Health is always a priority heading into a new year, but amid the COVID-19 pandemic, maintaining a healthy lifestyle is more important than ever. In a survey asking Americans about their 2022 New Year’s resolutions, one-quarter of the respondents who were making resolutions reported that they set a goal to live healthier. With wellness so front of mind, doctors, nurses, and dietitians from NewYork-Presbyterian shared with Health Matters their tips to help create healthy habits.
Staying physically fit improves cardiovascular and muscular health and helps fight disease. Exercising also has been shown to reduce stress and improve your overall mood, so try to squeeze in at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise each week, the minimum recommended by the American Heart Association, plus at least two days of muscle-strengthening activities. “Making a daily commitment to exercise, stretch, meditate, or practice any other form of self-care may help you feel calmer and allow you to reset,” says Maria Biondi, RDN, CDN, a NYPBeHealthy well-being coach at NewYork-Presbyterian Queens.
Here are some simple ways to break the exercises down into 30-minute increments, courtesy of the NYPBeHealthy wellness team:
- Take at least two 30-minute walks a week at lunchtime or plan some walking meetings.
- Do 30 minutes of strength training with a kettlebell or hand weights while watching TV.
- Jump rope for 15 minutes when you get up in the morning and again when you get home at night.
- Do squats at your desk for 10-minute increments three times per day.
In the winter months, don’t be afraid to brave the cold for your workouts. “Exercising outdoors provides all of the physical benefits that we get from indoor exercise — cardiovascular health, strength, flexibility, and endurance — but we also get many other important benefits,” says Dr. Morgan Busko, attending physician at NewYork-Presbyterian Lawrence Hospital.
Just being in the sun increases your body’s creation of vitamin D, which protects you from a host of medical problems, says Dr. Busko, who is also an assistant professor of primary care sports at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. And exercising outdoors may provide a special psychological boost.
“There are studies that show that exercising in nature actually increases the levels of dopamine, serotonin, and natural endorphins that are released through the body,” says Dr. Busko. “If you do the same exact workout outdoors versus indoors, you’re getting a bigger dose of these neuromuscular transmitters that promote a happy mood.” Outdoor exercise may also provide a better workout. “When you are outdoors, you don’t realize that you’re tackling hills or uneven trails, as opposed to being on a machine in the gym, where you may stay at the same resistance or level of intensity for the entire the workout,” says Dr. Busko.
For people who are working from home, regular movement during the work day can also help reduce aches and pains. “Motion is medicine when it comes to spine health,” says Dr. J. Ricky Singh, director of interventional spine at NewYork-Presbyterian Och Spine and vice chair and associate professor in the Department of Rehabilitation Medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine. For example, you can add 10 squats, 10 tricep dips on a solid chair, and wall pushups to your daily routine. Also, make a point to get up from your desk two or three times an hour to walk around and do light stretching, such as back bends, which will help counter being hunched over a computer.
In addition to getting enough fruits, vegetables, and whole grains throughout the day, focus on protein in the morning, says Dr. Rekha B. Kumar, an attending endocrinologist at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center and an assistant professor of medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine. Packing your breakfast with protein will keep blood sugar and some “hunger hormones” more stable throughout the day, helping to control your appetite. Egg-white omelets, Greek yogurt, and protein shakes are examples. Dr. Kumar also advises against too much sugar, especially in the form of high fructose corn syrup. Consuming excess sugar leads to a condition called insulin resistance, which is a precursor to type 2 diabetes, a fatty liver, and cardiovascular disease. It has also been associated with cirrhosis, neuropathy, kidney disease, general inflammation, and cancer.
A diet with less red meat will lead to a host of benefits if you replace the calories with whole plant foods, says Dr. Shilpa Ravella, a gastroenterologist at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center and an assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. Your blood cholesterol levels will drop, and you’ll decrease your risk of chronic diseases, including top killers like heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes, and obesity.
One easy-to-follow diet that avoids red meat is the Mediterranean diet, a plant-based, low-carbohydrate diet that is full of “healthy” fats like nuts and seeds and is clinically proven to decrease our risk of developing heart disease, says Dr. Altaf Pirmohamed, site director of cardiology at NewYork-Presbyterian Lower Manhattan Hospital and assistant professor of clinical medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine. “Focus on eating vegetables cooked in olive oil and natural spices, fruits, whole grains, and healthy fats,” he says.
