How to have a healthy 2023

Sleep, diet, exercise: UCLA Health experts offer tips
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December 21, 2022
By Sandy Cohen
Estimated read time: 9 minutes

If one of your resolutions for 2023 is to have a healthy year, we’ve got you covered with expert advice.

We asked a pediatrician, internist, geriatrician and psychologist what guidance they give their patients to set them up for good health, and their answers are below.

(Spoiler alert: The traditional advice to rest, eat well and exercise are themes for all ages.)

Arielle Sommer, MD, general internist

“Ultimately, it comes down to what Grandma said: You have to sleep at least seven hours a night; you have to take time for yourself; you have to be with loved ones and have social engagement; you have to eat fruits and vegetables and not processed food; and move your body and exercise and laugh,” says Dr. Sommer, an internal medicine physician passionate about preventive care. “Those are the essential elements for physical and mental well-being, no matter what life stage.”

As much as we may wish for a magic formula or quick fix, it’s these consistent lifestyle practices that contribute to general wellness, she says. It may sound simple, but it works.

And it doesn’t take long for patients to be convinced of the benefits once they make changes in their diet or sleep habits, Dr. Sommer says. After eating more fruits and vegetables, drinking more water and reducing processed foods, patients often find things like fatigue, headaches, abdominal pain, and mood improve.

“You only realize it when you stop eating those foods and get yourself into some good habits how much those things were affecting you,” she says.

These lifestyle changes also help with stress management, which is critical for mental and physical well-being.

“The way that our world is now — just the amount of things that are bombarding our brain and our mind on a minute-to-minute basis — it has the risk of putting us into a constant state of some level of arousal and anxiety,” Dr. Sommer says. “And if you don’t allow your brain the time to wind down, to not be distracted by your phone and just look up and look around, it creates a chronic stress cycle, which, over time, basically lowers your defenses against stress.”

Besides exercise, rest and good nutrition, there’s meditation, which has been shown to not only reduce stress, but inflammation and blood pressure, Dr. Sommer says.

The chief complaint she hears from patients about meditation is, “I’m bad at meditating.”

“Actually, being bad at it is what you want,” Dr. Sommer says.

The aim of meditating on the breath (or sounds or bodily sensations) isn’t to stay so focused that you never get distracted. The practice is actually about noticing when you’re distracted and gently and kindly returning to your focus.

“This actually teaches your mind to almost prepare for those situations in real life where there may be a stressful moment, maybe a distraction, and you’re able to better control where your mind goes because you’ve trained for it,” Dr. Sommer says. “All these things, when taken together, are the key to ultimate healthiness.”

Emanuel Maidenberg, PhD, psychologist

Staying healthy psychologically is about “being flexible in coping with inevitable life stressors,” says Dr. Maidenberg, clinical professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

Cultivating this flexibility requires developing healthy habits and supportive self-care strategies that address both the physical and emotional-spiritual aspects of well-being, he says.

Healthy physical habits include keeping a consistent sleep schedule, getting regular exercise and having a “predictable but not rigid” structure to the day, Dr. Maidenberg says, as these routines support overall wellness. Forming these habits, however, can be challenging at first.

“There is frequently this sort of mismatch — what seems to be comfortable in the short term is, in fact, not helpful in the long run,” he says. “If you can allow some discomfort for a few weeks, there is really significant long-term benefit.”

So while it may seem more relaxing to sink into the sofa for an extended TV binge, getting off the couch and into bed for restful sleep will actually bring greater benefits, both immediately and over time.

Some of the emotional and spiritual habits Dr. Maidenberg suggests developing include: practicing gratitude daily by noticing how much effort has gone into creating our physical environment; mindfully adopting an attitude of kindness and curiosity toward others and reminding ourselves that most people do the best they can; investing energy in personal relationships that contribute to a sense of connection and belonging; and choosing to accept “good enough” as a personal standard.

Practicing gratitude, kindness toward others and good relationships are relatively easy concepts to grasp. But trading an expectation of excellence for “good enough” can be particularly challenging for overachievers and others with high personal standards, Dr. Maidenberg notes.

Constantly aiming for perfection is “unsustainable and frustrating,” he says, “and ultimately it becomes a great source of distress of not matching your own expectations of performance.”

The performance, in most cases, can be acceptable at the level of good enough.

“It doesn’t have to be perfect,” Dr. Maidenberg continues. “But we operate on this automatic pilot, trying to perfect something, which takes a lot of effort and at times is not achievable. The price we pay for it is disproportionate and it’s not worth the effort and stress that comes with it.”

