Harvard Women's Health Watch

Health advice for 2017: Simplify, simplify

You may be able to save time and money—and spare yourself frustration—by adopting a more minimal approach to preventing disease.

As the Shaker lyrics go, “’Tis the gift to be simple,” and simplicity is a gift you might want to grant yourself in the new year. If so, you’ll have some help from health experts. In the past few years, complicated advice for diet and exercise has given way to simpler, more sustainable guidelines, and the FDA has come down in favor of simple soap and water over antimicrobial cleaners to prevent infectious diseases.

If you’ve vowed to make positive changes in your lifestyle this year, you’re likely to be more successful if you don’t take on complex new regimens. “People can achieve remarkable changes in their lives one small step at a time,” says Dr. Edward M. Phillips, assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Harvard Medical School and medical editor of the Harvard Special Health Report Simple Changes, Big Rewards (www.health.harvard.edu/change).

Make simple shifts toward a healthier diet

The expert panel that developed the 2015–20 Dietary Guidelines for Americans acknowledged a shift away from focusing on individual nutrients or foods, toward considering everything we eat and drink. The aim is to have us worry less about getting the recommended dietary intake of every vitamin and mineral and instead to develop a general sense of what constitutes a healthy meal.

Nutrition scientists at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, who share that view, have developed the Healthy Eating Plate to illustrate the basic components of a healthy diet. The relative sizes of the plate’s sections suggest approximate proportions of each of the food groups to include in a healthy meal.

The representation is not based on specific calorie amounts and is not meant to prescribe a certain number of calories or servings per day, since individuals’ calorie and nutrient needs vary based on age, gender, body size, and level of activity.

The following should help you shift into a healthier eating pattern.

Avoid the center grocery aisles. Cutting down on prepared foods—the principal sources of added sugars, sodium, and refined carbohydrates—is key to better eating.

Shun flavored sodas. Sugary beverages are major culprits in the obesity epidemic. Although diet soda is a possible short-term substitute, drinking it regularly may affect your body’s ability to gauge how many calories you are consuming. Sparkling and fruit-infused waters are better alternatives.

Reduce red meat. Red meat, especially processed meat, contains ingredients—heme iron, saturated fat, sodium, nitrites, and certain carcinogens that are formed during cooking—that have been linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer.

Eat mindfully. Take small bites and chew them thoroughly, concentrating on the flavors and textures of the foods that you’re eating.

Just take a walk

The exercise prescription is also fairly simple. Experts agree that 150 minutes of moderate activity or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise a week will help reduce your risk of developing the most serious chronic conditions, including cancer, dementia, diabetes, and heart disease. Although any physical activity that gets your heart beating faster works, walking is the simplest and easiest to achieve. “Walking can have a bigger impact on disease risk and various health conditions than just about any other remedy that’s readily available to you,” says Dr. Lauren Elson, physical medicine and rehabilitation instructor at Harvard Medical School and medical editor of the Harvard Special Health Report Walking for Health (www.health.harvard.edu/walk).

To start walking for exercise, all you really need is a comfortable pair of shoes (preferably sneakers) and the right clothing for the weather. If you’re not already taking a brisk walk most days, the following may help.

Buddy up. Walk with a partner—a spouse or a friend—who will hold you accountable and agree not to renege on your agreed walks.

Track your progress. A growing body of evidence suggests that having a record of your exercise may motivate you to keep it up and even increase it. A wide array of pedometers, wristband trackers, and smart watches are available to help you. The devices are less cumbersome and less expensive than they were originally, and they have more features. You can find them at most electronics and sporting-goods stores.

Have a rainy-day plan. Locate a mall or indoor facility where you can walk when the weather is bad.

Start slowly. You don’t have to begin with a brisk 30-minute walk; even 10 minutes is a good start. (Studies have shown that almost any activity is better than none.) Gradually add time—and increase your speed if you can.

Substitute walking for driving when you can. Try walking to nearby gatherings or doing errands on foot. If you carry your parcels in a backpack, you’ll be able to maintain your pace and preserve your gait.

Use plain old soap and water to prevent infection

After many years of studying the subject, the FDA has decided that there isn’t enough scientific evidence that over-the-counter antibacterial soaps are better at preventing illness than washing with plain soap and water. The wide use of these products has raised concerns over their health effects, especially in fostering the proliferation of antibiotic-resistant microbes.

In September 2016, the FDA ruled that antiseptic wash products—bar soaps as well as liquid, foam, and gel hand soaps and body washes—that contain triclosan, triclocarban, and other antibacterial active ingredients will no longer be sold over the counter. The rule covers only products used with water; it doesn’t apply to hand sanitizers or hand wipes, which are alcohol-based.

It’s a good idea to avoid antibacterial household cleaners as well. To clean cutting boards after chopping meat or poultry, add a little bleach to the water. A dilute bleach solution works equally well in eradicating bacteria in the bathroom.

Live in the present

Using mindfulness techniques can help you to simplify your inner life by turning your attention from troubling thoughts and focusing on the moment. Mindfulness instruction is available at a growing number of health centers, Y’s, and yoga centers, but you can start by applying the following technique to one of your routine tasks.

Be aware. Start by bringing your attention to the sensations in your body. How fast is your heart beating? Are your hands warm or cold?

Breathe deeply. Breathe in through your nose, allowing the air to fill your lungs. Let your abdomen expand fully. Then breathe out slowly through your mouth. This pattern may slow down your heart rate and lower your blood pressure, helping you relax. Notice the sensations of each inhalation and exhalation.

Focus. Proceed with the task at hand slowly and with full deliberation.

Feel. Engage your senses fully. Notice each sight, touch, and sound so that you savor every sensation.

Refocus. When you notice that your mind has wandered from the task at hand, gently bring your attention back to the sensations of the moment.

Some simple steps to cleaner hands

To get the greatest protection, wash thoroughly. The CDC suggests the following hand-washing process:

1. Wet your hands. Hold them under clean, running water (warm or cold) turn off the tap, and apply soap.

2. Lather up. Rub your hands together with the soap. Be sure to lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails.

3. Scrub. Rub your hands for at least 20 seconds. Need a timer? Hum the “Happy Birthday” song from beginning to end twice.

4. Rinse. Hold your hands under clean, running water.

5. Dry. Air-dry your hands or use a clean towel.

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