|What makes a person healthy?
The genes we inherit are important. So are economic, social, and cultural factors — our incomes, where we live, our heritage, and upbringing. Having insurance also counts. But one of the most powerful influences is our own behavior — the lifestyles we select and the decisions we make that affect our health.
So, with the idea that personal choice and personal responsibility have great consequences for our well-being, here, from the physicians of the Mass. Medical Society, are 12 great things you can do for your health. Some are obvious (but reminders from time to time are helpful), each has its own positive effect, and together they can be a powerful prescription for good health. These steps won’t guarantee that you’ll live to be 100 or won’t get sick occasionally, but they will increase your chances for a longer and healthier life.
- Eat healthy. What you put into your body matters. Favor more nutritious fare, like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains over calorie-dense and junk food. That’s not to say you can’t indulge occasionally, but limiting portion sizes and avoiding foods with refined sugars, saturated fats, and lots of salt are important to eating healthy.
- Don’t use tobacco. What you keep out of your body matters, too. The link between tobacco and disease is clear, as are the dangers of second-hand smoke and chewing tobacco. Avoiding smoking and tobacco greatly cuts your risk for heart disease, cancer, stroke, respiratory illness, and many other conditions.
- Avoid substance abuse. Drink alcohol in moderation: two or fewer drinks daily for men, no more than one for women. Absolutely stay away from addictive drugs.
- Exercise. Regular exercise (daily or three to four days weekly) has multiple benefits: controlling and losing weight, preventing disease, promoting better sleep, improving mood and endurance, and just plain having fun. You don’t need to be an athlete; just walking every day, or taking the stairs instead of the elevator, can bring benefits. Try to include strength training (to avoid muscle loss from aging) and stretching (for flexibility) along with cardiovascular activity.
- Maintain a healthy weight. Overweight and obesity are linked to many chronic medical conditions, including diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and osteoarthritis. Two-thirds of Americans are overweight or obese, mostly from lack of exercise and poor diets. Check your condition at www.cdc.gov/bmi. If you eat well and exercise, you’re likely to keep a healthy weight.
- Get enough sleep. Lack of sleep can lead to fatigue and health problems, from damage to the heart and lungs to a weakened immune system that makes you more vulnerable to colds and flu. Sleep restores energy and is critical to help us function at our best. Preteens need about 10 hours, and adolescents and adults require anywhere from six to nine-plus plus hours a day.
- Don’t forget vaccinations. Whether to prevent measles, whooping cough, pneumonia, flu, or other diseases, vaccines are some of medicine’s greatest achievements, for our personal and public health. Parents should immunize their children, and adults should keep up to date on their shots, too.
- See a physician regularly. Develop a good relationship with a primary care physician who will provide regular checkups and guide your health care, including appropriate screenings (cholesterol checks, mammograms, etc.) at the appropriate times.
- Practice good oral health. Regular dental check-ups and brushing and flossing — at least twice a day if possible — can prevent tooth decay, oral and throat cancers, and infections that can spread to other parts of your body.
- Be safety-conscious. As a motorist, wear seatbelts, adjust behavior for bad weather, and don’t drive drowsy or distracted. As a pedestrian, be aware of traffic and your surroundings. Wear a helmet if you bicycle, and proper equipment (footwear, safety goggles, hearing protection) using power tools, lawnmowers, or snow throwers. Eliminate the potential for falls inside and outside the home. To prevent skin cancer and infectious disease, use sunscreen and mosquito repellent when outdoors.
- Develop family and social circles. Spending time with family and people you like and staying socially connected are two keys to healthy living.
- Stay active mentally. Limiting television time and keeping your mind active with hobbies, reading, or learning new subjects are more keys to healthy living. Restricting screen time is particularly important in early childhood.
Dr. Lynda Young is 2011-12 president of the Mass. Medical Society.