Experts advise easing into health resolutions
Compared to the other 364 days in the year, Jan. 1 holds no more special power than a random Tuesday in March. Still, it's the one day many look to make huge life changes in the form of ambitious — and sometimes unrealistic — New Year's resolutions.
Do they really work?
According to online investment company Betterment.com, 45 percent of Americans make New Year's resolutions and only about 8 percent actually achieve them. Even more discouraging: 25 percent give up by Jan. 8.
But Dr. Joseph Cvitkovic, director of behavioral health care at Jefferson Hospital, believes that doesn't mean you shouldn't try, especially when it comes to resolutions about your health.
“It can be very helpful to set goals at the start of the new year, primarily because you're looking at a fresh start,” he said. “When it comes to certain resolutions like quitting smoking or losing weight, setting a specific date to start breaking unhealthy habits can be helpful.”
Still, there are various trappings built into certain resolutions that often lead to failure. If you plan to be among those setting a goal for 2014, several local health care workers have some advice about five of the most common resolutions and what you can do to make it into the elite 8 percent who succeed.
Of all the resolutions you can make, Cvitkovic said New Year's is most conducive to smoking cessation — but only if you've already been working up to it.
“It's very difficult to arbitrarily quit smoking,” he said. “Having a date like the first of the year gives you time to make the necessary preparations to give yourself a better chance.”
Cvitkovic said it's important to preemptively remove any connections you have to smoking, which means hiding ashtrays, avoiding situations that can trigger a craving and, most important, getting rid of all your cigarettes. You'll also need to find something to do with your hands.
“In addition to the nicotine addiction, the sensory experience of smoking can become very intoxicating,” he said. “You need something physical in nature to dissipate the energy you used to use on smoking.”
Cvitkovic recommends replacing salty foods and sugary drinks with green vegetables and water to flush toxins from your system.
Dr. Witold Jurewicz, a family practitioner and a board member at UPMC McKeesport, said the health benefits of quitting now are myriad.
“You're going to lower your chance of getting lung cancer, stomach cancer, bladder cancer, heart disease, emphysema, (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) and premature death,” Jurewicz said. “Quitting should be your top priority.”
Excessive stress may not be as physically threatening as smoking, but Jurewicz said too much can negatively affect your body.
“People subject to stress are more prone to illness and chronic diseases,” he said. “It also increases the chance of depression.”
Cvitkovic said when you become conditioned to operate reactively to stressors, your body secretes more of the hormone cortisol, which increases blood sugar, suppresses the immune system and can decrease bone formation.
“Stress is inevitable,” he said. “But there are things you can do to respond to issues in a way that is rational and not catastrophic. I tell patients to take three breaths on the hour, saying to yourself, ‘Quiet mind' as you inhale, hold for a few seconds, then say, ‘Quiet heart' as you exhale. It doesn't take but a minute, but it reminds you on an hourly basis to respond to issues in a quieter way.”
Linda Polakovsky, clinical nutrition manager at UPMC McKeesport, said any time of year is a good time to make lasting changes to your diet, but doing so on New Year's typically comes with common gaffes.
“One common mistake people make when resolving to eat healthier is that they try to change too many things at one time,” she said. “If a person normally consumes a high-calorie, high-fat diet, changing everything at once can be very overwhelming, leading to frustration and eventually failure.”
Polakovsky said it's best, instead, to focus on one or two problem areas, such as replacing fatty snacks with vegetables, and to avoid unhealthy fad diets.
“We're all human and to expect to eat perfectly all the time is unreasonable,” she said. “Realizing up front that you'll make a mistake and that mistakes are acceptable is one of the keys to staying on track.”
DRINK LESS ALCOHOL
Although New Year's Eve can be an inopportune time to avoid alcohol, Jurewicz said drinking less typically improves quality of life.
“You'll be less likely to develop chronic liver disease, stomach cancer, stomach ulcerations or depression, anxiety and chronic mood problems,” he said.
Cvitkovic said cutting back on drinking, much like smoking, can depend on removing yourself from habitual routines.
“Alcohol can have a place within certain rituals, so it can be difficult to separate it entirely from regular routines,” he said. “But moderation and balance with it is the key to a healthy life.”
Cvitkovic said a good way to decrease your intake is to replace unhealthy drinking with safer alternatives.
“Take yourself out of your head and enjoy your senses more,” he said. “By being mindfully aware of positive sensations like a good meal or a relaxing evening, you bring yourself more into the present and to a place where you're equipped to make even more positive decisions.”
Ask any longtime gym regular when is the most irritating time of year and they'll likely say between January and March. That's because gyms and health clubs typically are flooded with newbies following through with New Year's resolutions. But most of the treadmills open back up by spring, when the temporary health nuts either lose interest or become disappointed by a lack of quick results.
Cvitkovic said you can save yourself an expensive gym membership you're not sure you'll need by instead making gradual changes to your exercise routine.
“Don't run out and spend money on a long-term commitment like a gym,” he said. “Start by walking every day or doing sit-ups and push-ups. Those are things that don't cost anything except your time.”
Cvitkovic said the key to exercising more or any other resolution is to gradually turn negative habits into positive ones.
“Start with small goals and slowly build up,” he said. “We're creatures of habit. There's a belief that it takes only 30 days to form a new habit. But once you've made a change that sticks that long, it should become something that's enjoyable to continue.”
Anyone making health changes should first check with a doctor. Programs are available to help at UPMC McKeesport and Jefferson Hospital.
Tim Karan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-664-9161 ext. 1970, or firstname.lastname@example.org.