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Little tweaks that pack a healthy punch

Looking for a new year reset? These small steps can make a big difference when it comes to your overall health

Jan. 3, 2017
illustration of steps to better health

Illustration by Breanna Welsh / Fred Hutch News Service

I don’t know about you, but there hasn’t been enough chocolate, comfort food or alcohol to get me through these last few months.

Man, what a year. An ugly presidential election, unrest at home and abroad, a celebrity death every 10 minutes. Not to mention that whole cancer thing — the loss of several friends, numerous others diagnosed and slogging through treatment, my own fear of recurrence.

I’ll admit it; I’ve fallen off the health horse. And that’s a problem, especially since disease prevention — eating right, exercising, sleeping well and avoiding stress — may become even more important as the country's health policies face changes.

So, like everyone else, I’m taking stock. In years past, I’d join a new gym and work out like a demon until injuring myself, then soothe away the pain and wounded pride with leftover Christmas cookies (yes, they freeze well). Or starve myself on rice cakes and string cheese until the siren song of snickerdoodles hip-checked my willpower.

Diane Mapes

Writer and breast cancer survivor Diane Mapes

Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

These days, though, I’m more realistic about my annual reset, partly because I know myself better and partly because I’m working at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, home to a crackerjack Public Health Sciences Division (and the oldest and largest Cancer Prevention Program in the country). The division’s many nutritional epidemiologists, clinicians, biostatisticians, translational researchers and psychologists, including Drs. Mario Kratz, Anne McTiernan, Polly Newcomb, Amanda Phipps, Marian Neuhouser and Jonathan Bricker, have spent the bulk of their careers analyzing what helps and what hinders cancer and other diseases. Thanks to them, I know lifestyle changes can do a lot toward lengthening my life — all of our lives. Thanks to them, I also know that less is often more, especially when it comes to those New Year’s behavioral tweaks.

So instead of leaping and bounding toward failure, I’m focusing on small, scientifically proven steps.

Dr. Marian Neuhouser

Fred Hutch nutritional epidemiologist Dr. Marian Neuhouser

Fred Hutch file photo

Start with the basics

Fortunately, I’ve already hauled myself over some of the bigger humps when it comes to better health. I was able to stop drinking pop years ago, weaning myself off the stuff by first opting for flavored sparkling water, then plain sparkling water, then just plain water. Kratz, whose research focuses on the relationship between diet and disease, said cutting out sugar-sweetened sodas, energy drinks and fruit drinks is “one change in dietary habit” that clearly works to combat type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

I also stick to real food (fruits, vegetables, lean meats, whole grains) and do my best to avoid the fake stuff — think fast food, processed meat, gooey baked goods, candy and anything that comes in a box or package. Yes, I’ll occasionally pilfer French fries off a friend’s plate — hey, I’m only human — and let's face it, I've been really, really human these past few months. But day to day, I do my best to sidestep the usual suspects and all of their accompanying sodium and sugar. By following what Dr. Marian Neuhouser calls a “healthy overall dietary pattern,” I know I can maintain a healthy weight (and maybe lose a few pounds) and lower my risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer.

The biggest boon is that I quit smoking 20 years ago, substantially lowering my risk of more than a dozen cancers (did smoking lead to my 2011 breast cancer diagnosis? I’ll never know). At the time, I went the cold-turkey route, chewing so much Dentyne I nearly dislocated my jaw. These days, I might opt for the smartphone app created by smoking-cessation guru Dr. Jonathan Bricker. SmartQuit 2.0 has been shown to be two-to-three times as effective as other methods plus — score! —the app is free for people who live in Washington state.

What’s left? Plenty. Here are the behavioral tweaks I’m focusing on as I move into 2017, a time when the one thing I know for certain is that avoiding health issues — and their costs — will most likely be more crucial than ever, especially for those of us with cancer and other pre-existing conditions:

Dr. Anne McTiernan

Fred Hutch cancer prevention expert, physician and author Dr. Anne McTiernan

Fred Hutch file photo

Be more mindful

This is one of those dreaded buzz words, which I normally try to avoid, but I don’t know how else to put it. Before anything, I need to give some serious thought as to why I’m eating and drinking more and exercising and sleeping less, especially when good health is so incredibly important to me. If I can be more mindful of my overall goals and recognize that my behaviors aren’t aligning with those goals, I’ll have an easier time kicking the bad habits and embracing the good.

Much like Dr. Anne McTiernan, who recently penned a memoir about her own eating issues, I’ll often turn to food in times of stress or uncertainty. But in years past, I’ve also turned to boxing. Or books. Or playing the piano or a score of other healthy alternatives. So what’s with the current disconnect? I’m not sure, but it’s definitely time to put some extra thought into what I really want and how I should go about getting it. As Dr. Jonathan Bricker puts it in this short video, I need to let my “values guide my goals” for behavioral change. 

