For nearly two years, we’ve been masking and quarantining and keeping our distance — all to protect our health and the health of others. But in keeping such a low profile, have we potentially put ourselves at risk for other illnesses?
As Memorial Hermann Medical Group Pearland family medicine physician Jennifer Ukwu, MD, explains, many people have fallen into some bad habits during the pandemic: foregoing exercise, eating poorly, or maybe drinking more than usual. And some have put off potentially lifesaving health screenings.
Dr. Ukwu suggests using the New Year to restart good habits, and offers some important tips for turning your health around in 2022.
1. Get moving. If your regular workout regimen has fallen by the wayside, make exercise a top priority.
“Regular aerobic exercise helps boost your immune system,” says Dr. Ukwu. “It also helps reduce your risk for everything from stroke to type 2 diabetes and many types of cancer. Plus, it boosts energy, elevates your mood, and promotes better sleep.”
To stay safe in the gym, she suggests you wear your mask, keep your distance, and sanitize equipment. And be sure to discuss any new exercise program with your doctor before diving in.
2. Eat clean. Make 2022 your year of plants — edible ones, that is. Dr. Ukwu says to look for whole, natural foods, including fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains. Replace red meat (at least some of it) with fish and chicken. And avoid refined, processed foods and foods that contain artificial ingredients.
3. Get screened. If you’re overdue for your mammogram, colonoscopy, or other cancer screenings, now is the time to get back on track. It’s true: Early detection saves lives.
“If you’re not sure which screenings you need, just ask your family doctor,” says Dr. Ukwu. “That’s what we’re here for.”
4. Rethink alcohol. “A lot of people have increased their alcohol consumption during the pandemic, using it as a coping mechanism, with many exceeding the CDC guidelines for alcohol consumption (no more than two drinks a day for adult males and one for adult females),” says Dr. Ukwu.
But emerging evidence from the Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services in their 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggests that even drinking within the recommended limits may increase your risk of death from various causes, including several types of cancer and some forms of heart disease.
5. Be still. Even a few minutes of meditation a day can improve your emotional wellbeing and overall health. And you can meditate just about anywhere — no special equipment required.
“There are several great (and free) meditation apps for your smartphone, and even more have come online as a result of the pandemic,” she says. “Start with just a minute a day, and slowly work your way up.”
6. Make resolutions. While some may caution against making New Year’s resolutions, saying overly ambitious intentions can be a recipe for failure, Dr. Ukwu disagrees.
“Go for it!” she says. “I think any opportunity to adopt new habits or make positive changes in your life is a welcome opportunity.” Memorial Hermann’s program, called Resolution, can help you get started.
7. Pace yourself. Set realistic goals and be patient with yourself. “I tell my patients life is a marathon, not a sprint,” Dr. Ukwu says. “Start with good intentions, prioritize your goals, then take it one day at a time. There’s always room for improvement.”
8. Don’t go it alone. Making a commitment to lasting good health can be overwhelming, but having a solid support system can help.
“If you don’t know where to start, your family doctor can help,” she says. “I partner with my patients to come up with a plan to meet their goals, whether that’s to lose weight, sleep better, or to address their mental or physical health issues.”
She also suggests enlisting a friend or family member to help you stay motivated and accountable.
9. Express gratitude. “Greet the new year by going outside and practicing gratitude,” says Dr. Ukwu. “Making the commitment to treat your body well is a great way to do that.”