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While we know that health affects longevity and quality of life, it can be difficult to change bad habits. People often try to make sweeping New Year's resolutions, only to fail.
In fact, Jan. 17 is the date that the average America breaks their New Year's resolution.
Dr. Stephen Kopecky, a Mayo Clinic preventive cardiologist, says a better approach is to focus on small steps that add up over time.
"The answer, I think, is to make small, sustainable steps that you can live with," says Dr. Kopecky "And when I say small steps, like for diet, I tell patients one bite, one bite of something healthy. Take some processed meat or foods off your plate, and put on something like a legume or a bean. After a couple of years, that one-bite difference will lower your risk of having a heart attack."
In his book, "Live Younger Longer: 6 Steps to Prevent Heart Disease, Cancer, Alzheimer's and More," Dr. Kopecky shares strategies for making changes, including thinking of a compass of habits:
Eating lots of fruits and vegetables provides antioxidants and anti-inflammatory nutrients that help the immune system fight infections. Dr. Kopecky recommends fruits, vegetables and healthy fats from olive oil and nuts, all found in the Mediterranean diet.
Regular moderate exercise increases the activity of virus-killing immune cells.
“Exercise has been shown to give the immune system a boost by maximizing the body's ability to take in and efficiently use oxygen, among other things,” says Dr. Kopecky. “Moderate exercise, where you can talk but not sing while exercising, is enough to increase the activity of virus-killing cells both in the short term and long term. Even 20 minutes daily can help quell inflammation and boost immunity, and exercise can be divided up during the day. The best part about exercise is that it can be done anywhere. Leg lunges, sit-ups, squats and stair-climbing are all easy exercises you can do at home."
Calming activities and supportive relationships minimize stress, reduce cortisol production and enhance the immune system's function. "Concern about the health of our loved ones, our jobs, children's schooling and other stressors will cause an increased production of the hormone cortisol in the body, which in turn can suppress the immune system," says Dr. Kopecky. "Practicing mindfulness and stepping away from what's causing anxiety can help us stay grounded. Exercises that have calming or meditative qualities, such as qi gong and yoga, also are beneficial."
Getting enough sleep
Adequate sleep boosts the number of immune cells circulating in the body and improves infection outcomes. The interaction between the immune system and sleep is a two-way street. "When your immune system response kicks in, it changes your sleep,” explains Dr. Kopecky. “You may find yourself sleeping longer, for example, as your immune system stages an attack against a virus. When you're not sleeping well, you may notice that you get sick more easily. Getting adequate sleep can help support the way your immune system functions by increasing the number of immune cells circulating in your body."
Making positive changes in these areas can help improve health and longevity.
"We cannot prevent aging. We can slow aging," says Dr. Kopecky. "But we can prevent disease. It's certainly possible to do. And if you adopt a certain healthy lifestyle, you can affect that."
On the Mayo Clinic Q&A podcast, Dr. Kopecky discusses developing healthy habits one small step at a time.
Watch: Dr. Kopecky discuss tips for living younger longer.
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