Be smart about calories

For the last couple of years, I’ve used an app to track my meals, but for some reason (election stress? laziness? Satan?), I quit using it months ago. Not surprisingly, my weight has steadily crept up since. McTiernan said it doesn’t matter whether you use a notebook or a food-tracking app, keeping a tally of everything you put into your mouth “forces you to pay attention so you stay within a range of calories a day that will produce weight loss.”

Calorie tracking also lets you instantly see how much bang you get for your buck. For instance, a small snickerdoodle runs about 100 calories. What else is 100 calories? Six-and-a-half cups of mushrooms, 15 cups of spinach, 18 stalks of celery or 33 cherry tomatoes. Losing weight — which for me is more about staying healthy than trying to achieve the much-vaunted “thigh gap” — is basically a numbers game: If you eat less and move more, you’ll lose weight. Eating less can also mean swapping lots of delicious low-calorie foods for a few not-so-healthy high-calorie foods. In other words, goodbye snickerdoodles, hello reduced-salt popcorn.

One more tip via McTiernan: Prepare your own meals as much as you can. “It’s almost impossible to know the calories in a restaurant meal,” she said, pointing to a Fred Hutch study that showed people who made their own meals lost more weight than those who ate out. Also, if you don’t bring junk food into your house, it can’t call to you from the kitchen at 9 p.m.

Dr. Amanda Phipps

Fred Hutch epidemiologist Dr. Amanda Phipps' research focuses on how lifestyle changes, like getting enough sleep, can impact cancer risks and survival.

Fred Hutch file photo

Unplug at night

It’s embarrassing to admit, but I sleep with my smartphone. Well, I keep it on the nightstand next to the bed, anyway, and like others who will remain nameless, I’ve been known to surf, email, text and tweet late into the night. As a public health writer, I know this is incredibly stupid; smartphones and other screens emit light that stimulates circadian rhythms and disrupts sleep, which can lead to heart disease, obesity, diabetes, hypertension, depression and maybe even cancer. From personal experience, I also know that reading about, say, the imminent dismantling of the Affordable Care Act isn’t exactly conducive to a good night’s rest.

So this year, I’m going to practice better sleep hygiene. I’m going to try to watch less TV at night and I’m kicking the smartphone out of the bedroom entirely. Instead, I’ll focus on finishing some of the books on my nightstand. Dr. Amanda Phipps, who studies how sleep (or the lack thereof) affects cancer survivors and others, put it this way: “You cannot underestimate the importance of good-quality sleep. Make sure it’s a priority.”

Move it, move it

Exercise, for me, doesn’t mean working out at a gym anymore. It’s just something I fold into my daily life. Sometimes, that means walking to work and back every day (at two miles each way, it’s totally doable) or taking the stairs instead of the elevator/escalator or doing a little swing dancing or playing the accordion, which, as it turns out, is a great upper-body workout (if you have young children, you totally get this). Sometimes it means doing yoga or going for a run or marching around the streets of Seattle with my buddies.

It’s good to move our bodies in lots of different ways — it’s what they were meant for. Working up a sweat also helps us work off stress (hello, better sleep!) and lose weight. As McTiernan recently put it, “if you’re taking a walk, or pedaling on a stationary bike or doing an elliptical machine, you’re not stuffing your face with food.”

Numerous studies done here at Fred Hutch and elsewhere also show how beneficial exercise can be when it comes to kicking cancer to the curb. Sure, the dark, cold winter days make it harder to exercise outside, but there are workarounds. Pop in an exercise DVD after dinner, bundle up to bike, run or walk, or climb up and down the stairs at home or work a few times a day. Fold movement into your day in a way that works for you (additional tips here). I’m shooting for 8,000 to 10,000 steps a day along with a few hours of yoga, running and some kind of strength training every week.   

Another goal: getting up to move and stretch every hour or so at work. Ironically, sitting at a desk pounding out public health stories all day can be pretty darn unhealthy.  

Drink a lot more … water

Researchers often go back and forth over alcohol’s health benefits versus its health risks, but as a cancer survivor, I can tell you it’s more cut-and-dried. I need to keep my alcohol intake to one drink a day (or less). As Dr. Polly Newcomb puts it, “When it comes to drinking and cancer risk, moderation is the key.”

This doesn’t apply to drinking water, though. That I need to do more of. Not just because water keeps your body healthy and hydrated, but because it contains absolutely no calories, fills you up so you eat less and even helps fend off certain cancers. Drinking more water also means I'll be up and around more during the course of the day.

In fact, if I take the long way, it's 300 steps to the ladies room and back. Every little bit helps, right?

Diane Mapes is a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. She has written extensively about health issues for NBC News, TODAY, CNN, MSN, Seattle Magazine and other publications. A breast cancer survivor, she blogs at doublewhammied.com and tweets @double_whammied. Email her at dmapes@fredhutch.org.

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