Ten ways to get healthy

Experts weigh in with self-improvement strategies for 2018

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Each January, we hear sayings such as “new year, new you,” and “start the year off right.” That’s because the beginning of the calendar year is a time of self-reflection, thoughts about the future, and oftentimes, New Year’s resolutions about living a healthier life.

Those proclamations typically are followed by advice about eating healthier and increasing exercise, and while those things are certainly important, there’s more to consider when making a pledge to embark on a journey of self-improvement.

With this time of new beginnings in mind, the CN&R has come up with 10 strategies, aided by experts in the field, to help serve as a guide for a healthful and fulfilling 2018.

1. Be S.M.A.R.T. with exercise

Most people know that a regular routine of physical activity is good for this machine/temple/meatsack that is our body, helping to maintain a leaner, more powerful and energy-efficient vehicle that will last longer before breaking down. But something that those who don’t exercise might not realize is that just the act of working out itself makes you feel happy.

Chelsea Petersen, a certified personal trainer who teaches one-on-one sessions and group exercise classes at In Motion Fitness, says that one of the first things she hears from first-time clients who make the jump into a fitness routine is that they’re “happier” when they exercise. Whether it’s endorphins released during physical activity, or just a sense of accomplishment and wellness at having done something beneficial for your body, there is a pleasurable payoff to go along with the pain of working out for the first time or after returning from a long break.

“When you first start, it’s the hardest,” Petersen said, “but it gets easier as you go. It just takes a good month to get acclimated to it.” The key is starting slow and not setting unreasonable goals, like, “‘I’m going to lose 50 pounds in two months!’ It’s not maintainable,” she said.

And no matter whether you work with a trainer, take an exercise class or go it alone in a gym or on the jogging trail, Petersen suggests first visiting a doctor for a physical assessment, and then doing things S.M.A.R.T. by using the acronym for the popular goal-setting criteria when making your exercise plan:

Specific: Instead of generally “getting in shape,” say exactly what you plan on doing—“I’m going to run after work every day; I’m going to join this spinning class.”

Measurable: Get a calorie counter and track your calories in and calories burned; track your workouts and make increases according to goals, etc.

Attainable: Start slow. You can always level up.

Relevant: Decide your goals (lose weight, get swole) and seek out the workout that will get you there.

Time-bound: Set deadlines—weekly if you can: “This week I’m going to burn 2,000 calories.”

Ultimately, to succeed in exercise, you need to find a spot among the priorities of work, play, paying bills and sleep, and decide to make it a regular part of your schedule. “When it’s important enough to you, you’ll follow through with it,” Petersen said. “But the hard part is staying on track. … Everyone needs to come up with a plan to stay on track.”

2. Sleep right

Everyone who’s trudged through the day bleary-eyed and fuzzy-minded after a restless night can attest to the fact that sleep deprivation is uncomfortable and inconvenient, but it can also have serious physical and mental consequences.

Chronic lack of the proper amount of sleep—which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report affects more than one-third of all Americans—has been proven to contribute to conditions including obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke and depression. Furthermore, Americans’ collective tiredness is responsible for a more than $400 billion annual hit to the U.S. economy—due to missed work, on-the-job accidents and other effects—according to a study conducted by nonprofit think tank Rand Europe. That same study found that people who regularly sleep less than six hours nightly are 13 percent more likely to die early than those getting seven to nine hours of sleep.

“You can do everything right, like get good exercise and eat well, but none of it really matters if you don’t get good sleep,” said Dr. Dinesh Verma, an expert in critical care and pulmonary and internal medicine at the North State Sleep Center. “It’s what our brains and bodies need to work properly.”

So how much sleep do we need? That varies due to age and other factors, but most experts agree that adults between the ages of 18 to 60 require at least seven hours nightly. Staff at North State Sleep Center offered some tips to help people, including going to bed and waking up at the same time every day; creating a late-night routine focused on activities like reading, mediation or cuddling pets or people; avoiding caffeine for at least four hours before bedtime, and food for two or three hours; powering down cellphones, TVs and other electronics; and limiting use of alcohol and nicotine before bed, as both can lead to fragmented sleep.

Sleep experts also say environment is essential to good sleep, and suggest making your bedroom a sanctuary. Keep it quiet, dark, cool, comfortable and distraction-free. As literature from North State Sleep Center reads, “Use the bedroom for sleep and sex only.”

For more information about getting a good night’s sleep, visit the National Sleep Foundation’s website at sleep.org.

3. Get a checkup

An annual checkup is essential to ensuring your body runs at optimum performance. These regular doctor visits establish and monitor your body’s baseline numbers—like blood pressure, temperature and heart and respiration rates. Your doctor can also identify risk factors associated with lifestyle, environment and family history. 

