Five Habits for a Healthy 2020

Our doctors, nurses, and dietitians provide easy-to-adopt tips for a healthier new year.

Sneakers running on a treadmill

If you’re like many Americans, December is a busy time filled with holiday parties, after-work events, and numerous trips in search of the perfect gift. This can lead some to neglect their exercise habits, overindulge in sweets and savories, and get too little sleep.

Come New Year’s Day, many people choose to reset, aiming to trim their waistlines, get to the gym regularly, and engage in overall healthy behaviors. Fifty-four percent of people in a New Year’s survey said they planned to focus on eating healthier and 59% said they wanted to get more exercise. Thirty-one percent said they’d like to get more sleep.

The good news? With a few minor tweaks, say NewYork-Presbyterian doctors, nurses, and dietitians, it’s easy to establish a healthier lifestyle.

Eat Right

In addition to getting enough fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, focus on protein in the morning, says Dr. Rekha B. Kumar, an attending endocrinologist at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center and an assistant professor of medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine. Packing your breakfast with protein will keep blood sugar and some “hunger hormones” more stable throughout the day, helping to control your appetite. Egg-white omelets, Greek yogurt, and protein shakes are examples. Dr. Kumar also advises to avoid eating too much sugar, especially in the form of high fructose corn syrup. Consuming excess sugar leads to a condition called insulin resistance, which is a precursor to type 2 diabetes, a fatty liver, and cardiovascular disease. It has also been associated with cirrhosis, neuropathy, kidney disease, general inflammation, and cancer.

A diet with less red meat will confer a host of benefits if you replace the calories with whole plant foods, says Dr. Shilpa Ravella, a gastroenterologist at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center and an assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. Your blood cholesterol levels will drop, and you’ll dramatically decrease your risk of chronic diseases, including top killers like heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes, and obesity. One easy-to-follow diet that avoids red meat is the Mediterranean diet. It’s one of the best things you can do for your heart, says Dr. Gary Gabelman, a cardiologist at NewYork-Presbyterian Lawrence Hospital and an assistant clinical professor of medicine at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. The diet is high in fruit, vegetables, legumes, fish, and nuts, and rich in antioxidants, which have been shown to be beneficial for heart health and overall health.

A good way to make sure you don’t end up reaching for chips or a chocolate bar when you need a snack is to eat before you feel famished, says Alexandra Rosenstock, RD, CDN, a registered dietitian at the Center for Advanced Digestive Care at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center. If somebody’s waiting too long to eat, sometimes they can go for things they weren’t planning on having just because they’re very hungry or their blood sugar is low. Instead, her advice is to grab something healthy that you have already prepared. Take the time to think about having it in the fridge or accessible at work.

Get Enough Sleep

Eight hours a night is optimal, says Dr. Daniel Barone, a neurologist and sleep medicine expert at the Center for Sleep Medicine at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center and an assistant professor of neurology at Weill Cornell Medicine. He says to aim for that by establishing a regular bedtime and wake-up time, avoiding caffeine later in the day, turning off electronics an hour before bedtime, exercising regularly, avoiding naps, cutting out alcohol, and paying attention to the possible signs of sleep apnea.

Protect Yourself From the Flu

While getting a flu shot is the best way to prevent the flu, you can take other steps, too. Dr. Melissa Stockwell, the medical director for the NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital Immunization Registry, says the first thing to do is wash your hands often to protect yourself from germs. It is best to wash your hands for 20 seconds, which is equal to singing the “Happy Birthday” song twice. If soap and water aren’t available, use hand sanitizer. You should avoid close contact with people who are sick. It is also important to avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth. Finally, in general, it is important to get enough sleep, drink enough fluids, eat well, exercise, and manage your stress.

It’s especially important for pregnant women to protect themselves from the flu and to get the flu shot. Not only is the flu shot effective and safe for the baby, says Dr. Laura Riley, obstetrician and gynecologist-in-chief at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, but it also protects babies who are born during flu season, which runs from October through April. Flu vaccinations given to pregnant women reduce the risk of hospitalization from influenza by about 70% for infants younger than 6 months old.

Exercise Regularly

Staying physically fit has numerous benefits, including boosting cardiovascular and muscular health, and fighting disease. But exercise can also positively affect the body by relieving stress, reducing depression, and improving cognitive function.

There are many ways to squeeze in the American Heart Association-recommended 150 minutes of weekly exercise into 30-minute increments, according to Lauren Pendergast, RDN, CDN, NYPBeHealthy well-being coach, including:

  • Take a 30-minute walk at lunchtime or plan some walking meetings.
  • Do strength training with a kettlebell or hand weights while watching TV.
  • Leave home with a little extra time in the morning so you can walk all or part of the way to work. For example, try getting off the subway a few stops early and walking the rest of the way.
  • Do 15 minutes of jump-roping when you get up in the morning and again when you get home a night.
  • Do squats at your desk for 10-minute increments three times per day.

If you sit for prolonged periods, there are a number of exercises you can do at work to help stay healthy, adds Dr. Kumar. Get up from your desk at least once an hour and walk around for at least five minutes, doing some light stretching. A few good work exercises include 10 squats, 10 tricep dips on a solid chair, and wall pushups.

Animation of how to do squats
Animation of how to do tricep dips
animation of how to do wall push ups

Stick to Your Plan

Thirty-one percent of people who made resolutions last year didn’t stick to any of them, according to a New Year’s study. Whether you’re looking to lose weight, get in better shape, stay in better touch with family and friends, quit smoking or drinking, or have another goal in mind, there are simple strategies you can adopt to stick with your plan, says Dr. Gail Saltz, a psychoanalyst and assistant attending physician at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center and clinical associate professor of psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medicine. She suggests:

  • Own up to what needs to be changed.
  • Write out your goals and corresponding action plan in weekly parts.
  • Start with a journal entry of “Why?”
  • Create incentives.
  • Tell someone else.

For more wellness tips, visit Nutrition & Wellness or find a doctor.