As the year draws to a close and we prepare to swap out wall calendars and train our brains to recite a new set of numerals, it’s normal to reflect on where we’ve been. This can also help us in identifying our goals and aspirations for the next 365 days. Often, these exercises bring us to aspects of our health and how we can improve our physical well-being. In this post, we’ll focus on the simple shifts that can deliver the greatest wins in the wellness category.
A lot of popular diets have pros and cons, but one of the recommendations with the most evidence is incorporating plant-based proteins into your diet. This doesn't necessarily mean going vegetarian or vegan. It can mean trying some of the different plant-based options on the market, like Impossible® or Beyond Meat®, or swapping beef and chicken for beans and tofu, whenever possible.
Plant-based proteins have been shown to reduce rates of inflammation, make people generally healthier and aid in managing your weight. Even adding them in once a week in place of animal protein can offer benefits.
My favorite recommendation is to get about 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week.
Now, what does moderate exercise mean? I would describe it as a lively walk; you’re not quite at a jog yet, but you’re a bit winded. You could hold a conversation, but you might need to catch your breath here and there.
If you have an exercise routine in place and want to turn things up, you can shoot for 75 minutes of high-intensity exercise. This level of exertion would make it difficult to interact with others and require you to focus on the activity.
There have been more and more studies coming out that show daily walks or just daily increases in activity are highly beneficial. One recent study demonstrated what you would need to do to counteract the effects of sitting at a desk all day, working or otherwise, to overcome the inactivity. They concluded that about 30 minutes of extra movement a day – at once or as “movement snacks” – is best for this population. I always try to take a 30-minute walk, but it could be going to the grocery store or cleaning the house.
Lastly, I know that yoga isn’t for everyone, but this type of movement helps prevent some of the biggest problems I see in my clinic. People often come in with chronic aches and pains, specifically back pain. Yoga and Pilates are good for maintaining your core, but anything that helps you keep your body in its full range of motion and minimizes your chance of pulling something is beneficial. Even if you don’t want to work out, I recommend that you try to get some stretches in throughout the day.
It's important to, not just observe your health, but also your family's health. Why does that matter? Well, when you start seeing patterns in your grandparents, siblings or parents, particularly tied to instances of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer, that should prompt a conversation with your doctor.
If someone in your immediate family has a heart attack, for example, you can talk to your provider about how that might correlate to your lifestyle. Even if you have good eating and fitness habits in place, you may have some genetic predisposition that increases your risk of having a heart attack. Genetics could elevate risk by impacting blood pressure regulation or an individual’s tendency to develop plaque more easily than others. Similarly, we see patients who have a higher susceptibility to diabetes because of the enzyme that controls blood sugar, and so on.
If you note your loved ones’ major health events and diagnoses, you and your doctor can develop a plan to reduce your risk of repeating their experience. You can identify the proper screenings that might lead to an early diagnosis, quicker intervention and better outcome.
Checkups and vaccinations
I like to see patients on an annual basis, and one of the things we’ll do is review your medications. It’s common for people to take a medication they were prescribed by a provider, but then, maybe as a result of seeing multiple specialists, or changing providers, or long periods between appointments, they find themselves still taking the medicine, perhaps unnecessarily. I’ve had instances where they don’t even remember why they started taking the medicine in the first place.
During your annual checkup, we can reevaluate your need for each medication. There are certainly chronic conditions that require lifelong medications to manage the effects, but some of the most common drugs I discuss with patients are:
Antidepressants (SSRIs) – If you’ve been on an antidepressant for a long time, the weight of that mood disorder might have lightened. Many times, you only need that prescription for a short amount of time before your body returns to its natural state of happiness. Other times, people need to be on the medication for a longer period. If you battled chronic depression or anxiety and would like to try going off of your medication, your doctor can help you evaluate that decision. You can always go back on it if you need it.
Ibuprofen – If you take ibuprofen, or any NSAID, regularly, we need to order bloodwork and make sure your body is tolerating it. These medications can be really helpful for managing pain and inflammation, but they can also harm your kidney function.
Stomach acid medications – These are infamous for having long-term side effects, five to ten years down the line. The majority of people are not meant to be on stomach acid medication permanently, but rather, to get their bodies back to their natural homeostasis with acid production. Certainly, there are exceptions with specific diagnoses, such as stomach ulcers, but in most instances, they should just be used to address symptoms as they arise.
In addition to reviewing medications, talking about family history and screening recommendations, I will also discuss immunizations. I fully endorse well-studied vaccines in every single capacity. While I will try to convince my patients to take advantage of the protective benefits of vaccines, I also consider the individual patient. There’s a difference between offering an influenza vaccine to an otherwise healthy 18-year-old versus a 70-year-old with chronic COPD and poor lung function.
Some of the most common vaccines I recommend are:
Flu shot – Generally speaking, I recommend the flu shot for all of my patients. There is some benefit for patients 65 and older in getting the new high-dose influenza vaccine. Particularly if a person has diabetes, is immunocompromised due to a disease or a medication, or has a chronic respiratory condition that impairs lung function. I also try to get the vaccine earlier in the season to minimize their risk of hospitalization.
Pneumonia vaccine – This vaccine is recommended for all people over age 65, but I recommend it for those with compromised lung function, such as COPD, and individuals with other chronic diseases, like diabetes, as well.
Tetanus vaccination – I have a lot of patients who do woodworking or with different mechanics. I try to encourage anyone in those environments with a high likelihood of exposure to tetanus spores (famously found on rusted metals, but on other surfaces as well) to stay up to date, but really, the bacteria is all around us, and everyone should stay up-to-date on this vaccine. Plus, once you’re an adult, you only need it every ten years.
RSV vaccine – A lot of people have been asking about this fairly new vaccine. The respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) typically targets children, from two months to two years of age, but it has been shown to be a minor contributor to poor outcomes for older adults who get different types of viral pneumonia. The vaccine is 100% approved and recommended for young children, who often require hospitalization to treat RSV. It’s also recommended for older adults, but can always be a benefit versus risk discussion.
I consider it my job to be as annoying as possible for my patients. I try to push as much information on them as possible so that they can make informed, educated decisions. In the end, if their choice goes against my recommendation, at least I gave them the information.
Making better health manageable
Small changes can add up. Start by …
- Trying to have one plant-based meal a week.
- Instead of thinking about increasing your activity every day, just tell yourself to take a walk.
- If it’s too cold, walk or jog in place while you watch the television.
- Get a pedal machine. You can put it at your feet and get more movement in while you work or read. The resistance is adjustable, and the simple movement helps to burn an extra few hundred calories while increasing your general range of motion.
I always tell my patients, that whether they’re working to address high blood pressure or diabetes, it’s the things you do consistently, over time, that have the biggest impact. You might not see any changes right away, but within a year and decades down the line, you’re saving yourself thousands of dollars and potentially adding years to your life.
If you change one thing in the new year, make it this …
When it comes to the change that offers the biggest return on investment, it’s simple walking. Even if you don’t want to go outside, you have to find a way to walk. That could be taking a few laps around your office or the grocery store. It’s not strenuous, but the benefits are undeniable.
The big takeaway here is that the big things are quite manageable–small diet changes, small increases in activity and a little more awareness about your health and the health of those closest to you. You don’t have to be perfect. No one is. But we can all aspire to be just a little bit better to our bodies.
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