According to Dr. David Alonso, a primary care and internal medicine doctor at Chico Primary Care, establishing a long-term, regular care provider is essential to wellness. 

“Having an annual checkup with a consistent provider allows that provider to get to know your personal health over time,” said Alonso, who also sits on the board of directors of the Butte-Glenn Medical Society, a group of North State doctors that advocates for community health. “Having that consistent evaluation, even when things are doing well, allows that provider to be able to pick up on things earlier, or catch subtle things that might be just a little out of the ordinary.

“They can also provide regular counseling regarding healthy lifestyle, like how each individual should exercise and how we should eat to be healthier.”

Sometimes a more thorough checkup is necessary, and doctors may also choose to do blood work and perform other tests and scans. These more in-depth screenings often focus on common health risks, such as cardiovascular disease, which is the leading cause of death in the U.S. (responsible for one in every four deaths). Common indicators include high blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Alonso said healthy adults in their 20s or 30s may need blood work done only every few years, while older people or those with increased risks need more regular tests.

Other screenings look for common forms of cancer—of the breast and cervix (for women), prostate (for men) and colon (for both). Colonoscopies should begin at age 50 for healthy adults, he said.

Alonso recommended the website of the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force (uspreventiveservicestaskforce.org) as a good source of guidelines for preventative care timelines and other information patients may wish to speak with their medical provider about.

4. Find your pack

Stephanie Chervinko sees them all the time at Chico State’s Counseling and Wellness Center: students who are new on campus and stressed out because they aren’t making friends—not close ones, anyway.

“It may not be the top presenting issue, but being able to connect and relate to others is a core piece of why students come in,” said Chervinko, who has a doctorate in psychology. “If they’re presenting with anxiety, there’s something in there about needing to open up and relate to people better.”

As a counselor, Chervinko knows how tremendously important friendships are to a person’s overall health and well-being, and not just for college students. As social animals, people are happier and healthier when they are surrounded by a strong network of friends and family—when they’ve found their pack.

“Being able to relate to people is one of those core, basic needs we all have,” Chervinko said. “We all need to rely on people and have friends and family we consider trustworthy.”

She added that close companions act as a safety net in times of trauma and tragedy by providing support both emotionally (lending an ear) and practically (lending a car).

“In general, the research bears out that people having friendship in their lives—even just one friend—can make a really big difference in terms of serving as a buffer against stress,” she said.

It’s also documented that close relationships provide a sense of place and purpose and boost self-esteem. However, as Chervinko tells stressed-out students, truly close relationships form slowly and take a lot of ongoing maintenance. They also require an exchange of respect and understanding, emotional reciprocity, and exposing personal vulnerabilities.

“Friends are essential for building a sense of esteem, of worth,” she said. “To me, it’s about mattering. We all need to feel like we matter to people—that we’re seen, we’re heard, we’re known—but a piece of that is allowing ourselves to be vulnerable, to risk letting people see you. And you have to do that in order to develop trust.”

5. Stay hydrated

Monitor your thirst and be aware of your urine volume and color.

It sounds simple, but it’s a great way to make sure you’re hydrating, according to Laura Curtis, Chico State instructor and registered dietitian.

“If you’re a healthy child or adult, your thirst can be a very accurate way to tell if you need more water,” she said.

About 50 percent to 60 percent of our bodies are made up of water. It is a natural detoxing substance that gets rid of the waste in our bodies, Curtis said, and the medium in which all chemical reactions take place within our systems. It plays an important role in regulating temperature, cushioning joints and protecting sensitive tissues.

How much water you need varies based on age, body size and sex, and the amount increases if you are ill, physically active, pregnant, breastfeeding or sweating more during warmer months. In general, men should aim for 15 to 16 cups (120-128 ounces) of water and women 11 cups (88 ounces), but that includes water in all foods and drinks consumed, Curtis said. So it’s closer to 11 and 8 cups, respectively.

Dehydration is first identified when your mouth, tongue and nose get dry, and you become thirsty. Usually, that’s when we become aware enough to reach for a glass, Curtis said.

As dehydration worsens, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, our thinking becomes unclear, moods shift and bodies overheat. Dehydration can also cause constipation and kidney stones.

Here are some tips to help encourage yourself to drink more water:

• Keep water around you. Carry a water bottle with you to work or when running errands.

• Choose water instead of sugary beverages like juice or soda, or alcohol, which tends to increase water loss.

• Bored of plain water? Other hydrating substances include flavored, fruit-infused or carbonated waters, milk, vegetable juice, soups and even caffeinated beverages like tea and coffee, for those who drink them regularly. Foods high in water content, like certain vegetables, are also hydrating.

