High Five to Your Health

By Kumara Sidhartha MD, MPH

High Five to your Health

This time of the year we are bursting with renewed energy to shine and to focus on ourselves and our loved ones. In case you haven’t noticed it yet, New Year and New Hope are twins – born every January. New Year’s has become the hopeful season for setting goals for self-growth.

Many a resolutions, of different varieties, are set this month. Some are achieved, others are not. But why do so many resolutions fail? One reason is that a goal without a process will fail to find success. Resolutions are more likely to be successful when you have a processing guide to get you to your goal – like a GPS navigation tool. The key quality of such a tool is that it should leave you empowered. I would like to share with you such a tool – a five-step guide to facilitate a successful resolution – be it a shift to a whole foods, plant-based diet and lifestyle, an exercise program or a writing routine. I am calling it the High Five.

Specific goals = successful goals

Vague goals don’t work (as in “eat more fruit and vegetables”). The more specific one is with the goal, the more successful he/she is[1]. Setting a goal by spelling it out specifically with details is more effective. One of the common goals set among my patients when they start their healthy eating journey is to “fill at least half the dinner plate with at least three colors of veggies –cooked or raw.” It is a winner, every time. Such early victories – no matter how small- are essential to fuel motivation.

Step it up and listen

Once early and small goals are achieved and sustained for a month, then step it up by elevating the goal to a newer level with incremental goals. For instance, move to lunch and fill half the meal with three colors of veggies or switch three breakfasts in a week to one cup of cooked whole grains + non-dairy drink with half a cup of fruit. Every time you start moving toward the next goal, pay attention to the changes in your body and turn the food dial up or down depending upon what your body is telling you.

Balance your willpower budget

Myth: Some humans have unlimited willpower while others don’t. Fact: Humans have only a limited budget of willpower to exercise every day[2]. What do I mean by this? Let’s take an example of a patient of mine. She is a single working mother of two children. During her typical day she comes across situations which demands willpower to keep her poise. She borrows from her daily willpower budget while maintaining her demeanor as she get the kids ready for school, deals with crazy drivers on the road and put up with coworkers’ behavior. By the end of day, when she returns home and finds a piece of cake or a slice of cheese on her kitchen table, she has nothing left in the willpower budget to draw from. The key is to re-arrange your living environment so that healthy choices such as a bowl of fruit are ready and accessible rather than cake or cheese. Don’t stock your kitchen with unhealthy stuff. If you have to have an occasional treat, “hide” them. If it isn’t readily reachable, even if you know where you “hid” it, you are less likely to bother with digging it out of your closet. Bottom line: our environment and access to healthy food (in the kitchen, workplace and neighborhoods) is more important than our reliance on willpower. So, stop beating yourself up (“I am weak”) and be kind to yourself as you explore healthy choices and have that occasional slip.

One step back? Go two steps forward

This tip is based on the wisdom shared by Dean Ornish, MD. You had that slip and made an unhealthy choice. Instead of beating yourself up, know that you are human trying to do your best in an environment that works against your best intentions. Make up for it the following week through better choices made consciously. The body can take that occasional hit when you make unhealthy choices but the trouble starts when that becomes a pattern.

Connect / Create community

Loneliness hurts, literally. A sense of loneliness creates a higher risk of death and disease than cigarette smoking[3]. The risk of death from a sense of loneliness is associated at the same level of risk as dying from diabetes[4]. Social isolation creates more inflammation[5] and poor capacity to repair in the body[6]. On the flip side, a sense of belonging to a community increases longevity[7] and the ability to stay on the path of healthy choices[8]. So, connect with others. Throw a pot luck. Start a conversation. You never know, that could make a world of difference to someone who is lonely. A simple conversation can be healing.

So, there it is. High five to your health and your goals. My best wishes for a healthy, happy and successful New Year to you. Now, go and get it.

Kumara Sidhartha MD, MPHThe author, Kumara Sidhartha MD, MPH-Nutrition, is a public health nutrition expert and a board-certified physician in practice at Emerald Physicians, LLC (member Cape Cod Healthcare) in Cape Cod, MA.

References

  1. Foster G.D. , Makris A.P. , Bailer P.A. (2005). Behavioral treatment of obesity. Am J Clin Nutr, 82, 230-235.
  2. Muraven, M., Baumeister, R. F. (2000). Self-regulation and depletion of limited resources: Does self-control resemble a muscle? Psychological Bulletin, 126, 247– 259.
  3. House J.S., Landis K.R., Umberson D. (1988). Social Relationships and Health. Science, 241, 540-545.
  4. Liu L. (2011). Social connections, diabetes mellitus and risk of mortality among white and African-American adults aged 70 and older: an eight-year follow up study. Annals of Epidemiology, 21, 1, 26-33.
  5. American Heart Association. Social Connections: Could Heartwarming Be Heart-saving? ScienceDaily. May 2005. Retrieved from link on January 2, 2015.
  6. Cacioppo J.T., Hawkley L.C. (2003). Social isolation and health, with an emphasis to underlying mechanisms. Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, 46, 3 suppl, S39-52.
  7. Perls T.T, Silver M.H. (1999). Living to 100: Lessons in Living To Your Maximum Potential at Any Age., 1st edition, New York, NY: Basic Books.
  8. Barnard N.D., Scialli A.R., Turner-McGrievy G.M., Lanou A.J.,Glass J. (2005). The effects of a low-fat plant-based dietary intervention on body weight, metabolism, and insulin sensitivity. The American Journal of Medicine, 118, 991-997.