7 ways to science your life for the coming year

Researchers share evidence-based strategies for managing your health during yet another uncertain year
Photograph of an older Hispanic woman riding a bicycle
Stock photo by Getty Images

It happens every year — even the ones with pandemics.

Once the holiday gorging is behind us, we’re overcome with a compelling urge to swear off all our bad habits — the Netflix bingeing, the midnight nachos, those 3 a.m. bedtimes — and embrace a laundry list of shiny new healthy behaviors.

But in a year when we’ve been repeatedly told what to do — mask, isolate, social distance, vaccinate, boost, work remotely, homeschool the kids and above all, stay informed and resilient! — it can be challenging to think about taking on yet more “shoulds.”

That’s why public health researchers at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center are advising people to resist the New Year’s resolution reflex to start a crash diet or extreme workout routine (science tells us radical changes don’t usually stick). Instead, they want people to be patient with themselves and be realistic about their new year’s revamp.

“Forget quick fixes,” said Dr. Heather Greenlee, an epidemiologist and Hutch clinical researcher. “Good health is a long game.”

Good health is also complicated, especially if you’re trying to ward off serious ailments like cancer or diabetes or heart disease. Obesity, smoking, overuse of alcohol, etc., can all contribute to disease risk, but it’s often in conjunction with numerous other factors and forces — genetic, environmental, socioeconomic and more. Exercising and eating leafy greens every day won’t guarantee you a disease-free life (sometimes, we’re just dealt a bad hand), but doing these things will still help you stay healthier, even if you are diagnosed. 

Contemplating some changes in 2022? Here are seven science tips for a longer life.

Photograph of Dr. Heather Greenlee
Dr. Heather Greenlee, an epidemiologist and clinical researcher with Fred Hutch, recommends a plant-based diet for the best health. Meat and dairy can be part of it, just not the main part. Fred Hutch file photo

Pace yourself

Whatever your goal — losing weight, starting an exercise program, getting better sleep, kicking a smoking habit, learning to clog dance — it’s important to focus on slow, steady progress, said Greenlee, who also serves as the director of Seattle Cancer Care Alliance’s Integrative Medicine Program.

“Now is not the time to make huge, grandiose New Year’s resolutions,” she said. “It’s time to be realistic, especially given the last two years.”

With behavior change, Greenlee said it’s much better to think small and incremental, particularly if you’re looking to cut disease risk by changing eating patterns.  

“It’s not going to make much difference with regard to cancer risk or chronic disease risk if you make dietary changes for one month and then go back to your old habits,” she said. “You have to pace yourself and make changes that are sustainable.”

Also, those new year’s changes don’t have to happen this month.

“People think of January as a typical time to make changes, but any time of year is a good time for improving diet and physical activity habits,” said nutritional epidemiologist Dr. Marian Neuhouser. “If people want to make changes and they don’t necessarily get it done in January — that’s totally fine.”

Photograph of Dr. Anne McTiernan
Epidemiologist Dr. Anne McTiernan recommends walking as a quick and easy way to cut stress and work in your daily physical activity. "Walking has been a lifesaver during the pandemic for my family,” she said. "We live in the city so we try to get out to the parks — going on forest walks has been really helpful.” Fred Hutch file photo

Move daily for a longer life

Your body — that sophisticated biological machine that houses your brain and consciousness — is built to do more than walk from a desk chair to the couch to the bed and back each day.

Bodies need to move, especially as they get older; otherwise, they start to break down. That’s why Hutch epidemiologist Dr. Anne McTiernan — who studies how exercise influences our bodies and our health — and countless other public health researchers advise folding physical activity into your regular routine for long-term good health.

That doesn’t mean you should join a new gym and start exercising like a fiend trying to shed those pandemic pounds.

“Exercise helps people feel better and helps them sleep better,” she said. “It’s also important for mental health. But you don’t lose weight with exercise. Exercise will keep you from gaining weight. And it helps with a weight loss program, there’s no question about that. But studies have shown weight loss is mainly about diet.”

Walking, jogging, biking or busting some other move a few minutes each day provides innumerable benefits, though: from clearer thinking to reduced anxiety and depression; from better sleep to stronger bones and muscles; from lowering risk of heart disease to protection against stroke, diabetes and a clutch of cancers. Read more about how exercise functions as medicine.

Biologically, exercise is a major cancer-buster. Regular moderate physical activity reduces estrogen, fuel for estrogen-receptor positive cancers, and is associated with the repair of DNA damage, another prime cancer driver. Higher-intensity activities such as running, swimming and fast cycling were associated with the greatest benefit to DNA repair, per Neuhouser, one of the study’s co-authors. Researchers believe exercise induces production of enzymes that dispose of harmful oxygen radicals and repair DNA damage.