• Make yourself a schedule. Here’s an easy one: Drink some water with your meals, before you go to bed and when you wake up.

6. Organize everything

Jessica Huavi looks back fondly at the times, during childhood, when she helped go through and discard the things cluttering her grandmother’s garage. After the space was rearranged, she said, her grandmother was so thankful for her assistance.

“It was always fun,” she said of the summertime activity. “We got to talk and spend time together.”

Huavi didn’t know it then, but her interest in that type of activity eventually would blossom into a career. Years later, when feeling weighed down by the volume of things she’d accumulated, she started looking into organization. She stumbled across a book called The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, by Marie Kondo, which became the inspiration for the business she’s operated for about a year and a half: Jessica Huavi Professional Organizing.

She conducts in-home consultations and sets up a series of sessions, based on clients’ needs, to help them sort and purge and then find a place for everything that’s left. To help with the process, Huavi personally removes the pile of things clients set aside as donations, so that they don’t “shop out of it.”

The benefits? For starters, Huavi noted, not being able to find things results in time-management issues. It also can cause a strain on relationships, especially when one partner in a couple is a neatnik and the other is a collector. Being organized saves money—people often purchase duplicates of things they can’t find, while those with messy kitchens often spend more money eating out. Living in clutter also makes it harder to clean, and there are more implications than the obvious ones. “You actually sleep better when your house is clean,” Huavi said.

Other benefits to organized living, according to scientific research: increased focus and productivity, better ability to process information, and reduced irritability.

Some of Huavi’s tips for organization include being mindful of what you bring into your home. Think about whether there is space for it and whether the item would help you be more productive. She also suggests giving friends and loved ones experiences (like dance or karate lessons or recreational outings), rather than presents, for birthdays and holidays to help cut down on their potential clutter.

Getting organized, she summed up, is life-changing.

“You’re just able to be more balanced and structured and feel more at peace.”

7. You are what you eat

Most of us probably think of dieting in restrictive terms—cutting calories and foods we shouldn’t eat. But, by definition, the word “diet” refers to what we do consume habitually.

Adopting a restrictive mindset about food is a losing proposition, according to Stephanie Bianco. As a registered dietitian and associate director of the Center for Healthy Communities—a nonprofit organization overseen by Chico State’s Research Foundation—she wants to reframe how people relate to food.

“You should be looking at what’s most nourishing,” she said. “I would say the vast majority of people in my field would tell you that diets don’t work.”

Bianco explained that dieting tends to backfire because most people focus on immediate weight loss, which amounts to a temporary fix, rather than making long-term lifestyle changes. Indeed, a wealth of research indicates that “crash” dieting—attempting to lose a lot of weight in a short time—can backfire and ultimately prove detrimental to an individual’s physical and mental health. For instance, obsessing over every pound lost or gained can lead to an extremely unhealthy relationship with food, such as an eating disorder or body dysmorphia.

“If someone is going on and off diets all the time, yeah, there can be a psychological impact,” Bianco said.

Weight loss isn’t the end-all, be-all, anyway. In fact, many people who start an exercise regimen gain weight due to increased muscle mass—and that’s perfectly healthy.

“As you increase muscle mass and your metabolism increases, you’re better able to metabolize the calories you’re consuming, and you’ll lose more fat in the long run,” she said.

Bianco does suggest avoiding some foods, especially heavily processed ones that contain large amounts of sodium, fats and sugar, and are often deliberately made to be addictive. But, again, it’s better to focus on eating the good stuff.

“People don’t want to hear it, but they should be eating more fruits and vegetables, lean meats and dairy products, whole grains and nuts,” she said. “The Mediterranean diet is basically just whole foods, and [eating well] is as simple as that, I think.”

8. Feel better

Therapy. That’s just for people with mental problems, right?

There is a stigma in our culture when it comes to psychotherapy; that visiting a professional to work on one’s internal life carries with it the risk of being labeled as mentally ill. In fact, overcoming that stigma, realizing that emotions—fear, anger, sadness—play a role in how good or bad we feel, and engaging in therapy in order to learn how to process them, is in itself a sign of good mental health.

“Emotions are the truest, most accurate indicator of what’s alive in us,” said Terrence Hoffman, a marriage and family therapist who practices in Chico. “If we aren’t in touch with our emotions, sometimes we’re not really experiencing our own being as fully as we might.”

Usually though, unless someone’s experiencing an acute trauma, they’re not always aware that there are core issues and feelings that might be disrupting their life.

