It's been quite a year. It's hard to know where a guy can get even a little good news these days. But at least we're past the stressful election chatter.
Now it's time to get ready for the holidays. The New Year is sure to be full of challenges, too. But 2011 is the perfect time for a fresh start. Many of us will resolve to improve relationships, balance the family budget, or clean out the garage. But none of these will mean much without good health.
To make 2011 your year of good health, I have 10 resolutions that can help:
- Avoid tobacco. If you're a smoker, quitting is your first priority. The American Cancer Society, American Lung Association, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Massachusetts Dept. of Health have great resources to help you. Check with your workplace to see if it offers a smoking cessation program. Counseling and support groups can help. You can use nicotine-replacement therapy or prescription medications, such as bupropion (Wellbutrin, Zyban) and varenicline (Chantix). Even if you don't smoke, you should resolve to help a buddy or relative who needs to kick the habit. And remember to protect yourself and your family by steering clear of secondhand smoke.
- Eat right. Cut down on saturated fat and cholesterol by limiting red meat, whole-fat dairy products, and eggs. Avoid trans fats in stick margarine, fried foods and many snack and "junk" foods. Use olive and canola oils. Eat lots of fish. Load up on whole-grain products instead of refined grains and simple sugars. Eat lots of fruits and vegetables. Cut down on sodium (salt). And if you need to shed excess pounds, reduce your portion size, avoid calorie-dense foods, and cut your overall caloric intake.
- Exercise regularly. Perhaps you'll find a health club membership in your Christmas stocking. That's great — if you use it. But you don't have to hit the gym or train for a marathon to benefit from exercise. Build physical activity into your daily schedule. Take the stairs, do household chores, play active games with your kids. When spring comes, work in the garden. But until then, be very, very cautious about shoveling snow. Above all, walk whenever and wherever you can. Aim for at least 30 minutes of exercise a day, either all at once or in smaller chunks.
- Control your weight. Measure your height and weight, and then use this online calculator to figure out your body mass index (BMI). You should have a BMI of 25 or less. Or just measure your waist. Don't dismiss a bulging midsection as a good old "beer belly." Abdominal fat is a major health hazard for men. Risk mounts with waist sizes above 37 1/2 inches, and measurements of 40 inches and above are truly dangerous. Eat fewer calories and burn up more in exercise. See resolutions 2 and 3.
- Reduce stress. Figure out what makes you tense and then try to change the things you can control. Talk over your problems and worries. Get enough sleep. Do things that are fun, especially with people you like. Avoid TV broadcasts and tabloids that pummel you with lurid details about misery and mayhem. Exercise to burn off stress. Avoid caffeine if it makes you jittery. Don't try to medicate yourself with alcohol or drugs. Learn to appreciate and enjoy life's many little pleasures. Try relaxation techniques such as meditation and deep breathing. Talk to your doctor if you need more help.
- Control alcohol. If you choose to drink, limit yourself to an average of one to two drinks a day (women should average half as much). Five ounces of wine, 1½ ounces of liquor or 12 ounces of beer count as one drink. Never drink before you drive. And don't use street drugs — ever.
- Protect yourself from infection. Be sure your immunizations are up to date. Keep your distance from folks with the flu. If you're ill, protect others by avoiding crowds and coughing into a tissue. Wash your hands often, and use an alcohol-based hand rub. Protect yourself from sexually transmitted diseases.
- Prevent accidents and injuries. Many result from careless behavior. Wear seatbelts and drive defensively. Check your house for clutter and cords that might trip you up. Be sure your smoke and carbon monoxide detectors work. Hold the handrail when walking stairs. Avoid icy pavements.
- Avoid environmental hazards. These include air pollution, pesticides and toxins, contaminated food and radiation. Remember that excessive sunlight is toxic to your skin.
- Get good medical care. See your doctor regularly. Know your numbers — cholesterol, blood pressure, blood sugar and weight. Take your medication as directed. Keep a record of your major illnesses and tests, your medications, and your allergies. Listen to your body and let your doctor know if you don't feel well.
If it seems like a lot, it is. But there are 12 months and only 10 resolutions. Pick the ones you need most, change slowly, and get your family and friends to sign on to your resolutions for health. Above all, don't give up if you slip from time to time. Your goal is not perfection, but health. Take the long view and keep plugging away. Any progress you make this year will give you a leg up for next year — and beyond! If you make this one your health year, it will be a happy new year.
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Harvey B. Simon, M.D. is an Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and a member of the Health Sciences Technology Faculty at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the founding editor of the Harvard Men's Health Watch newsletter and author of six consumer health books, including The Harvard Medical School Guide to Men's Health (Simon and Schuster, 2002) and The No Sweat Exercise Plan, Lose Weight, Get Healthy and Live Longer (McGraw-Hill, 2006). Dr. Simon practices at the Massachusetts General Hospital; he received the London Prize for Excellence in Teaching from Harvard and MIT.