On New Year's Day, more than a few of us resolved to change our lives -- or at least our more self-indulgent habits. On the hunch that all things flow from good health, Scientific American.com has based this year's list of five resolutions on the advice of health professionals and scientific literature. Whatever your goals, we'll help you understand why there's hardly anything you could choose to do that could have a bigger impact on your quality of life.
Perhaps the best New Year's resolution is coming up with a strategy to sensibly tackle each of the five listed below.
"New Year's resolutions are notoriously unsuccessful because people have a superficial commitment to them," says Frederick Gibbons, health psychologist at Iowa State University in Ames. "Whatever behavior you want to change requires a specific plan for going about it."
For instance, in quitting smoking or moderating drinking, "people might want to plan ahead for situations or cues they need to avoid, since they may face social pressure, even if it's unintentional pressure. That might also include tempting foods," said Gibbons.
Social support is also critical. Warren Franke, director of Iowa State's Exercise Clinic, believes that "it may mean enlisting a significant other to exercise or a buddy to lose weight or joining a program." Controlling drinking may even require a behavior modification program, Gibbons adds.
Franke says people should set short-term goals, "such as losing just one pound a week," Franke says. And don't give up if you sometimes find yourself sliding.
"Don't feel bad about yourself and give up," he says. "Accept that that was a bad day, and that [the] next day will be a good day. And reward yourself. Life's too short not to enjoy it. Don't buy yourself six scoops of Ben & Jerry's, mind you. I have a friend who, if she's lost weight, buys herself People magazine. It's a simple pleasure she enjoys, and it works."
Exercising three times a week for about 30 minutes each session has been shown to cut cardiac morbidity and mortality by more than 10 percent, says Seth Feltheimer, general internist at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center.
To reap maximum benefit from the exercise, your pulse has to stay above 100 beats per minute. This requires more than an average walk, "where you might often stop and start at each corner, and can't really get a chance to get the pulse up," Feltheimer adds.
Franke agrees and recommends that you do whatever exercise "you enjoy enough to do regularly and is vigorous enough to increase heart rate, be it walking with a neighbor or a high-intensity aerobics class at an exclusive fitness club."
"If you compare a person who is 30 pounds overweight but physically active with someone who is thin but a coach potato, you'll find the thin couch potato has a higher risk of premature death and of some chronic diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease and hypertension," Franke says. "Of course, the best combination is to be physically active and relatively close to normal weight, but if there was a choice, without hesitation I'd choose a little bit overweight but fit ."
Reducing cholesterol intake by 20 percent and getting total cholesterol levels below 180 will improve a person's risk of heart disease by 20 to 30 percent, Feltheimer says.
Healthy diets, Franke adds, should include at least five servings of fruits and vegetables a day.