Developing these physical and mental habits helps shore us up against life’s everyday storms and provides the opportunity for flexibility when acute stressors arise, Dr. Maidenberg says. “We can select, like from a toolbox, what seems to be appropriate — and it happens automatically on an unconscious level,” he says. “But we know what kinds of skills we have that can help us in a particular circumstance, so we have more capacity to deal more effectively with a wider range of stressful circumstances.”

David Reuben, MD, geriatrician

“The most important thing right now is staying safe from all these respiratory viruses — that’s the most imminent threat,” says Dr. Reuben, chief of the division of geriatric medicine at UCLA Health. “Especially for older people, because older people tend to get sicker when they get respiratory viruses.”

So it’s important to stay current on flu and COVID-19 vaccinations, wash your hands often, wear a mask in public places and avoid crowded areas, he says.

Beyond taking care to avoid respiratory viruses, Dr. Reuben’s No. 1 tip for a healthy 2023 is to exercise regularly. Check with your primary care physician before getting started.

“The way I personally commit to it, and the analogy I use for patients as well, is that every day I eat, I make sure that I exercise,” Dr. Reuben says. “If you’re going to eat, you owe it to your body to exercise. You don’t have to be the fastest person in the world. You don’t have to be the strongest person in the world. But just getting out there and doing it. There are just so many benefits that have been shown.”

Even if you’ve been sedentary for years, it’s never too late to add exercise to your life, he says: “I’ve had patients in their 90s get started with it.”

Just start small, he says, with maybe a five-minute walk twice a day. After a few weeks, increase to 10 minutes twice a day. For those who can’t walk, perhaps consider chair yoga or swimming. The goal is to work up to 45 minutes to an hour of daily exercise.

“It doesn’t have to be strenuous,” he says, “and it doesn’t have to be continuous.”

Many older adults fear developing Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia, Dr Reuben says. Studies show that lifestyle changes can help mitigate some of the risk factors for these conditions.

Exercise is one of those behaviors. So is tending to high blood pressure or high cholesterol, as cardiovascular disease is associated with increased risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia.

Following a Mediterranean diet, which is high in fruits, nuts and oils and low in red meat, is helpful. And cognitive stimulation is essential, whether that comes in the form of taking classes, learning to play an instrument or playing games with friends.

“Particularly for older people, staying engaged is really important,” Dr. Reuben says. “I remember one of my patients who was 101 told me one of the biggest mistakes he made was retiring at age 87.”

Other strategies Dr. Reuben recommends for staying healthy later in life is staying up-to-date on other vaccines, such as shingles and pertussis, as well as with cancer screenings; and getting at least seven hours of sleep a night.

Kimberly Dang, MD, pediatrician

Like Dr. Reuben’s advice for older adults, Dr. Dang also emphasizes that staying safe from viruses such as COVID-19, flu and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) remains a priority for children during the winter season. Cases of flu and RSV, particularly among children, have been significantly higher in 2022 than in recent years.

“Wearing masks and hand-washing are still very important,” says Dr. Dang, whose clinical interests include preventive care and pediatric mental health. “In general, parents should make sure they see their pediatrician for their well-child check annually to make sure they’re up to date on their vaccinations, including the flu shot, the COVID vaccine and also the bivalent booster.”

Children younger than 3 need to see their pediatrician more frequently, she adds.

As with other age groups, good nutrition, regular physical activity and sufficient sleep are critical for children to be their healthiest, Dr. Dang says.

Parents should encourage their children to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, though kids can be notoriously picky eaters, she notes.

“There’s no magic trick to make them eat (fruits and vegetables),” Dr. Dang says. “You just have to keep offering it to them and reintroducing it. You can cut the fruits and veggies into different shapes and cook them in different ways. Parents can set an example for their children by modeling healthy eating behaviors and prioritize eating meals together at the dining table.”

She also suggests bringing children along when grocery shopping and allowing them to choose a new fruit or vegetable to try.

“That’s a great way to make it a family activity and get the kids engaged,” she says. “Then they can get excited about trying new foods, too.”

Children should be physically active for at least an hour a day most days of the week, she says. Limiting screen time and encouraging kids to play outside can help them stay active, as can incorporating family activities such as a nightly after-dinner walk or weekend days in the park (which can support parents’ exercise goals, too).

“That’s a great way to have the whole family active so parents can model good behavior for their children,” Dr. Dang says.

Children and adolescents need eight to 12 hours of sleep nightly, and “the younger they are, the more sleep they should get,” Dr. Dang says.

Practicing good sleep hygiene can support children’s sleep needs. This includes maintaining a consistent bedtime and keeping screens — such as TVs, tablets and smartphones — out of the bedroom.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a spike in mental health issues in young children and teens, so Dr. Dang recommends parents stay attuned to their children’s behavior. If parents notice changes in the child’s energy, eating habits or desire to socialize with friends and family, she says, they should share their concerns with their pediatrician.