Staying physically active can also help manage pain such arthralgia, a common symptom of anti-hormone therapy given to breast cancer patients.

“Scientists have also shown that people with arthritis feel better if they exercise,” said McTiernan, who co-authored a systematic, comprehensive review on the topic for the U.S. Physical Activity Guidelines. “And for women using anti-hormone drugs, exercise helped with their symptoms, as well.”

Other research has shown that exercise improves attention and self-control and can help prevent cognitive decline in those with dementia.

“Many people with cancer are worried about chemo brain,” McTiernan said. “Exercise would be a wonderful thing for them to try out. When it comes to exercise, there are many things that are relevant to cancer patients and survivors.”

Regular movement also keeps us from sitting too much, which causes serious health issues. For cancer survivors, that could be a lifesaver.

A study just published in the journal JAMA Oncology followed 1,535 cancer patients over the course of several years and found that the least-active survivors had 5.5 times the risk of death compared with survivors who were most active. (The least-active group sat more than eight hours a day and did less than 150 minutes a week of physical activity; the most-active group sat less than four hours a day and did more than 150 minutes a week of physical activity.)

“Exercise can be part of a concept of caring for yourself,” McTiernan said. “So try to find a way to make it enjoyable. For some people, that means exercising with a friend. Or doing a sport. Or even dancing, which is excellent exercise. Find what it is that helps you care for yourself and that’s going to be beneficial for the whole biological machine, including your brain.”

Photograph of Dr. Jonathan Bricker

"Cancer patients feel very alone in the process of trying to quit smoking. Our app provides tools on how to cope with shame and teaches self-compassion and how to be kind to yourself. That’s just one piece of it."

— Fred Hutch smoking cessation expert Dr. Jonathan Bricker

Photograph of Dr. Marian Neuhouser
Dr. Marian Neuhouser, head of the Hutch’s Cancer Prevention Program, is currently enrolling people in her EAT WELL study, designed to determine harms and benefits of red and processed meats. Fred Huth file photo

Be mindful and lean towards green

Greenlee, who researches ways to create sustainable change for better health, also said to rethink the whole concept of dieting.

“Researchers are looking at mindfulness now as a way to help achieve and maintain long-term behavioral habits,” she said. “We think that if people can be more mindful of why they’re eating and when they’re eating, even paying attention to their chewing, it will be helpful for them. They may have less stress eating.”

But what you put in your mouth also matters, and Greenlee said if you’re looking for a long, healthy life, lean towards a plant-based diet, not to be confused with a plant-only or vegetarian or vegan diet. In a plant-based diet, you proportionately choose more foods from plant sources than meat or dairy sources. Learn more about healthy eating on Fred Hutch’s Cook for Your Life.

“The benefit of a plant-based diet is there are a lot of phytonutrients — also known as phytochemicals — that have cancer-preventive properties as well as anti-inflammatory benefits,” she said. “It helps promote immune function; it helps promote cellular repair.”

If you want to get molecular about it, fruits and vegetables and grains and beans and nuts and spices and everything else “grown” contain nutrients galore, which keep our bodies fueled and running properly, and they are loaded with fiber, which keeps our digestive system functioning regularly and support our gut microbiome. Many vegetable families (think brassicas, or cruciferous veggies like broccoli, kale, radishes and Brussels sprouts) actively fight cancer through their plant chemicals (“phyto” is Greek for “plant”).

Linked to a plant’s color, taste and smell, phytochemicals are often part of a plant’s defense mechanism against pests, predators or damage caused by, say, radiation from UV rays. Humans who eat plants benefit from this natural cancer prevention, as well.

It’s such a potent benefit, Hutch researcher Dr. Tom Kensler helped synthesize the process into a pill, creating tiny “broccoli bombs” that target a key pathway in the body’s cellular defense mechanism and the enzymes it regulates, which then transform fat-soluble toxins into a stable molecule that’s water-soluble, which allows the potential cancer-causing agents taken in via air, food or water to be excreted out through urine. Read more about Kensler’s cancer-busting broccoli sprout pills in this Fred Hutch News story.

Another big benefit of plants is that the fiber they contain is crucial for our gut microbiome, which researchers have linked more and more to our immune system and our overall health. High- or low-fiber diets can even affect how cancer drugs work on our bodies. A recent study showed that a high-fiber diet was associated with improved survival of melanoma patients given immune checkpoint inhibitors, a type of immunotherapy.

