5 Tips for a Healthier 2021

Our experts share simple ways to create healthy habits for the new year.

Sneakers running on a treadmill

After a long and challenging year, most Americans are ready to say goodbye to 2020 and ring in 2021. Health is always a priority heading into a new year, but amid the COVID-19 pandemic, maintaining a healthy lifestyle is more important than ever. In a survey asking Americans about their 2021 New Year’s resolutions, 50% of respondents said they planned to exercise more and 39% said they’d like to improve their diet.

With so many people including health and wellness into their resolutions, NewYork-Presbyterian doctors, nurses, and dietitians shared with Health Matters their tips to help create healthy habits.

1. Exercise Regularly

Staying physically fit has numerous benefits, including boosting cardiovascular and muscular health and fighting disease. Exercise can also positively affect your mental well-being by helping the body relieve stress and reduce depression. Protecting your mental health has been especially critical during the stress of the pandemic, so try to squeeze in the minimum American Heart Association-recommended 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise each week, plus at least two days on which you do muscle-strengthening activities.

Here are some simple ways to break the exercises down into 30-minute increments, courtesy of the NYPBeHealthy wellness team:

  • Take at least two 30-minute walks a week at lunchtime or plan some walking meetings.
  • Do 30 minutes of strength training with a kettlebell or hand weights while watching TV.
  • Jump rope for 15 minutes when you get up in the morning and again when you get home at night.
  • Do squats at your desk for 10-minute increments three times per day.

With more people working from home, exercise can also help reduce aches and pains. “Motion is medicine when it comes to spine health,” says Dr. J. Ricky Singh, director of interventional spine at NewYork-Presbyterian Och Spine and vice chair and associate professor in the Department of Rehabilitation Medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine. For example, you can add 10 squats, 10 tricep dips on a solid chair, and wall pushups to your daily routine. Also, make a point to get up from your desk two or three times an hour to walk around and do light stretching, such as back bends, which will help counter being hunched over a computer.

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

2. Eat Right

In addition to getting enough fruits, vegetables, and whole grains throughout the day, 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 against 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 lead to 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 you wait too long to eat, you might go for things you weren’t planning on having just because you’re hungry or your blood sugar is low. Instead, Rosenstock’s advice is to grab something healthy that you have already prepared. Take the time to think about having healthy snacks in the fridge or accessible at work.

3. Maintain a Regular Sleep Schedule

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted many people’s sleep patterns, but it’s critical to keep a regular sleep schedule and get about eight hours of sleep a night, 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 associate professor of neurology at Weill Cornell Medicine. “Having a strong, healthy immune system gives us a little more of a barrier against developing a COVID infection, so it’s important to prioritize sleep,” says Dr. Barone.

He suggests establishing a regular bedtime and wake-up time, avoiding caffeine later in the day, turning off electronics before bedtime, setting boundaries around your media consumption, exercising regularly, avoiding naps, cutting out alcohol, and paying attention to the possible signs of sleep apnea.

4. Protect Yourself From COVID-19 and the Flu

By now, most people know that the 3 W’s help protect them from coronavirus: wear a mask, wash your hands, and watch your distance. But experts have also encouraged people to protect themselves from the flu to avoid a potential “twindemic.”

Getting a flu shot is the best way to prevent the flu, says Dr. Ting Ting Wong, an attending physician and infectious disease specialist at NewYork-Presbyterian Brooklyn Methodist Hospital. Fortunately, the preventive measures for COVID-19 also apply for the flu: avoiding large crowds and gatherings, wearing a mask, social distancing, frequent handwashing, and staying at home when you feel sick, says Dr. Wong.

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.

When the COVID-19 vaccine becomes widely available, it’s important for everyone to get it, and for women who are pregnant and breastfeeding to be offered it as well, adds Dr. Riley.

Stick to Your Plan

Sixteen percent of people who made resolutions last year didn’t stick to any of them, according to a New Year’s survey. 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.