PUBLIC HEALTH
December 29, 2010

The Best Health Tips of 2010

Planning for a healthier 2011? We pull together some of the top health news stories of this past year.

As the New Year approaches, people are thinking about changes they can make to improve their health and overall well being in 2011. Many of the discoveries made in 2010 illuminate the path to better health, making the steps you can take to better health and feeling good a little clearer. TheDoctor thought it would be helpful — and perhaps inspiring — to take a look back at some of the health highlights of 2010, and see how putting these findings into action can help all of us ring in a happy and healthy New Year.

1. Turn of the TV Add A Little Activity to Your Day

For many of us, increasing activity level is high on the "To Do" list, but it’s somehow easier said than done. Happily, an increasing amount of research suggests that just adding a little bit of exercise to our daily routine can do a world of good. One study found that just turning off the TV helped people burn 120 extra calories per day, while another study showed that taking the train instead of driving helped people lose over six pounds over the next year to year and a half. And, as many people may already know, exercising helps people boost moods as well as overall health: remember the study that found that just 25 minutes of exercise per day can have an immediate effect on your mood and stress level? Another found that just five minutes of being active outdoors improved people’s mood and self-esteem considerably. So if you’re thinking of getting more active in the New Year, remember that there are some simple and creative ways to add just a little activity to your day —doing so will benefit both body and mind in 2011, and in the years ahead.

2. Eating Healthy Isn’t So Hard

Much research took as its starting point the fact that we know what we should eat; we just don't do it. So studies looked at simple ways to sneak healthy foods and fiber into our diets without our having to think too much about it — like grabbing an apple or popcorn for a antioxidant and fiber-rich snack instead of the chips. One study proved the old adage "an apple a day keeps the doctor away:" because apples (or the pectin in the apple’s fiber) boost the healthy bacteria in the intestines, which have been linked to less risk for colon cancer.

Studies looked at simple ways to sneak healthy foods and fiber into our diets without our having to think too much about it — like grabbing an apple or popcorn for a antioxidant and fiber-rich snack instead of the chips.

Adding olive oil to the diet is also another simple way to improve health: one study found that, likely due to its phenol content, olive oil is the magic ingredient in the now-famously healthy Mediterranean diet (which, by the way, also seems to preserve cognitive function as we age). And a slew of studies have shown that eating a Mediterranean-style diet can improve heart health and ward off certain types of cancer by reducing inflammation and boosting the immune system. So grab a piece of fruit or a veggie, a handful of nuts, a low-fat yogurt, whole grain snack or some fish (drizzled with olive oil, of course), and know that your body — and brain — will thank you.

3. Sleep and Breakfast: Your Base Layer of Well Being

If you’re bent on trimming down in the New Year, you’re not alone. It’s one of the top New Year’s resolutions year after year, and it’s one of the hardest to accomplish. We’ve all heard that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and this year, science backed up that adage: people who skipped breakfast in one study were much more likely to favor fatty foods later in the day, compared to people who ate breakfast. Eating a healthful breakfast (of protein and whole grains) will trim belly fat, keep you fuller, and help prevent you from making bad food choices later in the day.

Sleep more. The more sleep-deprived you are, the more likely you’ll be to reach for unhealthy foods — in one study this year, men who were going on four hours of sleep ate over 500 more calories per day than their well-rested counterparts.

4. Spend Time with Friends and Loved Ones — With One Exception

There have been some very interesting studies on relationships this year, which all seem to underline the truth to the lyrics, "people who need people are the luckiest people in the world". Our social relationships greatly affect our well-being. Having strong connections to others can make us happier and live longer. One study found that having closer, more intimate social networks gave people a 50% shot at living longer lives, which is comparable to quitting smoking or losing weight.

The only area where friends may have a bad effect on us is when it comes to overeating.

Another found that close friends "light up" the brain in different areas from strangers. Friends appear to trigger personally significant brain circuitry, which is probably why scientists also found that having deep conversations makes us happier.

The only area where friends may have a bad effect on us is when it comes to overeating. Having friends who are obese raises the odds that you will become seriously overweight. This social effect is one of the reasons obesity rates continue to rise.

5. Dealing with Hardship; Boosting Your Mood

Has 2010 been a rough one? For many of us, improving our moods and overall happiness is a central goal for the coming year. It’s a nice feeling to have a fresh start. But how do we actually boost our mood and feel happier? Well, to start, you can take comfort in the fact that research this year showed that people who face adversity at some point in their lives are happier, less distressed, and more satisfied with their lives than people who have never had to deal with hardship.

Just stepping outdoors for five minutes a day helps lift mood and self-esteem.

More people in the U.S. are getting help for their depression, lifting its stigma; and many are relying on medications for treatment. Antidepressants clearly have their place, particularly for depression that is unrelenting. Mindfulness-based therapies have also been shown to be at least as effective as drugs in preventing relapses into depression as well as helping people recover from addictions and PTSD.

There are also some simple at-home methods that may help boost your mood if medications aren’t necessary. Go green. Try drinking green tea; aside from the multitude of health benefits it’s believed to offer, one study found that tea drinkers were 44% less likely to suffer signs of depression than other people (other types of tea did not show this trend). Also just exercising or just stepping outdoors for five minutes a day helps lift mood and self-esteem.

6. Help Your Kids Get Healthy and Stay Focused

For you and the kids: cut out the soda! Study after study has shown that high fructose corn syrup is bad for our bodies — in one study this year, researchers learned that fat cells love fructose: when kids’ fat cells were extracted and placed in fructose solution, they multiplied more quickly than in glucose.

Remember, simply turning off the TV cuts 120 calories a day.

