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."
1) Stay Active
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 ."
2) Eat Healthy
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.
"This ensures that you get more vitamins and minerals, which most people don't do, and will likely increase fiber intake as well," he explains. "It will also be more filling, making you less likely to cheat and ingest more calories by nibbling on snacks."
"It's somewhat cliché, but the most important thing to do is to eat healthy and moderate your food intake," Franke continues. "The failure many people face is thinking that diets are temporary things, and to stop once you reach a goal weight. To successfully change requires lifestyle and behavioral changes."
Some observers say you should never eat until you're about to bust.
"Don't eat until you can't eat anything else. You should always leave the table feeling you can always eat a little more," Feltheimer says.
3) Quit Smoking
Smoking is the leading preventable cause of death in the United States, Gibbons says. The World Health Organization estimates that in developed countries, roughly a quarter of male deaths and nearly a tenth of female deaths can be attributed to smoking.
Cigarette smoke contains 69 known carcinogens and it increases risks for most forms of cancer, particularly of the lung, kidney, larynx, head, neck, bladder, esophagus, pancreas and stomach. Smoking also increases blood pressure and risk of heart disease as well as decreases good HDL cholesterol. The result is that nearly 160,000 men and women in the United States die from cardiovascular disease attributed to smoking every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
"There's also the financial costs," Gibbons says. "If you figure a pack a day at about $4 a pack, that's nearly $30 a week and some $1,500 a year, not to mention the financial costs associated with the medical problems of smoking."
4) Moderate Drinking
As a result of excessive drinking -- which is defined as anything more than two drinks a day for men or more than one drink a day for women -- more than two million people in the United States have liver disease. Excessive drinking also increases the risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, inflammation of the pancreas and certain forms of cancer, especially cancers of the esophagus, mouth, throat, larynx and possibly the breast, colon and rectum.
Roughly 10 to 20 percent of heavy drinkers also develop alcoholic cirrhosis, or scarring of the liver, and liver transplants may be needed for those with life-threatening cirrhosis. In addition, Gibbons notes that "the more heavily you drink, the greater your risk for interpersonal problems."
On the other hand, studies have suggested that moderate drinking, or no more than two drinks a day for men or one drink a day for women, lowers a person's risk for heart disease, death by heart attack or stroke. By these measures, moderate drinkers fare better than both heavy drinkers and abstainers. Researchers believe moderate drinking helps ward off heart disease by thinning the blood and thus suppressing the formation of blood clots that can cause heart attacks and strokes. Alcohol also seems to enhance the body's ability to break down small clots.
5) Relieve Stress
"We've known for years that chronic stress leads to increased risk of premature death, even in the absence of other things it's connected with, such as not taking care of yourself, or high blood pressure," Franke says. "Stress leads to your body producing cytokines or other inflammatory agents. In chronic stress, you carry on such responses to an abnormal extent, past what the fight-or-flight response was perhaps meant to handle, wearing down the body."
Chronic stress can cause excessive blood clotting, leading to blockages and strokes, Feltheimer says.
"It also decreases the responsiveness of the immune system," he adds. "And with chronic stress, some cytokines can in essence degrade the structural stability of plaques lining blood vessels, which is analogous to making a blister more prone to popping, and so that can contribute to a heart attack if it does pop."
Managing stress means prioritizing -- and not worrying over things that you can't control.
"People need to focus on things that are within their control. It's wasted energy to stress about things outside your control," Franke says. "Try to downshift and go with the flow, and if there are situations you can't downshift with, then avoid them if possible."