You've seen the headlines; Americans are obese, eat the wrong kinds of food, get no exercise, suffer from high blood pressure and stress and generally are physical wrecks. Maybe the reality is not as bad as all that, but there's no question there is room for improvement.
But how do you go from an unhealthy lifestyle to a healthy one? It's not as hard as you think, but it requires a little focus and discipline. Here are four steps that can put you on the path to better health.
1. Address unhealthy habits
This one is so obvious and so important that it has to be number one. Many of us do things every day that damage our health. If you smoke, for example, nothing you can do will improve your health more than stopping. If you don't think you can go cold turkey, slowly reduce the number of cigarettes you smoke each day.
Alcohol consumption is another area that may need adjustment. If you are a heavy drinker, reduce the number of alcoholic beverages you drink per week. Keep in mind that most health experts consider someone who has 21 or more alcoholic drinks per week to be a heavy drinker.
When you do drink, do so in moderation. Excessive alcohol use not only makes you more vulnerable to accidents, it can lead to liver disease and high blood pressure.
2. Eat a healthy diet
Increasingly consumers eat meals at restaurants or at home, out of a box. As a result, we tend to eat the wrong kinds of food and too much of it.
Over the years serving portions have increased in size, especially at restaurants. Typically, an upscale, gourmet restaurant serves up tiny portions of exquisitely-prepared, and yes, expensive dishes. Your typical franchise restaurant, meanwhile, attracts customers with huge portions of calorie-laden food at a moderate price.
For example, farmers can now grow huge potatoes. Slathered with butter and sour cream, one of these giant potatoes can pack enough calories to last most of the day. Health experts say the proper size for a baked potato is about the same dimensions as a computer mouse.
A healthy diet means choosing a wide variety of food and drink from all the food groups and consuming them in moderation. It doesn't mean depriving yourself of good tasting food, you just shouldn't eat very much of it. Now that you are an adult, no one is forcing you to clean your plate.
Fresh fruit is an easy way to add nutritious food to your diet since it requires little or no preparation. Find some fruit that you enjoy and keep it on hand.
A recent survey conducted on behalf of The Vitamin Shoppe found that 82% of Americans don't eat three balanced meals per day. The most frequent excuses they cite for skimping on healthy eating are “healthy cooking takes too much time” and that “they work too much.” Thirty-five percent of respondents said they have gone one week or longer without eating a single fresh vegetable.
"It can be very difficult to maintain a balanced a diet when they are so consumed with work and family," said Sharon Richter, a Registered Dietician based in New York City.
The survey found that there is a deep lack of knowledge among young Americans. One in four Americans between ages 18-34 are more likely to know the names of the Kardashian sisters than the five food groups.
3. Get plenty of exercise
The rise in obesity has coincided with a number of unhealthy trends, chief among them is a lack of exercise. Children no longer clamor to go outside and play if there's something on TV or they have a new video game. Adults also tend to spend too much time in front of TV and their computers.
You don't have to join a health club in order to get healthy amounts of exercise. In fact, sometimes a health club can be an excuse not to exercise since you might not have time to go to the gym that often.
But everyone has time to take a walk, and doing so each day can improve your health. Dr. Edward Laskowski, of the Mayo Clinic, suggests adults should get at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity – or 75 minutes of strenuous activity – each week.
Moderate aerobic exercise includes everyday activities like walking or mowing the lawn. Vigorous aerobic exercise includes such activities as running and aerobic dancing. Laskowski says ideally, you should aim for at least 30 minutes of activity each day.
4. Reduce stress
Modern life can be full of stress and not properly dealing with it can be a detriment to your health. Make a list of the stress factors in your life so that you are fully aware of them, then take steps to counter them.
Increasingly, many people are turning to the practice of “mindfulness” to relieve stress and improve both health and productivity. Mindfulness is associated with meditation. It's a spiritual or psychological faculty believed to be an important step on the road to enlightenment. It's reached by establishing a state of calm through meditation and relaxation exercises.
Consider setting aside some time each day to meditate, reflect, listen to soft music, or simply stare at the wall. Your relaxed mental state will also have positive physical repercussions.
How will you know the above steps are working? Chances are you'll feel it, both physically and mentally. You will probably look healthier too, drawing compliments from family and friends.
If you are overweight or obese, be sure to discuss with your health care provider any changes in exercise routine and diet.