Sorting through all the latest health fads, trends and research-based health information can be as stressful and overwhelming as shopping for a new car. You want to avoid getting swindled into something that isn’t right for you, and you want to ensure that what you’re investing in actually works and provides the biggest bang for your buck.
Taking control of your health and wellness isn’t as difficult as it may seem, but it does require a bit of effort, diligence and research. Factors you can control include diet, fitness, blood pressure, cholesterol, body mass index, alcohol consumption and smoking.
Better blood pressure
According to the American Heart Association (AHA), uncontrolled high blood pressure, or hypertension, can be fatal. It’s important to know your numbers, as most people who are diagnosed with high blood pressure should stay below 130/80. However, every person is different, and your health care provider can help you determine your own personal target mark.
“Don’t ignore it when the blood pressure starts drifting up through the 120s into the 130s, as it’s only going to get higher as you age,” says Dr. John D. Bisognano, director of the University of Rochester Medical Center’s Hypertension Center. “That’s the time to focus on lifestyle modifications, but don’t be afraid if it’s necessary to take medication at some point.”
Work with your doctor on a plan to lower your blood pressure and make a few lifestyle changes, including maintaining a healthy weight and BMI between 18.5 and 24.9, according to the AHA. This can be worked toward by being active and eating a diet high in fruits and vegetables, consuming only low-fat dairy, and reducing the consumption of saturated fat and sodium (less than 1,500 milligrams per day, but with the goal of 1,000).
“Aim for at least 90 to 150 minutes of aerobic and/or dynamic resistance exercise per week and/or three sessions of isometric resistance exercises per week,” the AHA states on its website.
The AHA recommends drinking no more than one to two alcoholic drinks per day.
Lastly, keep checking your blood pressure at home and take your medication exactly how your doctor says to.
“To be proactive, maintain consistency with ingestion of nitrate/nitrite containing vegetables,” says Mark Sherwood, a naturopathic doctor at the Functional Medical Institute in Tulsa, Oklahoma. “Avoid mouthwash, as it inhibits the bacteria needed to convert these nitrates/nitrites to essential nitric oxide.”
The body produces all the cholesterol it needs, so there is no need to obtain it through diet. Foods high in saturated fats and trans fats may contribute to high cholesterol and related conditions including high blood pressure and heart disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
“Cholesterol is not inherently bad, as it is needed for cell membrane health and formation of hormones,” Sherwood says. “To be proactive, regularly check oxidized low-density lipoproteins, maintain high-density lipoproteins, optimize exercise and omega-3 fatty acids, and avoid trans fats, sugars, grains, breads and processed foods.”
When it comes to cholesterol, remember the “three Cs”: check, change and control.
- Check your cholesterol levels. It’s key to know your numbers.
- Change your diet and lifestyle to help improve your levels.
- Control your cholesterol, with help from your doctor if needed.
Data from the CDC says the percentage of visits to office-based physicians for cholesterol tests is 9.1%, and the percentage of visits to office-based physicians with hyperlipidemia indicated on the medical record is 17.1%.
Body Mass Index
A high BMI can be an indicator of excess body fat, according to the CDC. It can be used to screen for issues that may lead to health problems, but it’s not diagnostic of a person’s health, according to the CDC. The CDC’s BMI guidelines are:
- Less than 18.5 is within the “underweight” range.
- 18.5 to 24.9 is within the “normal or healthy weight” range.
- 25.0 to 29.9 is within the “overweight” range.
- 30 or higher is within the “obese” range.
Sherwood says body fat percentage is a better indicator of health. Target body fat for women is between 18% to 26%, and for men 10% to18%, he adds.
To be more proactive about controlling and maintaining a healthy BMI, eat in moderation and don’t “supersize” it, says Dr. Susan Besser, who specializes in family medicine at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore.
“Shop the exterior of the grocery store where the fruits and vegetables are,” she says. “Stay away from the center of the store where the processed foods are. Keep your portions smaller — use a smaller size plate if necessary. You don’t have to clean your plate. Stop before you are actually full, walk away from the table and give your body and mind time to catch up to what you just ate. If you do that, you will find you really didn’t need those last few bites — you have had enough to eat.”
Where there’s smoke
According to the CDC, smoking is the leading cause of preventable death. Cigarette smoking is responsible for more than 480,000 deaths per year in the U.S., including more than 41,000 deaths from second-hand smoke exposure.
According to SmokeFree.gov, it is possible to control your cravings when it comes to smoking. It can be a little uncomfortable, and overcoming any addiction is challenging, but the cravings don’t last forever.
Tips to help someone cope with the withdrawal of smoking cessation include calling or texting a supportive friend or loved one, re-affirming the reasons for quitting, staying busy, going to a smoke-free zone, and distracting one’s self, perhaps by helping a friend, family member or co-worker.
Bisognano acknowledges smoking can be a very difficult habit to break.
“But it’s one of the most important things you can do to modify your cardiovascular risk,” he says. “There are great formalized smoking cessation programs available that greatly improve your chance of quitting.”
“Since smoking is a true addiction, it is often necessary to use medications temporarily to break this addiction, and there is no reason to be afraid of using these medications. Anything you do to get yourself to quit is probably worth it,” he adds.
Besser adds that vaping is not a healthy alternative to smoking.
“Vaping is just as bad, no matter what the vaping companies say,” she says.
Quitting can be aided by making lifestyle adjustments to expose yourself to fewer smoking triggers, which can help reduce the urge to smoke, Besser says.
Speak with your doctor about ways to quit smoking or join a smoke cessation club. Many health departments have smoking cessation classes, and the CDC offers a telephone smoking cessation support group: 1-800-QUIT-NOW.