The new year is a great time to make simple changes that can lead to big benefits for your health. Try one – or all – of our 14 tips for better health in 2014.
Turning over a new leaf at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve seldom happens. While many of us make a well-intended New Year’s resolution or two to adopt a healthier lifestyle, our resolve usually dissipates by the time we sit down to New Year’s dinner. Sometimes improving our health is as simple as implementing a new habit; sometimes it’s more difficult. Making even one of these 14 changes will help you achieve better health in 2014.
Our bodies were built to move! Sedentary lifestyles have become increasingly common and our health is suffering as a result. The recommended minimum amount of moderate to vigorous physical activity, according to the most recent Canadian guidelines, is 150 minutes a week for adults and 60 minutes a day for kids over the age of five. But according to Statistics Canada numbers released in 2013, only about 15 percent of adults and 6 percent of children meet these minimum targets.
Lack of physical activity has been linked to increased risk of type 2 diabetes, obesity, heart disease, stroke, and other chronic health concerns. Exercise also helps us offset the negative effects of stress, something we can all use, considering how fast the pace of life has become.
Healthy change: Take a brisk 30-minute walk after dinner to put you on the road to a more active lifestyle.
Sleep on it
Poor sleep can be bad news for your health. We all know that groggy, dragged down feeling that comes with a night of poor sleep. But studies show that ongoing sleep problems can also contribute to several health concerns including depression, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and obesity. Poor sleep can also interfere with your ability to work, socialize, and accomplish daily tasks.
So how much sleep do you need? Unfortunately, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. Sleep needs vary by age, activity, and health. Some studies suggest that too much sleep can also be problematic. Tune into your own body’s needs and respect them.
Healthy change: Aim for seven to nine hours of sleep each night in order to meet your body’s requirements.
Pump up the greens
If there’s one food that most people aren’t getting enough of, it’s leafy greens. These nutrient powerhouses offer up vitamin C, beta carotene, calcium, and iron in a fibre-packed little package. They’re a great way to boost the nutrient density of your diet. Try experimenting with kale, collards, bok choy, Swiss chard, and other dark green leafy vegetables.
Healthy change: Eat at least one green leafy vegetable each day.
Get more variety
People often eat the same foods over and over again. Even if these foods are relatively healthy, eating a limited number of foods can decrease the nutrient quality of your diet. The more variety in the foods you eat, the better your chances of meeting your nutrient requirements.
Healthy changes: Start by adding one or two new fruits, vegetables, or grains to your grocery basket each week.
Shake off the salt
The average sodium requirements for adults are between 1,000 and 1,500 mg per day. But most adults in Canada consume about 3,400 mg or more a day! Surveys show that men are the most likely to consume excess sodium (more than 85 percent report excessive intake), but women and children are not far behind in salt consumption.
Research has shown that reducing our daily sodium intake can lead to reduced blood pressure in as little as four weeks. If the average Canadian sodium intake was reduced by 1,840 mg per day (from the current average of 3,400 mg) we could see about 1 million fewer Canadians with high blood pressure..
Healthy change: Take a pass on the salt more often. Read food labels for healthier options, and use herbs and spices instead of salt to season food.
Tone down the sugar
Along with too much sodium, many of us are also consuming far more sugar than we need. Canadians consume an average equivalent of 26 teaspoons of sugar a day (in teens, it’s as high as 41 teaspoons!). Although some of this sugar comes from healthier foods such as fruit, much of it comes in the form of empty calories such as sweetened drinks. Excess sugar boosts calorie intake without increasing the intake of nutrients, so we can end up feeling full and meeting our calorie requirements, while at the same time missing out on important vitamins and minerals.
Healthy change: Cut out white sugar. If you must indulge, sparingly use natural sweeteners such as honey, maple syrup, molasses, and date palm sugar.
Top up with a multivitamin
Food should always be our first source for nutrients, but sometimes a multivitamin can help us top up our nutritional needs, especially in the following cases.
If you’re trying to become pregnant …
Don’t wait to start taking a prenatal multivitamin. These supplements contain important nutrients, especially folic acid, that a growing baby needs.
Healthy change: Take a prenatal multivitamin consistently before becoming pregnant to help ensure that these nutrients are already in good supply in the early stages of pregnancy.
If you’re on a restricted diet …
It’s certainly possible to maintain a well-balanced diet. But if you have celiac disease, are a vegetarian or vegan, or avoid certain food groups for other reasons, you may be deficient in some important nutrients.
Healthy change: Take a multi-vitamin daily to help make sure that you’ve got the key nutrient bases covered.
Do the vitamin D
Most Canadians are just not getting enough. Whether it’s because we spend so much time indoors or live in a climate without enough winter sunshine, a daily vitamin D supplement can help replace what we’re missing. Vitamin D receptors are found on all types of cells in our bodies, making it of great importance for many biological functions.
