Whatever your style when it comes to New Year’s resolutions, there’s one thing science can say for certain: Small changes can have a big impact.
Whether the topic was weight loss or brain science, the power of going slow is a theme that popped up repeatedly in our health reporting throughout 2018. University of Pennsylvania neuroscientist Amber Alhadeff put it well in a recent interview: “There are billions of neurons in the brain, and we can change behavior with only a few hundred neurons. In other words, it only takes a small change in neural activity to influence behavior.”
With that in mind, our journalists have been reviewing the year in health news to come up with tips that could help with a shift toward healthier behaviors. Each idea comes from a specific story you’ll find on philly.com. Use our checklist to zero in on a few that speak to you, and consider adding others as you go. If you’d like to share how this approach is working for you, please drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
It may be tempting for devoted resolvers to incorporate a lot of changes at once. For others, perfection may be a temptation best avoided. Wherever you fall on that spectrum, we hope our tips prove useful for a healthy 2019.
Goal: A healthier family
Got flu? Act fast. If you’re hoping for relief from antiviral medicines Xofluza or Tamiflu, move fast, as they should be given within 48 hours of the first symptoms to be effective.
Wear ear protection if you’re headed to a rock concert, target range, or other loud venue. Hearing loss and tinnitus are caused by repeated exposure to noise levels that many people consider normal. Even one sudden burst of sound, such as from an explosion, can cause permanent damage.
Get swim lessons before summer comes. Drowning ranks fifth among the leading causes of unintentional injury death in the U.S. with about 20 percent of those deaths children 14 years and younger. The American Red Cross recommends everyone be able to tread water for a minute and swim 25 yards.
Teach kids (and yourself) to wear sunscreen year-round. Those damaging UVA and UVB rays don’t take the winter off. Apply sunscreen of at least 30 SPF about 15 to 30 minutes before you go outside and don’t forget a hat or other protective clothing.
A shot of cancer prevention. The HPV vaccine has a superb safety record. It prevents infections that cause malignancies of the cervix, head and neck, as well as rarer genital cancers. But many youngsters don’t get it, perhaps because parents think only sexually active people need worry about HPV. The vaccine is available for ages 9 to 45.
Make sleep a priority. How much sleep you need depends on age. School-age kids need about nine to 11 hours, teens about eight to 10 hours, and adults about seven to nine hours. Insist on making bedtime a cellphone-free zone at all ages -- their light messes with your natural rhythms, and you may even end up sleep texting.
Set a good driving example. Don’t talk on the phone when you’re behind the wheel. Distracted driving leads to about one in four motor vehicle accidents in the United States. And it’s a good opportunity to listen to the kids you may be schlepping around.
Check your workplace or school for an automated external defibrillator. Each year, more than 350,000 people suffer a sudden cardiac arrest, and most of them die from it. If used promptly, AEDs could revive many of those victims.
Know the symptoms of the leading cause of infertility in women. Polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) affects the reproductive and metabolic health of many women, yet it’s still widely misunderstood. Check out PCOS.org for information and support.
Goal: A fitter form
Exercise. Getting up and moving even if it is just a few times a week is a great way to keep healthy. It will help to strengthen your heart, keep weight in check, improve posture, and help with balance.
No gym membership or equipment required. Search around your home for objects that can be used as fitness tools. Simple staples such as laundry detergent bottles, hand towels, even paper plates work as effectively as the expensive exercise equipment found at your local gym. (Ashley Greenblatt)
Short on time? Even if you have only 10 minutes for fitness, you can burn calories and improve your cardiovascular health by performing a circuit that requires maximum exertion with very little rest between exercises. (Ashley Greenblatt)
Goal: Healthier eating
Can’t figure out why you can’t lose weight? It’s time to get real with yourself. Have you set reasonable goals, and do you have a solid plan to reach them? Are you holding yourself accountable? Are you asking for help (as in, “Honey, please don’t bring home my favorite ice cream!”). If the scale still won’t budge, see your doctor. (Michelle Lent)
Avoid sugar and artificial sweeteners. They fuel urges for more, and they can hide in the most unlikely foods. Read labels carefully, looking for words that end in “ose” (dextrose, fructose) or “ol” (sorbitol, xylitol, mannitol) and know that maple syrup and honey are delicious, but not really any better for sugar-watchers. (David Becker)
Low fat or low carb? Actually, it’s a little more complicated than that. Some fats are good in moderation (avocados, olive oil), and so are some carbs (high-fiber fruits and veggies). Try the Mediterranean Diet for a plan that is consistently linked with good health. (David Becker)
Be wary of trendy diets. The ketogenic diet can lead to weight loss -- but there is not enough research to conclude whether the keto diet causes a weight loss due to its high-fat, low-carb profile or a reduction in calories. But research does suggest that after rapid weight loss, keto dieters can expect rapid regain. (Kimberly Mugler)
Don’t fret fast-food meals. On a busy day, fast food may be your only option, so enjoy a meal now and then. Don’t supersize the fries, skip the sugary drinks, and opt for a side salad instead of fries with your (single) burger, and you can have a fairly healthy meal.
Goal: Better mental health
Try art therapy. If you’re dealing with depression, anxiety, or stress, creative arts can help by forcing you to be mindful, find purpose, and connect with others. The next time you’re overwhelmed, try painting, playing music, or journaling.
Build emotional resilience. Experts say emotional resilience, the ability to channel a traumatic experience into positive action, is a key attribute of people who thrive in life. To build resilience, practice fostering a positive mindset or pushing yourself to do tasks you’re uncomfortable with. You can also check out the Mind Matters curriculum at janamariefoundation.org.
