As for older kids, excessive online activity has been linked to cyberbullying and social isolation, leading many teens to develop depression and other mental health disorders. Time spent on devices indoors also reduces physical activity, which contributes to the obesity epidemic. Exposure to screens late in the evening can lead to sleep disturbances and can disrupt your circadian rhythms, leading to daytime fatigue and diminished productivity.
4. Go to sleep.
Our cells repair themselves and new neuronal connections develop in our brain, improving cognition and productivity, when we’re asleep. According to multiple studies, the average adult needs approximately 7.5 hours of sleep per night to optimize performance. (Children need more and the elderly tend to need a little less.) Some studies have shown that adequate sleep can prolong life: In 2010, research showed that women who got less than 5.5 hours of sleep had shorter life spans than those who got 6.5 hours or more. Getting adequate sleep has also been found to improve memory. Sleep deprivation can lead to decreased performance at school and at work, and daytime drowsiness can result in accidents and injuries. Good sleep comes from good sleep “hygiene”: Don’t eat within two hours of bedtime; limit alcohol; limit screen time; use the bedroom only for sleep and intimacy; and follow a routine. Set a bedtime — for kids and adults — and stick to it. Wind down before going to sleep, and be consistent.
5. Burn the candle at one end, not two.
Forty-three percent of Americans suffer negative health consequences due to stress, which can lead to headaches, upset stomach, elevated blood pressure, chest pain and sleep problems. Our bodies release hormones, including cortisol, adrenaline and epinephrine, in stressful situations that can increase our heart rate, strain our cardiovascular system, raise our blood pressure, limit performance and impair our ability to think clearly. While the “fight or flight” response is essential in life-threatening situations, it is not necessarily good to experience it daily. If we can learn better coping mechanisms and reduce stress, we will likely be far more effective in our daily lives.
6. Get off the couch.
Thousands of people die every year due to physical inactivity, which tends to increase with age. The World Health Organization estimates that 2 million deaths worldwide are directly related to sedentary lifestyles. A sedentary lifestyle greatly increases the chances of becoming obese and can worsen anxiety and depression. The nearly universal access to television and digital media has served to promote our sedentary lifestyles. The Centers for Disease Control recommends that we exercise at least 150 minutes per week to avoid unnecessary weight gain and promote heart health, and that we make exercise part of an overall healthy lifestyle.
7. Eat your breakfast.
It may sound trivial, but eating breakfast can have lasting, positive effects on your health. When we eat a healthy, well-balanced breakfast sometime in the two hours after we wake up, our bodies begin to burn calories right away, changing how we metabolize sugars and helping maintain healthy insulin levels. Skipping breakfast can lead to frequent snacking during the day and overeating at dinner, because the prolonged fast since dinner the night before releases large amounts of “hunger hormones” that can cause unhealthy food cravings. Many snacks are calorie-dense and nutrient-poor and can lead to numerous health problems, including type 2 diabetes and obesity. Studies have shown that eating breakfast makes you more likely to be physically active early in the day, which reduces the risk of becoming obese. Children and adults who eat breakfast are generally more productive, have more energy and are mentally sharper than those who skip a meal in the morning.
Unhealthy habits can sabotage your goals — both personal and professional — for 2017 and for the rest of your life. Take time to reflect and review your health status this week, and resolve to make smart decisions going forward. Let’s leave these Seven Deadly Habits behind!
Dr. Kevin Campbell is an assistant Professor of Medicine, Division of Cardiology, University of North Carolina and President, K-Roc Consulting LLC.