Small changes can have a big impact on your health and wallet

At this time of year, my patients often tell me they want to prioritize their health. Often, they don’t know how to begin making these changes. Together, we talk about their goals and the impact they can have on their overall health.

Of course, the hope is not only to improve their health in the short term, but also to improve their longevity (how long they live) and their health (years lived without significant disease) and quality of life.

My patients are often surprised by how incorporating healthy habits can positively impact their wallets. Think about it: If you can avoid or reduce visits to the doctor, you can save money on co-pays, prescriptions, or over-the-counter medications. Plus, you won’t have to miss work or arrange childcare for appointments or call in sick. Remember, most common diseases can be prevented with healthy daily habits.

Living and maintaining a healthy lifestyle is a journey. When it comes to setting goals to improve healthy habits, I recommend the advice of James Clear, author of “Atomic Habits.” He writes that people should think about who they want to be and make a daily plan to get there. He recommends taking small steps each day to help you reach a bigger goal.

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Here are some great ways to take care of yourself and avoid avoidable trips to the doctor:

• Schedule an exam or physical with your primary care physician (PCP).

• Exercise

• Sleep

• Eat a healthy diet and maintain a healthy weight

Keeping regular appointments with your PCP allows your doctor to regularly evaluate your medical history and your family’s medical history to identify and screen for potential risks and treat if necessary.

During these appointments, your doctor can work with you to develop a health plan moving forward. The plan should be managed by you with advice and guidance from your PCP. Your primary care doctor can recommend any necessary health screenings and vaccinations during this appointment.

Exercise is an area that many people want to improve but often struggle due to time constraints with work and family responsibilities. Although it’s ideal to achieve 30 minutes of aerobic activity most days, it’s easy to incorporate exercise with a little creativity.

If your schedule is packed with kids’ activities and sporting events, consider adding your workout in while your kids practice. When my kids were little I would go to their practices and run around the track on their practice fields. I still got to watch them practice while working out on busy days.

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Exercise can be fun! Find a friend who has similar exercise needs and goals. Plan a weekly exercise session instead of meeting for dinner.

I also recommend incorporating strength training into your routine to build and maintain muscle. As we age, we naturally begin to lose muscle mass. Loss of muscle mass can lead to imbalance and falls, which can lead to devastating injuries, especially in the elderly.

Starting an exercise program can feel overwhelming. If you’re looking for a place to start, I usually recommend walking because it’s free and often already has a good pair of supportive shoes.

People who exercise also tend to sleep better. If you’re looking to improve your sleep, try incorporating some of these well-known practices: Go to bed at the same time every night, in a dark room, with the temperature set at 68 degrees or lower. Limit screens two hours before bedtime. Other things that can help are a white noise machine and a warm bath before bed.

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If you can’t fall asleep within 15 minutes or fall back asleep within 15 minutes of waking up, get out of bed. Reading or listening to an audiobook is a good activity until you’re ready to go back to sleep.

When a patient asks for my advice on eating or incorporating healthy foods, I always recommend the Mediterranean diet. Focusing on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, seeds, nuts, legumes, healthy animal/fish protein and healthy fats, this lifestyle diet has been proven to support better health. This diet also limits alcohol and processed foods.

As you work to incorporate one of these healthy habits into your lifestyle, you should talk to your doctor so you can set small goals to work toward the larger overall goal you hope to reach. When you achieve a small goal, take time to reflect on what worked and what didn’t, so you can adjust moving forward. Reward yourself when you reach a milestone to encourage you to stay on this healthy journey.

Dr. Brian Cain is Head of Family Practice at Tower Health.

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