By Howard Lewine
Improving your health and wellness can seem like a daunting task, especially if you know you have some bad health habits to break. But, several improvements you can make today can result in tremendous health benefits.
“It starts with you,” says physician assistant Tricia A. Howard, a faculty member at South University, Savannah’s College of Health Professions. “You have more control over your health than you think you do.”
Here are five steps you can take today that can have a positive impact on your overall health and wellness.
1. Stop smoking
Everyone knows smoking is bad for you. In fact, people who smoke have by far the greatest risk of lung cancer – the number one cause of cancer deaths in the U.S. – and increased risk of a cardiac event. But, many people don’t realize that changes in the lungs caused by smoking can actually improve over time once a smoker quits.
“Even if you’ve smoked for many years, you can reduce your lung cancer risks just by quitting,” says Howard. “And this isn’t just about your own health. Smoking puts the ones you love at risk, because even second-hand smoke can cause cancer. So, quitting is a win-win for you and those you love.”
Howard says people who want to quit smoking do better when they set a target date to quit. She also advises working with your primary health care provider who can actually individualize a stop-smoking plan for you. And, Howard says getting support from others is a crucial part of the battle.
2. Increase your water intake
Sixty percent of your body weight is water. Your body depends on water to carry nutrients to cells and to flush toxins out of vital organs, so getting the right amount of fluids each day is crucial.
Howard says men should drink 3 liters, or 13 cups, per day. For women, the recommendation is 2.2 liters, or 9 cups, per day. If that recommendation seems tough to follow, Howard says to divide it up throughout the day.
“Make sure you have water with every meal and also drink water at least once between each meal,” she suggests. “That divides up your fluid intake and can make the amount seem less daunting.”
And, Howard says you don’t have to stick to water. Milk, coffee, and other drinks that contain a lot of water and not a lot of calories count towards your daily fluid intake.
“Exercise reduces your risk for chronic disease, improves balance and coordination and helps with weight loss,” Howard says. “Exercise is a key part of living a healthy life.”
Howard says the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends 150 minutes a week of moderate exercise, or 90 minutes of vigorous exercise a week, for adults.
“That sounds like a lot,” Howard acknowledges. “But, if you break it into 15- or 20-minute daily workouts it’s much easier to fit into your schedule. You don’t have to spend hours at a time in the gym to reap the benefits.”
Howard says recent studies have shown that even short bursts of exercise can be helpful.
4. Adopt the Mediterranean diet
The Mediterranean diet is a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, olive oil, nuts and fish. The results of numerous studies show long-term health benefits to adopting the diet.
“This is a diet filled with antioxidants and anti-inflammatories,” Howard explains. “This diet has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer when adhered to long-term. Weight loss and improvement in cholesterol can be seen after just a few months.”
5. Have your cholesterol checked
You might be surprised to learn that you should begin having your cholesterol monitored by a doctor at age 20. But since coronary artery disease is the number one cause of death in the U.S., it’s a recommendation you should take seriously.
“There is no reason to avoid having your cholesterol checked,” Howard says. “If your cholesterol levels aren’t where they should be, you can change them.”
Howard says levels that are too high can be controlled by diet, quitting smoking, exercise, and even prescription medication.
“There are so many things we can do to improve not only the length of our life, but the quality of those years,” Howard encourages. “Don’t wait. Commit today to making a few small changes, and see how they improve your health over time.”
Howard LeWine, M.D., is a practicing internist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and Chief Medical Editor of Internet Publishing at Harvard Health Publications, Harvard Medical School.