“People might not know they’re in some kind of emotional distress and they just talk about an external problem like, ‘My boss is a creep,’ or something. So the focus remains on something outside of themselves, and the trick is to bring the person’s attention back to their own emotional experience,” said Hoffman. “In order to manage what your experience is like, you have to begin to recognize, ‘What is the emotion that I’m experiencing? What is the pain that I’m having?’” The point being that you put words to the feelings, figure out what about you and your experiences causes you to feel and react, and then reduce the unhealthy stress-inducing experiences going forward.

For those who want to work on their emotional well-being, a professional therapist, someone with the theoretical training and the experience to be a guide through the process, is a good place to start. To find resources in Chico, you can go online to psychologytoday.com/us/therapists (type in “Chico”) or visit buttecounty.net/behavioralhealth.

Also, developing intimate relationships with spouses, friends and family, people with whom you can share—and who can share with you—emotional ups and downs, is invaluable for processing emotions and enjoying good mental health. And how do we know when we’ve achieved that?

“Generally speaking, in addition to getting along well with others, it’s a bodily felt sense of well-being that’s present more often than not,” said Hoffman. “That’s when we know we’re relatively emotionally healthy.”

9. Manage stress

When Joel Minden asks people how they cope with stress, oftentimes the response is something like: “Well, I exercise.”

Minden, a licensed clinical psychologist who teaches in Chico State’s Department of Psychology and runs a private practice, the Chico Center for Cognitive Behavior Therapy, said exercise is great for long-term health and short-term stress management. He cautioned, however, that doing so is an emotion-focused coping strategy.

“If you’re exercising every time you’re overwhelmed by challenges in life, are you going to eliminate the problems, are you going to address these life obstacles, or are you just hoping that exercise will make you feel better?” he asked.

Indeed, Minden said that many of the tools people turn to for help—such as exercise, breathing and meditation—may be helpful but don’t solve the problem at hand.

That’s why it’s also important to apply problem-focused coping strategies—to address challenges and work through things that are stressful, whenever possible, Minden said. Take, for example, better communicating to resolve differences or relationship conflict.

He noted that many emotion-focused coping strategies are destructive—drinking, overeating and sleeping excessively, for example. Avoidance is an overlooked form of coping, according to Minden, who used the examples of calling in sick to work and not following through on commitments.

At his Chico office, where he practices cognitive behavior therapy—“evidence-based, goal-directed psychotherapy,” as he put it—Minden works with clients who are experiencing anxiety disorders or depression with the goal of changing behavior and patterns of thinking.

He does so by helping them understand how they think about themselves, the world around them and the future—and how their behavior reflects those ideas, he explained. Part of that is considering their values and what kind of person they would like to be.

“I think most people would say, ‘I’d like to be a productive person. I’d like to be a patient person. I’d like to be able to work through things rather than give up or shut down,’” said Minden, who holds a doctorate in clinical psychology. “If you can remember those things, you can let your values dictate behavior … and I think, in the long run, things generally work out much better.”

10. Give back

Helene Ginter grew up in Chico, giving tours at Bidwell Mansion and lifeguarding at Bidwell Park. She started volunteering in her 20s as a single mother with a son in the Head Start program. Like a lot of people, her reasons were many: to meet people, to gain experience, to give back to a program that had helped her family.

“After 30 years of working at all different kinds of organizations, I’ve realized that it started giving back to me,” Ginter said recently by phone. “When I look at it now, I realize how much more I’ve gotten from volunteering than what I’m giving.”

Throughout the years, Ginter’s motivations for volunteering shifted. In her 30s, after getting out of an abusive relationship, she found herself struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder. Volunteering got her out and about and interacting with people in a positive way. Then she was diagnosed with diabetes and was unable to work. Volunteering kept her active, improving her physical health, and gave her purpose that she was missing without a job.

“It improved my mental health, especially not being able to work because I got sick,” Ginter said. “Volunteering let me still be active in my community, still have deadlines, goals.”

Everybody knows that volunteering has benefits for the recipients of services. But what is often overlooked are the benefits to those actually volunteering their time and skills. A report by the Corporation for National & Community Service titled The Health Benefits of Volunteering attempted to quantify those benefits. Its findings were pretty staggering.

“Those who give support through volunteering experience greater health benefits than those who receive support through these activities,” the report reads. Among the findings: lower mortality rates, decrease in depression, increase in mobility.

According to volunteermatch.org, getting started is simple. First, find a cause you’re passionate about. Second, find an opportunity that matches your skillset. From there, it just takes reaching out to an organization and offering your services. The website, which includes volunteer opportunities locally, also can help to acquaint people with groups that need help.

Ginter recently began a new volunteer gig at the Shalom Free Clinic, where she’s now a board member. She says trying new things and working for a variety of organizations gives her renewed vigor in everyday life.

“Volunteering allows me to come out, to broaden my horizons,” she said. “It allows my head to actually be wrapped around someone else and not myself.”