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Monday, December 1, 2008

Twelve Ways to Improve Your Health

It’s never too late to improve your health, whether you want to prevent future disease or treat current conditions. Use this guide to outline your personal twelve-step program or focus on one issue each month to make this your healthiest year yet.

Evaluate Your Current Condition

If it’s been awhile since you’ve seen your doctor, schedule an appointment for a routine physical exam and any lab tests she or he thinks is necessary. Discuss your health concerns and goals, family medical history and risk factors for chronic illnesses. Review medications, supplements, diet and exercise habits. Formulate a plan with your doctor to optimize physical, mental and emotional health.

Stop Smoking

People who smoke cigarettes have a higher risk of developing lung cancer, throat cancer, emphysema, ulcers, gum disease and cardiovascular diseases such as high blood pressure, coronary artery disease and heart attack. Cigarettes are also unhealthy for people exposed to second hand smoke. If you smoke, quit now.

Clean Your Kitchen

A healthier diet and lifestyle starts in the kitchen. Cooking your own food allows you to choose ingredients and methods of food preparation, imposing quality control that isn’t possible when dining in restaurants, ordering take-out and eating processed foods. Clean out your cupboards, pantry, fridge and freezer. Eliminate pre-packaged meals and snacks, sugar, artificial sweeteners and white flour. Instead, stock whole grains like brown rice, quinoa and millet; minimally processed sweeteners like maple syrup and honey; legumes like lentils, beans and dried peas; fresh fruit and vegetables; frozen spinach and berries; tinned fish like sardines, herring and mackerel; and healthy snacks like raw nuts and plain yogurt. Buy a cookbook or check one out from the library if you need to familiarize yourself with preparing whole foods or are looking for new recipe ideas.

Exercise Everyday

Regular physical activity reduces the risk of chronic illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, certain cancers, depression, diabetes and dementia. Exercise doesn’t have to happen in a gym, as long as the key components are there: aerobic exercise, strengthening exercise and stretching. Once you have your doctor’s permission, start slowly and gradually the increase time and intensity of your workouts. Meet with a personal trainer if you need instruction or inspiration. From hiking and biking to swimming and squash, aim for a minimum of 30 minutes of physical activity five days each week. Aat the very least, sedentary individuals can start with a daily walk around the block.

Eat More Vegetables

A vegetable-based diet is full of fiber, antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and other important nutrients that are important for good digestion, optimal health and disease prevention. Aim for seven to nine servings each day. In most cases, one half cup equals one serving, but when it comes to raw green leafy vegetables like lettuce, count one cup as a serving. Benefit your body and your community by shopping for fresh, seasonal, organic produce at local farmer’s markets.

Eliminate Processed Foods

After you have eliminated processed foods from your kitchen, eliminate them from your diet completely. Unlike whole foods, they lack fiber, nutrients and water. Most processed foods also contain additives and preservatives that can have negative impacts on health.

Take a Steam or Sauna

Increase circulation and detoxification with a weekly visit to a steam room or sauna. First get approval from your doctor, then start with one fifteen-minute session each week. Remember to replace lost fluids by drinking extra water and compensate for lost electrolytes by eating foods that contain concentrated amounts. Good choices include celery, broccoli, artichokes, parsnips, mustard greens, apricots, figs, watermelon, kiwi and kidney beans.

Relax

Counter stress by incorporating relaxation into your daily schedule. Yoga, tai chi and qi gong are good choices that offer other health benefits as well, including better balance, flexibility, strength and coordination. Meditation and breathing exercises can be done anytime, anywhere. For a basic breathing exercise, position yourself so that your spine is straight and exhale completely. Inhale quietly through your nose for a count of four, hold your breath for a count of seven, then exhale through pursed lips, making a “whoosh” sound, for a count of eight. Repeat three or more times.

Sleep Better

Good sleep is critical for good health. Lack of sufficient sleep can be associated with high blood pressure, overweight and obesity. Sleep deprivation may also increase production of stress hormones in the blood and elevate levels of inflammatory substances, increasing risk for heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer. To get a good night’s sleep, evaluate your mattress and pillows for comfort and support and replace them when needed. Make your sleeping environment as peaceful as possible and avoid working, watching television or using computers in the bedroom. If you have trouble sleeping, talk to your doctor about any medical conditions that may be interfering with sound sleep. Choose relaxation techniques over medications, which cause daytime drowsiness, create dependence and lose effectiveness over time.

Drink More Tea

Staying hydrated with teas that are full of antioxidants and cancer-fighting compounds. Choose low-caffeine green or white tea, or caffeine-free herbal or rooibos tea, also known as red tea. Drink them hot or cold, several times per day.

Have Fun

Spending time doing things that you love is good for you. Once considered a mere myth, the mind-body connection is now supported by scientific studies and recognized as an important factor in health and disease. Because mental and emotional conditions can affect physical well-being, taking time to have fun benefits your whole body.

Seek Supplements

A doctor trained in the use of nutritional and botanical medicines can create an individualized plan for supplements to address current conditions and prevent disease. Never self-diagnose and seek expert advise before taking medicines, whether natural or pharmaceutical.

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