Dr. Alessio Pigazzi, chief of colorectal surgery at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center and Weill Cornell Medicine, agrees, noting the diet’s benefit to colon health as well. What you eat can cause inflammation in your bowels and gut, and inflammation is a predisposing factor for colorectal cancer development. Researchers have identified the main food substances that cause inflammation in the body and may contribute to an increased risk of colorectal cancer: Sugar, animal fats, and red and processed meats. There isn’t one specific vegetable that is a magic cure-all for a healthy colon. It’s more about eating a variety of nutritious foods and focusing on a colorful, plant-based diet. “The best diet — and I’m a little bit biased because I’m Italian — is probably a Mediterranean diet on steroids,” says Dr. Pigazzi. “We need to increase the consumption of fruit, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and berries and try to keep the amount of red meat and animal fats to an absolute minimum.”
Need some inspiration? Check out these healthy and delicious vegetarian soups and stews from Emilie Berner, chef and coordinator at NewYork-Presbyterian Hudson Valley Hospital’s Chef Peter X. Kelly Teaching Kitchen.
The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted many people’s sleep patterns — some have even suffered from what’s known as “coronasomnia” — but it’s critical to keep a regular sleep schedule and get about eight hours of sleep a night, says Dr. Daniel Barone, a neurologist and sleep medicine expert at the Center for Sleep Medicine at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center and an associate professor of neurology at Weill Cornell Medicine. “Having a strong, healthy immune system gives us a little more of a barrier against developing a COVID infection, so it’s important to prioritize sleep,” says Dr. Barone.
He suggests establishing a regular bedtime and wake-up time, avoiding caffeine later in the day, turning off electronics before bedtime, setting boundaries around your media consumption, exercising regularly, avoiding naps, cutting out alcohol, and paying attention to the possible signs of sleep apnea.
4. Protect Yourself From COVID-19 and the Flu
“Last year’s flu season was mild since many people stayed isolated due to COVID,” says pediatrician and immunization expert Dr. Melissa Stockwell, chief of the Division of Child and Adolescent Health at NewYork-Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital and NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center. “This year we are concerned it will be a more severe season.”
The single best way to protect yourself from the flu and COVID-19? Get the vaccine for both, and the COVID booster if you’re eligible, says Dr. Stockwell. “Studies have shown that people can get both shots at the same time and it won’t affect their antibody response.”
Fortunately, the preventive measures for COVID-19 also apply for the flu: avoiding large crowds and gatherings, wearing a mask, social distancing, frequent handwashing, and staying at home when you feel sick. “A lot of people may be coughing and sneezing, so the likelihood of transmission is much higher when you’re having active symptoms,” says Dr. Ting Ting Wong, an attending physician and infectious disease specialist at NewYork-Presbyterian Brooklyn Methodist Hospital. “These are all preventions for COVID as well as influenza transmission.”
It’s especially important for pregnant women to protect themselves from the flu and COVID-19 with vaccines. Not only is the flu shot effective and safe for the baby, says Dr. Laura Riley, obstetrician and gynecologist-in-chief at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, but it also protects babies who are born during flu season, which runs from October through April. Flu vaccinations given to pregnant women reduce the risk of hospitalization from influenza by about 70% for infants younger than 6 months old. As for COVID-19: ““We do have lots of epidemiologic data which suggests that pregnancy plus COVID-19 is not a good mix,” says Dr. Riley. “Pregnant women have had more admissions to the ICU, more mechanical ventilation, and more deaths, although the absolute number is low. The flip side is you’ve got a vaccine that works to prevent severe illness.”
Whether you’re looking to lose weight, get in better shape, stay in better touch with family and friends, quit smoking or drinking, or have another goal in mind, there are simple strategies you can adopt to stick with your plan, says Dr. Gail Saltz, a psychoanalyst and assistant attending physician at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center and clinical associate professor of psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medicine. She suggests:
- Own up to what needs to be changed.
- Write out your goals and corresponding action plan in weekly parts.
- Start with a journal entry of “Why?”
- Create incentives.
- Tell someone else.
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