7 Habits for Better Health

It takes more than eating and exercising to age well
January 30, 2020 Updated: January 30, 2020
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Good health can be tough to achieve, and it impacts our lives in so many ways, from finances, to how we perform at work, to our relationships with family and friends.

Most of us know we should eat more fruits and vegetables, stay away from processed foods, drink plenty of water, and exercise. These are core things that any physician will recommend to his or her patients, and are certainly important.

But there are also less-talked-about things we can do that can be just as important. In talking with some of my healthy, older patients, there are some commonalities that I’ve observed, some of which I wouldn’t have related to good health at first glance.

Be Disciplined 

Following the recommendations of eating healthy, exercising, and drinking plenty of water all require self-discipline. Knowing what to do and actually doing it are two different things. Self-discipline can make the difference between making progress with your goals, and staying in your same old routine.

To put those goals into action, I find that planning ahead and sticking to a scheduled routine can keep patients on track with healthy habits.

For example, going to the store twice a week and preparing healthy meals in advance can help ensure you’re not eating things you’ll later regret. Of course, this takes structure and disciple, but as with anything, it becomes easier the more you do it. Studies show that the amount of time it takes for a new habit to become automatic is widely variable, but on average, it takes about 66 days. So within two or three months, most people will have created a rhythm with their new routine.

The same goes for drinking plenty of water and getting physical activity. Without self-discipline, we’ll find ourselves soon throwing in the towel. It’s important to find a routine that works for your situation, and then stick to it.

Of course, life will throw us curveballs. Don’t let it throw you off track when you do mess up. The very next chance you get, just do what you should do.

It’s a matter of balance. If we’re too easy on ourselves, we won’t give things our best effort, but if we’re too hard on ourselves, we can become discouraged and give up. So take time to reflect on what you should learn from your mistakes, and then dust yourself off and keep moving forward.

Many people feel that they could never be disciplined, that it’s just not them. But think of self-discipline as a skill you can develop. Entrepreneurs and productivity gurus have written oodles of books and blog posts to help you improve this skill. And when we’re more disciplined, we’re healthier and happier.

One simple idea is keeping a chart of your daily routine, and then checking off what you’ve done. This can help you feel that you’ve accomplished your goals for the day. This provides motivation for staying on track the next day. The mind has a significant role to play here. Which brings us to the next point …

Mind Your Thoughts  

Our thoughts matter more than we may realize. If we’re not careful, they can lead us down a path to poor health. I watched how this played out with my own husband.

It is easy to go along with our thoughts, even if they’re not good for us. But we shouldn’t believe every thought that comes to mind. If our thoughts don’t align with what we want to do, and who we want to be, we should replace them with positive, beneficial thoughts. There are many things we can do to change our thoughts. Learning to be aware of what we’re thinking is an important place to start.

It is well-known in the medical community that our thoughts impact our health. Negative thoughts weaken our immune system and cause increased levels of pain, elevated blood pressure, poor sleep, and more.

So the next time you notice thoughts that interfere with your desired path, ask yourself if these thoughts are harming or helping you. If they are harmful, make a conscious effort to change them.

Be Kind

Studies show those who are kind and think of others before themselves are both healthier and happier than those with more selfish inclinations.

Random acts of kindness have been shown to increase hormones like oxytocin and serotonin and improve everything from blood pressure to depression to heart health. Few things can make you happier than making someone else feel better.

Kindness is both teachable and contagious. Random acts of kindness, like wheeling out your neighbor’s garbage can, or letting someone in front of you in line at the store, can really brighten someone else’s day, and perhaps even inspire that person to pass it along.

We never know what impact a small act of kindness may have.

Stay Active, in Body and Mind

Staying physically active is important, but we often forget that that includes mental fitness. My healthiest elderly patients are engaged in life and are sometimes busier in retirement than they were when working.

Studies have shown that keeping the brain active can improve health. Brain fitness is really pretty simple. Reading a good book, doing crossword puzzles, or memorizing phone numbers rather than relying on technology can all strengthen our brains. Learning a new instrument or language has been shown to increase neuronal connections in a the brain and improve brain health.