Healthy change: Increase your intake of vitamin D, especially during the winter months. Health Canada\’s recommended dietary allowance (RDA) per day is:
- for children and adults under 70 (including pregnant women)—600 IU
- for adults over 70—800 IU
Take a probiotic
These health-promoting bacteria are getting more attention all the time. Research has linked healthy levels of gut bacteria to a decreased risk of several health problems, including eczema, Clostridium difficile-associated diarrhea (which can occur as a side effect of antibiotic use), and respiratory tract infections such as colds and flu.
Healthy change: Consult your health care practitioner about which probiotic strains and dosages are best for you.
Boost your omega-3 levels
This essential fatty acid helps to keep inflammation in check, and many of us could use a little more of it in our diets. Daily omega-3 supplements can be particularly helpful for those with high triglycerides (blood fats), menstrual cramps, or joint pain (especially rheumatoid arthritis), and during pregnancy and breastfeeding to support nervous system development in infants.
Healthy change: Eat fish twice a week. Choose from varieties such as wild salmon, halibut, herring, anchovies, and albacore tuna. Also choose plant-based sources of alpha-linolenic acid such as tofu, soybeans, walnuts, flaxseeds, and walnut and flaxseed oils.
Connect on a deeper level
Today we seem to have too much iPhone and not enough eye contact. Increased use of social media and smart phones has left us strangely less connected to one another. Humans are highly social beings, and for the most part we suffer if we become socially isolated. Research on social interaction shows that contact has a very real impact on our health from the time we are infants, right through to our later years. Socially isolated children have been shown to be at greater risk of poor health as adults than their non-isolated peers.
Socially isolated adults have also been found to have altered chemical responses to stress, and older adults experiencing social isolation and loneliness may have increased blood pressure and markers of inflammation.
Healthy change: For your own health and the health of others, keep in touch with friends and family, join a group, take a class, volunteer, or get out more often.
Common screening tests
|Test||Who should be screened||How often|
|cholesterol test||women over the age of 50 (or postmenopausal, whichever is younger) and men over the age of 40||every 1 to 3 years depending on health history and other risk factors|
|type 2 diabetes screening||adults over the age of 40 without a current diagnosis of diabetes (diabetics are screened more regularly)||two tests, fasting blood sugar and HbA1c, are recommended every 3 years|
|fecal occult blood test||men and women over the age of 50||every 2 years; if test is positive, a colonoscopy is generally recommended to screen more thoroughly|
|eye exam||adults||a complete exam every 2 to 3 years until the age of 65, then annually|
|dental exam||adults||at least once a year, but this can vary depending on general health and dental history|
|Pap test||sexually active women over the age of 21||every 1 to 3 years depending on personal history and provincial guidelines (In most cases, Pap tests are recommended every 12 months until three consecutive normal tests have been observed, then every 2 to 3 years until the age of 70.)|
|mammogram||women between the ages of 50 and 74||every 2 to 3 years, according to the most recent Canadian guidelines for women who are at average risk of breast cancer (Women with a personal or family history of breast cancer, who are at increased risk for other reasons, or who are concerned about the possible health risks of the mammogram process should speak with their health care practitioners regarding screening.)|
Get checked out
Whether it’s a Pap test, a prostate exam, or a check of your blood sugar or cholesterol levels, many of us put off important screening tests longer than we should. But the whole point of screening tests is to catch things early, when they’re more easily treated. So it’s a good idea not to put them off for too long. If it’s been a while since you visited a health care practitioner, 2014 can be the year to get your screening tests up to date.
Healthy change: See the sidebar for common screening tests and when to get them done.
If you’re a smoker, you can really turn your health around this year by kicking the habit. There are few things that improve our health more than quitting smoking. The benefits to lung health have been well publicized, as have the links between smoking and various cancers.
But smoking cessation can also benefit heart and brain health and greatly improve the healing ability of tissues. Smokers are known to heal less effectively than nonsmokers and to have a higher risk of complication from surgeries and other medical procedures. Significant improvements in healing are seen only four weeks after quitting.
Healthy change: It’s never too late to quit smoking. There is evidence to show that benefits can be achieved even for people who quit in their eighties! Find a program, group, or organization that can help you quit smoking, such as the Lung Association (lung.ca).
If stress isn’t causing our health problems, at the very least it’s making them worse. Stress affects our body’s chemistry in big ways, and chronic stress can have a negative impact on many health complaints. It can trigger symptom flare-ups in a variety of health conditions including skin, digestive, and autoimmune diseases.
There’s evidence that stress increases gut permeability, meaning that the integrity of the intestine is reduced, a situation that can increase the risk for conditions such as allergies and eczema. One of the most important things that we can do to improve our health and overall sense of balance and well-being is to have some down time. Whether you prefer taking time out to read, meditate, hike, or just sit quietly, unwinding and pulling the plug on stress is an important component to well-being.
Healthy change: Even if it’s only five minutes a couple of times a day, relax and breathe deeply to increase pain tolerance and lower your blood pressure.
Adopting some or all of these 14 health tips can help make 2014 your best—and healthiest—year so far.