The New Year is traditionally a time for making ‘good resolutions’. While many of these fall by the wayside, often before the end of January, this is a good time to think about changes we might make in our lives that will benefit our health.

It is true to say that in our Western society the majority of serious ill health and premature death is related to the way we live. These ‘lifestyle’ diseases include heart attacks, strokes, many cancers, type 2 diabetes, arthritis, digestive disorders, some mental illnesses and road accidents.

The good news is that many of these problems can be prevented, or at least delayed, by some simple adjustments to the things we do.

Important areas of our lives, which are entirely in our own control, and which affect our health include:

  • smoking;
  • diet;
  • exercise; and
  • alcohol.

Quit smoking

Perhaps the most important single thing anyone can do to increase their chances of living a long and active life is to be a non-smoker. The relationship between smoking and a whole range of diseases is well known and, even for those who have smoked for many years, there will always be benefits from stopping.

Eat a healthy diet

What we eat has a great influence on the way our bodies work. Food is the source of energy and also provides the materials that our bodies use to repair damage, replace parts that wear out (such as blood cells), and fight infections. These materials are also necessary for the thousands of complex chemical reactions that occur in our bodies every second.

Too much food will make us overweight and prone to arthritis, high blood pressure, heart attacks and diabetes complications. The wrong sorts of food can cause digestive disorders and deficiency diseases. Some simple rules are to eat plenty of fibre, in the form of fruit, vegetables and cereals (don’t forget bread), drink plenty of water, avoid excesses of animal fats and eat fish more often.

Exercise

Exercise should be a regular feature of everyone’s life. By keeping the muscles in good working order, and stimulating the flow of blood around the body, exercise makes us feel better both physically and mentally. Regular exercise reduces the risk of heart attack and plays an important part in weight control. The amount and type of exercise necessary for these benefits varies enormously from person to person, depending on such things as age, physical condition and existing health problems.

A simple guide is to try to exercise for at least 30 minutes at moderate intensity on most, preferably all, days. You can accumulate 30 minutes throughout the day by exercising for shorter sessions of 10-15 minutes at a time. A guide to moderate intensity would be a brisk walk that leaves you feeling slightly puffed at the end. People who have not done any regular exercise for some time should not suddenly take up strenuous exercise such as squash.

Reduce alcohol intake

Alcohol use is accepted in many cultures but it should be remembered that alcohol is a drug. Excessive alcohol use increases the risk of accidents, relationship problems and risky behaviour such as unsafe sex. It can also lead to long-term health damage, including brain injury, high blood pressure and cirrhosis of the liver.

The risk of harm increases with the amount of alcohol drunk both regularly and on any one occasion. Australian guidelines recommend that healthy men and women should drink no more than 2 standard drinks per day to reduce their lifetime risk of alcohol-related disease and injury, and no more than 4 standard drinks on any one occasion.

Make your resolutions work by making them ‘SMART’

Most of us have set New Year’s resolutions for ourselves in the past and had the experience of not sticking with them. This year, we’ve put together some expert tips to help you achieve your goals.

A good resolution like any good goal is ‘SMART’. That stands for:

  • Specific — Instead of setting a vague goal such as lose weight, set a specific goal, such as ‘I want to lose weight and I plan to do it through swimming 3 times a week and cutting 1000 kilojoules a day from my intake’. People who set specific goals are more successful than those who don’t. Make sure you write your goals down, and any smaller interim steps within your goal, as this will help you to define them.
  • Measurable — Instead of ‘I want to lose weight’, set a goal like ‘I want to lose 15 kg so I can achieve my goal weight of 85 kg’.
  • Achievable — Do you have the skills and resources needed to complete the goal? If you want to enter an organised cycle ride in the future — do you have a bike to train for the ride? Can you ride during daylight hours? Is your goal practical? Does it fit in with your lifestyle and your family?
  • Relevant — Is your goal relevant to your bigger picture goals? Does it fit with your long-term vision?
  • Timely — Make sure your goal has a deadline — and that you have set dates for individual steps within your main goal. For example, ‘I’ll be able to walk to the local shops and back by February’.