If you’ve experienced sexual trauma, don’t wait to get help. Sexual assault and harassment can affect women for years, causing elevated blood pressure, anxiety, depression, and insomnia. Getting help earlier may lessen the long-term effects. Call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 or contact your local rape crisis center, which can be found in a national database at centers.rainn.org.
Avoid medication changes during times of transition. Abruptly quitting psychiatric medication can lead to withdrawal symptoms, resurgence of symptoms, and even mental-health crises. Always consult your doctor first.
Learn to recognize the signs of potential suicide, which now is the second leading cause of death for adolescents and young adults. Don’t be afraid to ask someone who seems at risk directly. Online courses can help you practice. Check out QPRinstitute.com. Philadelphia offers free Mental Health First Aid training. Find workshops at healthymindsphilly.org.
Goal: More affordable care
Choose the right facility. If your health problem is not life-threatening, consider going to an urgent-care center rather than a costlier hospital emergency department.
Avoid surprise bills. Ask your doctor or insurance company how much tests and procedures will cost to avoid expensive bills. If it’s more than you can afford, it’s OK to ask whether there’s a lower-cost alternative. For routine procedures such as colonoscopies and mammograms, be sure to ask whether the screening is preventative, which is free, or diagnostic, which could cost you.
Review medical bills. Look out for errors to be sure you weren’t charged for services you didn’t receive.
Consider a subscription service. Many local volunteer ambulance squads give discounts to people who donate as part of their subscription service, saving you the risk of a big bill if you anticipate needing an ambulance this year.
Ask for help. If you’re having trouble paying a hospital bill, ask whether you qualify for a financial support program or a payment plan, or if the hospital would accept a lower amount if paid off right away.
Goal: Tackling addiction
Quit smoking. Over and over, experts have told us that if you smoke, the single best thing you can do for your health — especially to increase your healthy years later in life — is to quit. But this can be especially difficult if you live or work with other smokers. One of the best things you can do to quit is make your home smoke-free.
Learn about addiction treatment. If you or a loved one needs treatment for an opioid use disorder, studies have shown that medication-assisted treatment gives people with addiction the best shot at recovery. Those who opt for medication-free detox should have inpatient treatment for at least 90 days, experts recommend.
Don’t be afraid to seek help. The only upside of the opioid epidemic is that so many people know someone in addiction or recovery that stigma is lessening. Employers such as Independence Blue Cross even celebrate employees in recovery. Workers in the city’s building trades unions who struggle with addiction can access care and treatment through the unions’ in-house referral program for substance-use disorder treatment, the Allied Trades Assistance Program.
Consider carrying naloxone. Philadelphia health officials encourage everyone in the city to carry naloxone, the overdose-reversing drug. The reasons are obvious for those in addiction, their friends, and loved ones. But overdoses can happen anywhere, and being prepared with a dose of the inhaled medicine could save a life. You don’t need a prescription to get naloxone, and it’s available at many (though not all) pharmacies and usually covered by most private and public insurance. Dispensing the spray version is as easy as giving someone a squirt of Flonase.
Goal: Aging well
Avoid shingles. Shingrix, approved in 2017 for most people over age 50, is 90 percent effective at preventing shingles and its excruciating rash, which is an aftereffect of childhood chicken pox. But the two-shot vaccine is in short supply, and Medicare beneficiaries may have a hefty copay.
To improve behavior and mood in people with dementia, help them participate in meaningful activities.
If you have incontinence, you don’t have to just live with it. Tell your doctor. There are treatments that help.
To cope with loneliness or grief, join a club or senior center. Volunteer.
Goal: A healthier environment
Watch what you throw in the blue bin. The recycling markets were upended this year when China said it would refuse anything contaminated by regular trash, water, and even greasy pizza boxes. That meant more waste went to landfills and incinerators. Go to your municipality’s website and look for guidance on what can be recycled. Philadelphia’s page is especially useful.
Don’t spread bugs around. The much-loathed spotted lanternfly, first detected in Bucks County in 2014, is spreading at an alarming rate throughout Pennsylvania and is now in New Jersey and a host of other states. Fearing its agricultural threat, state officials are asking residents to help. Check cars, grills, outdoor furniture, etc., for egg masses from late fall to early spring. If you spot eggs, scrape them into a plastic bag with rubbing alcohol or hand sanitizer to kill them. Report infestations to 1-888-422-3359. And watch out for places where water can pool, providing a happy breeding ground for mosquitoes as the weather warms up.
Cut back on plastic. From microplastics found in water sold in plastic bottles, to the plastic shopping bags that foul our waterways and get into the stomachs of all sorts of wildlife, plastics are among our greatest environmental threats. By carrying reusable shopping bags, or refusing bags for things that don’t really need one, you can avoid using hundreds of bags a year. And keep reusable water bottles at your desk, in your car and your backpack, purse, or briefcase so you never need a disposable one. A list of 100 ways to cut back on plastic is at myplasticfreelife.com.
Inquirer staff writers Tom Avril, Stacey Burling, Sarah Gantz, Rita Giordano, Frank Kummer, Marie McCullough, Aneri Pattani, Mari Schaefer, Aubrey Whelan, and community health journalists David Becker, M.D., Ashley Greenblatt, Michelle Lent, Ph.D. and Kimberly Mugler, R.D., contributed to this report, which can be found online at philly.com/healthytips.