“Eating high-fiber foods is really important for the microbiome,” said Greenlee. “You promote the diversity of bacteria which is important for your body’s immune function.”

Neuhouser, who studies obesity and its effects on health, is currently evaluating data showing that women who consumed more plant proteins (such as legumes, beans, nuts and peanut butter) relative to animal proteins had “dramatically” less C-reactive protein, an inflammatory marker.

And there’s an additional benefit to going green — along with red, yellow, orange, blue and eggplant. 

Need motivation?
Check out a cancer prevention study!

When it comes to our bodies and how they respond to diet and exercise, there’s always more to know. And Fred Hutch, home to the first National Cancer Institute-funded Cancer Prevention Program in the country, continues to delve into the science. Read on, to learn more about current Hutch studies.

Dr. Anne McTiernan is digging deeper into the question of exercise’s effects on our bodies with a study measuring the acute effect of exercise on breast cancer biomarkers. Learn more at the ACE study website.

“We’ve shown in previous studies that, if somebody who was previously sedentary exercises for a year, that some of their blood factors and their proteins and their hormones change in ways that could be beneficial against breast cancer,” she said. “We want to know what happens a couple hours after you exercise — that’s the acute effect. So far, that’s mainly just been studied in athletic young men.”

Dr. Marian Neuhouser, head of the Hutch’s Cancer Prevention Program, is currently enrolling people in her EAT WELL study, an experimental feeding trial that will test two healthy diets (both provided by the study team): one with, and one without, red or processed meat. Neuhouser and her team will analyze the effect of both diets on the body’s metabolism and the gut microbiome.

“We’re trying to tease out the biological pathways,” she said. “We may even find some healthful pathways and health benefits in meat, especially if the meat is lean and not grilled. We have to know both the risks and benefits.”

Have you participated in a Fred Hutch study in the past? Would you be interested in sharing your story for an upcoming feature? Contact communications@fredhutch.org for more information.

If you’re eating a lot of fresh plants and eating whole grains and eating lean protein, then you’re also not eating processed foods or refined foods or foods high in unhealthy, saturated fats,” Greenlee said. “We know those foods are pro-inflammatory, which can contribute to cancer and other chronic disease. By following a plant-based dietary pattern, you’re not only eating good foods, you’re not eating the unhealthy foods.”

While studies regarding the benefits of eating plants are fairly unified, Neuhouser said scientists continue to wrestle over whether meat is helpful or harmful, mainly due to the type of studies done (many rely on self-reporting which can be unreliable).

“There’s been a lot of controversy about meat, and in 2015, the World Health Organization declared red and processed meat carcinogenic,” said Neuhouser, who’s currently researching the benefits and harms of red and processed meat in her new EAT WELL study. “We need to determine, for population health, does the risk outweigh the benefits, or is it equivalent?”

But wait, there’s more!

Still looking for ways to maintain good health this year? Here are a few more science-backed suggestions.

  • Getting screened for cancer reduces your risk of dying of the disease; cancers that are caught early are much easier to treat (and potentially cure). Find more information on cancer screenings from SCCA, the American Cancer Society, or through the National Cancer Institute or its Cancer Information Service phone line, 1-800-4-CANCER.
  • Quitting tobacco can also add years to your life, even for those who’ve been diagnosed with lung cancer, according to a new analysis out of Italy. The Hutch’s Dr. Jonathan Bricker has several studies going in smoking cessation, including Quit2Heal, a trial just for smokers who’ve been diagnosed with cancer.
  • Good sleeppreferably at night — allows your body to repair DNA damage, neutralizing early mutations that could eventually trigger a cancer. Set yourself up for good sleep by keeping your phone out of the bedroom. Not only will it help you cut back on insomnia-inducing doomscrolling, you won’t trick your body into making less melatonin (tied to DNA damage repair) with the device’s blue light.
  • Getting out into nature can be a quick and easy way to reduce stress and improve your mood. “Walking has been a lifesaver during the pandemic for my family,” said McTiernan. “We live in the city so we try to get out to the parks — going on forest walks has been really helpful.” Sometimes referred to as “forest bathing,” nature walks have been shown to quickly reduce stress in study participants. “You really don’t have to spend a ton of money on exercise equipment,” McTiernan said. “Just walking works, but you do have to make the time for it.”

Diane Mapes is a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer 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. Just diagnosed and need information and resources? Visit our Patient Care page.

Are you interested in reprinting or republishing this story? Be our guest! We want to help connect people with the information they need. We just ask that you link back to the original article, preserve the author’s byline and refrain from making edits that alter the original context. Questions? Email us at communications@fredhutch.org

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