Take on a new healthy habit this year

Vital Signs Winter 2024
Healthy Eating

It’s natural to make resolutions as the new year begins. Choosing a resolution to boost one’s health can lead to a big payoff. Ryan M. Pham, MD, a UCLA health internal medicine physician in Santa Monica, discusses healthy lifestyle habits that can have a significant impact, as well as strategies for successfully taking on new behaviors. 

If a patient planned to adopt one new health habit this year, what would you recommend? 

“I’d encourage them to increase their exercise in any form,” Dr. Pham says. “That could mean walking 30 minutes daily at moderate intensity or doing short bursts of exercise throughout the day.” He notes that one can also boost movement in small ways, such as parking further from work or taking stairs instead of the elevator. “Exercise helps heart and brain health, as well as sleep and digestion,” says Dr. Pham. “It addresses many aspects of health.”  

What other habits or behaviors would be good to adopt? 

“When it comes to diet, aim to decrease the amount of carbohydrates consumed,” Dr. Pham says. “Eat nutrient-rich foods, including fruit, vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins like chicken or fish.” The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends that women aim to consume about 25 grams of fiber daily and men about 38 grams. “Patients should tell their doctor if they are experiencing fatigue, low energy or difficulty concentrating, as those are often caused by poor or inadequate sleep. Aim to get eight hours of sleep as it plays a vital role in overall health and longevity,” Dr. Pham says. He also recommends getting an annual checkup that includes a physical exam and blood work, as well as age-appropriate cancer screenings. Other healthy habits include keeping current on flu and COVID shots and other recommended vaccines. 

What harmful habits would you like your patients to avoid or discontinue? 

Dr. Pham recommends avoiding processed foods and alcohol as much as possible. Alcohol consumption increased during the pandemic and has not yet decreased to pre-pandemic levels. The American Heart Association’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans call for no more than one drink per day for women and two for men.  

What strategies can help people successfully make and keep their new habits? 

“Set small goals and take one step at a time,” says Dr. Pham. “If you’re overeating, it’s easier to cut back on the amount of food rather than changing your entire diet. For example, have one piece of toast in the morning instead of two. Or instead of planning to run a marathon, commit to jogging once per week. Once you get into that habit, it builds momentum and you can increase the length and frequency of your jogging. Small goals can add up to achieving larger ones.” Dr. Pham notes that quantifying and logging progress toward goals helps with habit formation. That could mean tracking steps with a pedometer or app, making calendar reminders to get screenings and vaccines, or committing to go to bed half an hour earlier to get more sleep. The American Psychological Association recommends making only one change at a time as well as enlisting a friend or support group to provide support and accountability. 

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