Know yourself

If your resolution is to get fit and you hate going to the gym with a passion, don’t plan on signing up for an expensive gym programme. Target other ways to increase physical activity, such as walking to the shops and carrying the shopping home, or gardening, bushwalking and manual labour.

Take baby steps

Running magazines often carry inspirational stories about people who’ve just completed their first 10 km run, half-marathon or even marathon — people who months earlier couldn’t run around the block. These people all share something in common — they didn’t start by lacing up their shoes and launching themselves into a 10 km run, only to injure themselves and never try again. Most of them started by simply walking.

By walking regularly they prepared their muscles and tendons for running, and started an exercise habit. Then by adding 15 seconds of light jogging into their walks here and there, they worked up to a point where they could walk and jog for a few minutes alternately. Eventually, they could go out and jog for 15 or 20 minutes. Next thing, they were lining up for their first fun run. Often it took months, but by setting small achievable targets, these people were always focused on a goal, and were rewarded when they reached it. Taking baby steps like this and setting smaller goals is a good way to move towards a big goal.

Small steps to . . .
Healthy eating Switch from full-cream milk to reduced-fat or skim milk. After a couple of weeks you probably won’t miss the taste and you’ve made a sustainable change to your diet. Now you can move onto making other healthy changes.
Getting fit Make a commitment to go to one exercise class a week. Once you find that you enjoy the class, and that it’s not too intimidating, and that you have the best night’s sleep afterwards, you’ll soon be disappointed if you can’t go.

Resolve to walk some of the flights of stairs to your office, instead of taking the lift every day. Or take the stairs when there’s an option, such as in your local shopping centre. At first you may huff and puff your way up there, but you’ll soon get stronger.

Don’t overtax your willpower

Some experts believe that we shouldn’t overwhelm our willpower and self-discipline by attempting to make too many lifestyle changes at once. Certainly, I’m sure we’ve all had friends who’ve tried to quit smoking, lose weight and get fit all at once and who’ve failed. Far better to start exercising your willpower in the way that you would start exercising your muscles — carefully and with small challenges — that way you can gradually develop inner strength.

Record your progress

Keep a diary or a log of your progress — it will serve as a reminder of how far you’ve come and give you encouragement if you’re feeling disheartened. Psychologists have shown that keeping a record can aid compliance in many tasks, such as weight loss or fitness goals. Take time to review your goals and adjust them if necessary as you go. Make sure to reward yourself with something healthy when you achieve your mini goals.

Engage others

Enlist the support of those around you. If family, friends and work colleagues are aware of your goals, they’re much more likely to be supportive and to encourage you to stay on track when you’re struggling.

Find a workout mate or a buddy to quit smoking or lose weight with. You’re more likely to keep a workout date if you’re doing the activity with a friend, or you’re a member of a club.

Website forums, health and fitness apps and social media can be a useful way of meeting someone with the same goal, who you can swap encouragement and tips with. Many quit smoking websites offer programmes with regular email newsletters or inspirational text messages to help keep you on track. For weight loss, there are many online programmes, and also clubs that meet in person, that provide support and inspiration to help ease your journey towards your goal.

Last Reviewed: 21/07/2010

myDr



References

1. Australian National Preventive Health Agency. Reasons to quit (updated 8 Nov 2010). http://www.quitnow.info.au/internet/quitnow/publishing.nsf/Content/reasons-to-quit-lp (accessed Feb 2011).
2. National Health and Medical Research Council. Food for health. Dietary guidelines for Australian adults. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia; 2003. http://www.nhmrc.gov.au/_files_nhmrc/file/publications/synopses/n33.pdf (accessed Feb 2011).
3. Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing. Healthy weight [website] (updated 19 Jul 2006). http://www.health.gov.au/internet/healthyactive/publishing.nsf/Content/healthyweight (accessed Feb 2011).
4. Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing. Being active (updated 2 Apr 2009). http://www.health.gov.au/internet/healthyactive/publishing.nsf/Content/physical-activity (accessed Feb 2011).
5. National Health and Medical Research Council. Australian guidelines to reduce health risks from drinking alcohol. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia; Feb 2009. http://www.nhmrc.gov.au/_files_nhmrc/file/publications/synopses/ds10-alcohol.pdf (accessed Feb 2011).