Get your kids involved in meal preparation. Research found that this makes them more likely to eat the (healthy) foods you prepare: for example, have them wash or peel carrots or potatoes, make a little game out of naming fruits and veggies, or think of other fun, inventive ways to include them in mealtime. Also be aware that many food manufacturers lure kids in with cartoon characters on the packaging, so you may want to avoid certain aisles in the grocery store, if you feel that a fight over the "Dora" macaroni may ensue.

Limit screen time. Studies show that too much media hurts kids’ attention spans, whether they are in third grade or in college. Having TV on interferes with babies' language development. Other research reports that when kids spend at least two hours in front of the TV or the computer their risk for attention deficits and hyperactivity goes way up. So limiting any kind of screen time to two hours (or less) per day is probably a good idea. Thinking of engaging activities to do at home or outside can build their brains and help your family bond.

And remember, simply turning off the TV cuts 120 calories a day (see Tip #1).

7. Fat: Out with the Bad and Up with the Good

The news regarding diet in 2010 brought an interesting twist: certain fats are actually better for you than carbs, especially processed carbohydrates low in fiber.

On the list for many of us in the New Year is lowering cholesterol and/or getting heart healthy. Research found that ghrelin, the appetite hormone, loves fat so fatty foods may actually stimulate hunger. Luckily, as more and more research is showing, there are some fairly painless ways to reduce our intake of butter and saturated fats to lower cholesterol by adding omega-3 and monounsaturated fats (MUFA) to the diet (both are thought to increase "good" HDL cholesterol).

Some fats are actually better for you than carbs, especially processed carbohydrates low in fiber.

Another way to lower cholesterol and snack at the same time is to grab a handful of nuts. People who started out with high cholesterol reduced their cholesterol and triglycerides (blood fats), no matter the kind of nut they ate. While the more nuts people ate, the more their cholesterol level was reduced, going too nuts with the nuts is not a good idea; they will eventually add pounds.

Besides lowering cholesterol, how else can we help the heart? Having a little chocolate may actually work. People who consumed 7.5 grams of chocolate per day, on average, reduced their risk for heart attack and stroke by almost 40%, and slightly reduced their blood pressure. This is only a small square of chocolate per day, so critics are a little skeptical about whether it’s the chocolate that is really behind the benefit.

8. Take Care of Your Teeth, Take Care of Your Heart

After you have your heart-healthy chocolate, however, remember to brush your teeth. Healthy gums are associated with a significantly reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. Researchers think that tooth brushing may help the heart by reducing inflammation throughout the body: and this is supported by the fact that frequent tooth-brushers had fewer markers of inflammation than lazier brushers. Of course, aside from eating modest amounts of chocolate and brushing your teeth regularly, keeping trim, staying active, and eating whole grains and a low-fat diet are also classic, well-studied ways to help your heart!

9. Smoking...It's Even Worse Than You Think

It may not come as a big surprise, but even more research this year indicates that smoking just isn’t good for you. In fact, it’s downright harmful, no matter how much you smoke. One new study found that even people who rarely smoked or were just around secondhand smoke had measureable genetic changes in the cells of their lungs. And the dangers of secondhand smoke are even worse for children. This means that there’s just no safe way to smoke. The CDC also recently released a new Surgeon General’s report outlining exactly how the chemicals in cigarette smoke lead to cancer, and underlining the idea that even a little bit of smoke can cause heart attack and airway damage.

The CDC recently released a new Surgeon General’s report outlining exactly how the chemicals in cigarette smoke lead to cancer, and underlining the idea that even a little bit of smoke can cause heart attack and airway damage.

The good news is that quitting smoking has an immediate beneficial effect on your blood vessels, increasing their elasticity and reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease.

There are many effective tools to help you quit, like nicotine replacement therapy (NRT), support networks, therapy, and medication. Many states offer assistance in helping people quit. For more information on how to kick the habit in the New Year, see the CDC’s website on smoking cessation.

10. Wage A Personal War On Stress

Stress remains a major health challenge, and one over which we can exert a good deal of control. Big stressors (divorce, health issues, unemployment) and the little stressors of everyday life (think traffic jams) build up and can have serious effects on our physical and mental health.

Yoga offers both exercise and practice in breathing more slowly and deeply and was found to reduce stress-induced inflammation in the body.

This year researchers reported that people who suffered heart attacks had higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol before the heart attack — and not just immediately before, but up to three months prior to having the heart attack. This suggests that the gradual build-up of stress isn’t good for our bodies — to put it mildly. Other studies have found that women with high-stress jobs have a much greater risk of heart disease (the same is very likely true for men) and that even working overtime ups our risk of heart problems.

So each of us needs to find ways to prevent stress from hijacking our nervous systems. Exercise has been shown to help people with anxiety due to chronic illnesses, from arthritis to various forms of cancer. If it works for more significant health issues, it’s sure to work for "regular" stress as well. Yoga offers both exercise and practice in breathing more slowly and deeply and was found to reduce stress-induced inflammation in the body.

11. Expand Your View of Health: Alternative Techniques

Stress reduction techniques form an area where established medicine and alternative medical practices intersect. This year the scientific community continued to explore what these methods are actually doing to the body and mind at the molecular and cellular levels. Yoga, tai chi, mindfulness meditation, and acupuncture have all become increasingly popular over the years. Research studies have found that mindfulness meditation —stepping back and accepting our thoughts non-judgmentally, rather than reacting to them — can reduce stress, anxiety, and panic at the level of the brain, even years after the initial training. It has even been shown to boost how our immune systems respond to viruses.

It is certain 2011 will bring still more research that shows us how we are damaging our health and how we can improve it. Stay tuned. But in the meantime, use what we have learned this year to make 2011 a year of increased health and well being.

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