You can’t choose your genes. Your family history could put you at risk of developing high blood pressure or other health problems. But you can make smart lifestyle choices that science has shown improves overall health and may counteract genetic risks.
Quincy Quinlan, TAC Health and Benefits Services Department Director, detailed seven behavioral investments that help determine good health during the Opening General Session of the Healthy County Boot Camp conference in February. “These strategies have proven out over time,” Quinlan said. “You get a fantastic return on investment.”
1. Get Enough Sleep
“Most of us don’t get enough sleep,” Quinlan said. We should be getting seven to nine hours on average each night, according to the National Sleep Foundation.
You’re probably not getting enough sleep if you:
- Could fall back asleep at 10 or 11 a.m.
- Can’t function optimally without caffeine before noon.
- Find yourself reading and re-reading the material you’re looking at.
- While driving, sometimes forget the color of the last few traffic lights.
“Sleep is a pillar of healthy living, just like diet and exercise,” he said. A lack of sleep affects our health and lives in drastic ways:
- Weakened immune system – In a study of healthy young adults, participants who slept four hours a night for six nights prior to receiving a flu shot generated less than 50 percent of the immune response than those who had slept seven and a half to eight hours per night.
- Weight gain – Cravings for sweets, carbohydrate-rich foods and salty snacks increase by 30-40 percent when sleep is reduced by several hours each night over a short period.
- Cancer risk – The disruption of circadian rhythms, your body’s natural sleep/wakefulness cycle, has been shown to increase the odds of developing cancer.
- Productivity – A study across four large U.S. companies found that insufficient sleep cost almost $2,000 per employee per year in lost productivity – a cost of $411 billion each year.
- Impaired driving – Accidents caused by drowsy driving exceed those caused by alcohol and other drugs combined.
So how can you improve your sleep? Quinlan provided these to-dos:
- Establish a regular bedtime and wake-up time, even on weekends.
- Avoid heavy foods late in the evening and caffeine past mid-day.
- Go to bed only when sleepy; avoid dozing on the couch during the evening.
- Sleep in a cool room.
- Don’t lie awake in bed for a significant time – get up and do something quiet and relaxing until you are sleepy again.
- Avoid daytime napping if you are having trouble sleeping at night.
- Reduce anxiety-provoking thoughts by learning to mentally decelerate before bed.
- Remove visible clock-faces from view in the bedroom to prevent clock-watching anxiety.
- Avoid use of alcohol and sleep aid medications. These substances disrupt your natural sleep cycle. They also come with health risks, including the risk of dependence.
- Avoid blue light from tablets, smartphones and other devices – it adversely affects your body’s melatonin production.
For more information on the topic, Quinlan (below) recommended the book “Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams,” by Matthew Walker, PhD.
2. Consume Good Quality Foods
The quality of the food we eat affects us on multiple levels, Quinlan said. It affects how we feel physically and emotionally, our energy level, how we look, our ability to focus and our performance of job tasks, and our long-term health and longevity.
It is important to eat a diet with a wide variety of fruits and vegetables that provides essential nutrients, such as phytochemicals, vitamins, minerals, fiber, antioxidants, enzymes, probiotics and chlorophyll.
Consume good quality proteins such as nuts, beans, fatty fish (like salmon), grass-fed beef and hormone- and antibiotic-free eggs, milk and chicken.
Limit carbohydrates and grains, as well as processed foods and alcohol. “Ideally, the primary sources of carbohydrates are vegetables and fruits,” he said. Choose root vegetables other than potatoes and whole grain, not bleached or processed breads.
3. Move Your Body
“Movement doesn’t have to be at the gym with some crazy instructor pushing you,” he said. “Walking, kayaking, biking … anything that requires the body to move is a wonderful thing.”
A lack of movement and a high metabolic index were associated with 7.2 years of life lost compared to meeting recommended activity levels and normal weight, he said.
Aim for at least 20 to 40 minutes a day of walking. “We’ve got to get all the people in the courthouse and the county barns and the district offices moving,” Quinlan said. “The body was designed to move.”
To step things up, you could do vigorous cardio 25 minutes a day, three times a week and eight to 10 strength-training exercises for eight to 10 repetitions twice a week.
4. Drink Plenty of Water
Water is involved in every cellular process in your body and when you are dehydrated, they all run less efficiently, including your metabolism.
“When you don’t drink water, your ability to lose weight goes down,” Quinlan said. “Being even 1 percent dehydrated can affect your metabolism.”
- For instance, water plays multiple critical roles:
- Transports nutrients and oxygen to cells;
- Cushions joints;
- Stabilizes heartbeat;
- Helps normalize blood pressure;
- Prevents constipation;
- Flushes bacteria from the bladder;
“Invest in a water filter,” Quinlan added. “If you don’t have a filter, you’re the filter.”
Quinlan said we should drink an ounce of water for every pound we weigh, and also adjust intake according to the climate we live in.
5. Practice Deep Breathing
We should breathe deeply into our lower belly, filling our lungs with air. Instead, we tend to take shallow breaths, keeping our stomachs tucked in. This “chest breathing” increases tension and anxiety.
Deep breathing releases endorphins, nature’s feel-good painkillers. The upward and downward movement of the diaphragm also helps remove toxins from the organs, promoting better blood flow. Increased oxygen also can boost our energy levels.
6. Get Some Sunshine
Maintaining ideal levels of Vitamin D significantly reduces your risk of developing certain bone diseases such as osteoporosis. Ideal Vitamin D levels may also reduce your risk of other diseases such as multiple sclerosis, Type 1 diabetes, heart disease and metabolic syndrome.
Spending 15-30 minutes (depending on your skin type) in the sun can provide you with nearly a day’s supply of vitamin D through skin absorption. Quinlan advised to be sure to check with your doctor about skin cancer prevention.
You will get the added benefit of getting some fresh air while you are outside, he said. “And it costs nothing.”
7. Practice Spiritual and Emotional Renewal
“This is one of the ones we neglect the most,” he said. “We take care of our spouses, our kids, our parents, the folks at the office. We don’t take the time to sit and restore ourselves.”
Practice yoga or meditation. Schedule regular times to journal, read inspirational literature or pray. “Just take 15-30 minutes,” Quinlan said. “You cannot give to the people who depend on you what you do not have.”
An additional behavioral change that benefits health and bears repeating: “The single most important thing you can do for your health is to not smoke,” Quinlan added, “smoking, on average, takes 10 years off a person’s life.”