Physical exercise doesn’t have to be done at the gym. Something as simple as taking a brisk walk around the neighborhood, yoga, or doing things around the house can provide the daily activity our bodies need.

A project like planting and tending a small garden can not only get us off the sofa but also provide us with some low-cost, nutritious food that we can feel good about. Learning a new skill such as woodworking or tennis can provide both a mental and physical work out.

I’m reminded of my 13-year-old son doing his chores around the house. He may not be very enthused at first, but once he starts doing what needs to be done, I hear him humming from the other room. When we’re active and productive, we naturally feel good about ourselves. Good work is good for the soul.

Cultivate Relationships 

My healthiest elderly patients all have one thing in common—they socialize regularly with friends and family. I once wouldn’t have related this to good health. But after years of observation, I understand how important it is.

This older generation has enjoyed regular face-to-face contact since they were young, in the days before screens and endless activity devoured human social connection.

The American Psychological Association (APA) notes that quality relationships affect many aspects of  physical and mental health, including better immune function, improved cardiovascular health, less depression, and ever lowered incidents of cancer.

The APA states: “It’s not an exaggeration to say that lack of social connections can be deadly. Strong social relationships increase the likelihood of survival by 50 percent regardless of age, sex or health status, according to a meta-analysis of 148 studies on mortality risk by Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Ph.D.”

One study showed that a lack of close, personal relationships is as detrimental to a person’s health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and notes that close relationships have a more positive impact on longevity than avoiding air pollution or taking high blood pressure medication.

As important as social relationships are, we’re seeing an alarming trend—fewer and fewer people actually have close, personal friendships. “Over the past two decades there has been a three-fold increase in the number of Americans who say they have no close confidants. There is reason to believe that people are becoming more socially isolated,” the research team wrote.

With social media now dominating our interactions, the face-to-face relationship is gradually being lost.

That gives rise to this next recommendation.

Unplug

Technology. It certainly has its perks. It can keep us connected while putting endless information at our fingertips. But too much tech time may not be a good thing.

We now seem to be in need of constant mental stimulation. We don’t know the long-term health effects of our tech obsession, but many experts have serious concerns, especially with regard to a child’s developing brain. The inordinate amounts of time we spend on screens has spurred technology addiction treatment centers to crop up across the country.

Friends and families now text one another rather than verbally speak, even while in the same room. Today we see folks walking down the street staring at their cellphones, oblivious to the world around them.

Several studies have verified the costs of a sedentary lifestyle and the relationship between too much screen time and health.

The more time spent before a screen, the less time spent doing things that engage the mind and body. You’re more likely to die early the longer you sit in front of a TV or computer, even if you exercise for 30 minutes a day, according to research by physiologist Marc Hamilton, a professor at Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

An American Cancer Society study that followed 123,000 adults for 14 years found that women who sat more than six hours a day were 37 percent more likely to die during that time period than those who sat fewer than three hours per day.

While technology has its benefits, it must be used in moderation and with discretion, lest it come to dominate and control our lives, all while having a negative impact on our health.

Get a Good Night’s Rest 

Sleep is vital to our well-being. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that the average adult needs 7–9 hours of sleep per night, noting that 1 in 3 adults doesn’t actually get the amount of sleep they need.

Lack of sleep impacts our health in a variety of ways, leading to things such as depression and irritability, hormonal imbalances, weight gain, impaired immune function, diabetes, and heart disease, to name just a few.

With this in mind, it’s important to develop a good sleep routine. This means doing things like going to bed and waking up at the same time every day, not using technology for at least thirty minutes prior to bed, doing something relaxing like taking a warm bath or having a cup of chamomile tea, and putting your worries aside.

When we rest well, it gives our body and mind a chance to balance and heal. We wake up feeling refreshed, with the mental and physical energy needed to take on the day and give it our best.

I hope these tips provide a little food for thought and perhaps help guide you, in some small way, to better health as we begin this new year.

Tatiana Denning, D.O., is a family medicine physician who focuses on wellness and prevention. She believes in empowering her patients with the knowledge and skills necessary to maintain and improve their own health.