From social media influencers to great aunt Bess, everyone has an opinions about the best habits for a healthy lifestyle. But whether you’ve gone all-in on apple cider vinegar or think the latest health fads are all hype, the choices you make can have long-term health consequences.
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“Healthy lifestyle habits can slow or even reverse the damage from high cholesterol or high blood sugar,” says lifestyle medicine specialist Mladen Golubic, MD, PhD. “You can reverse diabetes, obesity, hypertension, high cholesterol and heart disease.”
Here, he sifts through the noise to help you choose the best lifestyle habits to prevent chronic diseases.
How lifestyle affects your health
The leading causes of death worldwide are chronic diseases, Dr. Golubic says. And they include the usual suspects:
- Cardiovascular disease.
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
But you can prevent many of these chronic conditions by addressing their root cause: daily habits. About 80% of chronic diseases are driven by lifestyle factors such as diet and exercise, he says.
How to prevent lifestyle diseases
To prevent chronic disease, Dr. Golubic recommends adjusting your habits in these five areas:
His advice is straightforward: Eat plants that are whole, unrefined and minimally processed. Eating plant-based foods helps reduce diabetes, heart disease and cancer risk.
There is evidence that the Mediterranean diet can reduce the risk of developing cardiovascular disease and other chronic diseases. This diet is rich in vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains fish, olive oil and nuts.
Other evidence suggests that consuming a fully plant-based diet can even reverse chronic, diet-related conditions, including advanced heart disease. This diet eliminates meat, dairy and eggs and includes whole foods such as vegetables, whole grains, legumes and fruits. It is the most compassionate and the most sustainable diet, Dr. Golubic says, and the one he recommends most.
“I suggest you experiment. You don’t have to go fully vegan tomorrow,” he says.
“Avoid refined and processed plant foods. Start by preparing one new plant-based meal a week.”
2. Physical activity
Moving helps all your body’s systems. Experts recommend 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity each week.
If that seems daunting, Dr. Golubic recommends starting small. “Most of us can walk. So start with a 10-minute walk. Repeat this two or three times a day,” he says. “Then try to walk faster, have a minute of more intense walking or climb a flight of stairs. If walking is not an option, any physical activity will do. Simply move more and sit less.”
Shoot for seven to nine hours of restful sleep each night. But if you just can’t help burning the midnight oil, try to:
- Have a consistent bedtime and wake time, even on the weekends.
- Be physically active daily. (Sense a theme?)
- Limit alcohol and caffeine.
- Put digital devices away 90 minutes before bedtime.
- Keep your sleep area cool, dark and comfortable.
4. Stress relief
Chronic stress is not your immune system’s friend. Try mindfulness, meditation and gratitude to relieve stress and improve your physical and mental health.
“We tend to self-medicate with food, but there are healthier ways to relieve our stress, worries and concerns,” Dr. Golubic says.
Mindfulness: Mindfulness is the state of being more present and aware of what you sense, feel and experience. It’s a great way to cope with stress and relax.
Dr. Golubic suggests two ways to master mindfulness:
- Practice daily: The key is to schedule it. Find a quiet place. Observe your body movements as you breathe — how your belly expands and shrinks, or how the air flows in and out of your nostrils. “The key is to observe — don’t try to change the depth of inhalation or frequency of breathing. Let your body do what it normally does more than 20,000 times per day,” he says. Start with five minutes per day and work up to 20 minutes.
- Pay attention to the present moment throughout the day: For example, when brushing your teeth, brush like it’s your first time. “Using your nondominant hand may help you pay better attention,” Dr. Golubic says. “You can even practice mindfulness while taking out the garbage, washing the dishes or noticing your breath while you wait for the light to turn green. Any activity where you remember to pay attention can be a mindfulness practice.”
Meditation: If you’re new to the practice, 4×4 breathing, or box breathing, is a great place to start. Here’s how it works:
- Sit up straight and relaxed in a comfortable, quiet location.
- Breathe out slowly, being mindful about releasing all the air from your lungs.
- Breathe in through your nose as you slowly count to four in your head. Be conscious of how the air fills your lungs and stomach.
- Hold your breath for a count of four (or less, for a count you can comfortably hold).
- Exhale for another count of four.
- Hold your breath again for a count of four.
Do this for five minutes three times a week, building up to 20 minutes a day.
Gratitude: Practicing gratitude is a good antidote for stress as well. In studies, burned-out healthcare workers who performed acts of gratitude — such as remembering three good things or writing gratitude letters — reported positive effects on their well-being after a few weeks.
“Throughout our days we tend to notice more things that are not going well and pay little attention to positive moments,” Dr. Golubic says. “We are likely to feel better when, in the midst of a hectic day, we recognize and remind ourselves about all the gifts we have in life.”
5. Social connectedness
Social connectedness, or loving people, keeps you emotionally and physically healthy. Even when physical distancing is the norm, virtual connections can be transformative.
“We have tremendous access to technology to help us avoid social isolation,” Dr. Golubic says. “Almost everybody has a cell phone, so you can be in touch with people and tell them how you feel about them. Even work emails signed, ‘I hope you’re OK,’ or, ‘stay well,’ make a difference.”
Why is it so hard to make healthy lifestyle changes?
There are a few reasons it can be hard to get a handle on our habits, including:
- A lack of access to healthy options: A drive down the street reveals the convenient truth: cheap, unhealthy fast-food options everywhere you look. This can make it hard to make good choices. “Spain has fruterías (stores that sell only fruits and vegetables) on every other corner. They’re open until late in the evening. Imagine if those stores were more common than fried food places,” Dr. Golubic says.
- Too many subliminal messages: “Subliminal messages can sabotage good lifestyle habits,” he says. “For example, think about advertisements showing beautiful people eating unhealthy foods. Or the images of yoga poses featuring young people instead of those who need yoga the most — older people with two to four chronic conditions.”
- An instant gratification culture: It can take weeks to months to make something a habit — and sometimes longer to see the benefits of those changes. “When implementing healthy lifestyle changes, we have to be patient,” Dr. Golubic concludes.
How to maintain healthy lifestyle habits long-term
To make healthy habits stick, Dr. Golubic suggests you:
- Take small steps: “Do evolution rather than revolution,” he says. “Choose achievable goals. Start with listening to a meditation tracks for five minutes three times a week and continue adding more days and minutes as you are making progress.”
- Set realistic expectations: Avoid being too critical of yourself. Embrace the saying, “progress not perfection.”
- Educate yourself: Learn the science behind opinions. Seek advice from professional medical associations, such as the American Heart Association, American Cancer Society, Medical Society of Clinical Oncology and American College of Lifestyle Medicine.
- Think big picture: Those who reflect on what’s important to them and how they fit into a larger whole have better results. “Food choices are spectacular examples,” Dr. Golubic says. “It takes an enormous amount of energy and production of greenhouse gases and land and water use to produce a pound of beef compared to a pound of beans. So our food choices not only affect our health but the well-being of all life on the planet.”