Getting healthy is one of the top five New Year’s resolutions people make each year, data research firm Statistic Brain found.
But while the intention is admirable, the execution often leaves much to be desired. And that may be why about 1 in 4 people who make a resolution don’t even follow them through the first week, the researchers noted.
The secret to staying on track? Get specific. Saying you want to get healthy isn’t going to mean much if you don’t know how exactly you’re going to put that into play. So we’ve tracked down 9 doctors to share the single most important thing you can do to make 2018 your healthiest year yet.
Healthy mouth, healthy lungs. That might seem like an odd connection, but it’s all about bacteria, according to Tripti Meysman, D.D.S., founder of the Minneapolis-based CityTooth dentistry practice.
“When you have bacteria in your mouth, you can breathe it into your respiratory system,” she says. That can boost inflammation in your lungs and trachea, upping your chances of contracting respiratory infections like pneumonia.
The solution? Rid your mouth of excess bacteria to prevent gum disease. See your dentist for a cleaning at least once a year, and brush and floss—yes, you actually need to floss—twice a day. That will remove plaque, the sticky film that consists of bacteria and sugars.
While heavy lifting isn’t recommended for those with preexisting back conditions or back pain, it’s actually inactivity in general that’s likely to hurt your back the most, says William Morrison, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon at South Regional Medical Center in Mississippi.
“People used to be told to go to bed if their backs hurt, and to rest as much as possible,” he says. “But now we know that usually makes it worse.”
That’s because exercise strengthens your core, which alleviates pressure and tightness from your lower back. It also builds up your back muscles, so they can better support your spine.
See your doctor to get specific recommendations, he advises, but be prepared to get moving. “Honestly, if I could get people to a gym more often, I’d have fewer patients,” Dr. Morrison says.
Having consistency with your pooping is important for regulating your bowel function, which can help reduce constipation. You might think training yourself to poop is like teaching a cat to fetch, but it’s actually possible—especially if you make pooping a priority right after waking up, says Satish Rao, M.D., director of the Digestive Health Center at Augusta University.
“The colon is primed to empty itself within the first hour of waking,” he says. “But you may also see more activity an hour or so after meals.” (Drinking coffee can also make you poop, too.)
Dr. Rao’s favorite trick is visualization, a technique where you imagine yourself having that relief at, say, 7 a.m. every day. You know how it feels to take a really great poop, so tap into that memory and imagine a successful exit, paying particular attention to relaxing your sphincter.
By continually visualizing that situation, you may be able to reset your brain and spark a must-poop-now signal. Then sit on the toilet when you feel that urge.
When was the last time you picked up an actual book?
“When you’re engaged in a book, you have more cognitive engagement, and that has a cascading effect,” says Becca Levy, Ph.D., a professor of epidemiology in the Yale School of Public Health.
With higher engagement, you have a tendency to de-stress, which reduces your amount of the stress hormone cortisol. When that happens, blood pressure often lowers as a result.
Magazines and newspapers don’t have as much of an effect, probably because people tend to read them in shorter bursts. Diving into a book—fiction or non-fiction, printed or on an e-reader—allows your brain and body to relax more effectively, Levy says.
In a culture rich with distraction, boredom is quickly becoming almost retro. But seizing micro-moments of ennui can help to lower stress and sneak some rest into a chaotic day, according to Barbara Fredrickson, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
That’s because boredom often means you aren’t multi-tasking—and that reduces stress overall. Multi-tasking has been linked to increased cortisol as well as adrenaline, which can over-stimulate your brain.
“There’s a big emphasis in our culture on defeating boredom at all costs,” she says. “But if you embrace those moments, and see them as opportunities instead, it gives you a break.”
“Drinking water is important, but for many people, it’s not hydrating them the way it should be,” says Filomena Trindade, M.D., of the Institute for Functional Medicine. “It’s just running through their system without getting into the cells.”
If you have to pee within 30 minutes of drinking, you’re probably not getting the benefits of that water, she says. Add some amino acids or trace minerals to increase your hydration, Dr. Trindade suggests. Try a pinch of magnesium or Himalayan sea salt.
This is especially important if you are working out a lot, battling illness, or just stuck inside for most of the day—centrally heated offices have notoriously dry air, which can increase dehydration.
If you’re struggling with sleep issues, consider keeping your socks on, says Daniel Amen, M.D., a brain disorder specialist and coauthor of The Brain Warrior’s Way. A thin pair of gloves may help, too.
“Researchers have found that warm hands and feet were the best predictor of rapid sleep onset,” he says.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, warming up your feet or hands causes a beneficial dilation of your blood vessels, which is a signal to your brain that it’s bedtime. Once the blood vessels are open in your hands and feet, heat redistributes to the rest of your body to get it prepped for sleeping.
If you get too warm in the middle of the night and have to ditch your socks, just be sure to fling them off without glancing at the clock, Dr. Amen advises. “Checking the time can make you feel anxious,” he says, and that can keep you from falling back asleep easily.
It might feel like you’re about to do the Pledge of Allegiance, but you’re actually hacking your stress response.
“It seems weird, but our physiology is designed to recognize this gesture as self-soothing,” says Kristin Neff, Ph.D., associate professor in human development and culture at University of Texas. “It will signal the brain to reduce anxiety.”
Even if you don’t believe it will work, your brain and body will respond, she says: “We are programmed to calm down with this particular movement.” Keep your hand there for just a few minutes, or until you feel calmer, and take some deep breaths to boost the effect.
There are plenty of reasons to use sunscreen to lower your skin cancer risk. But there are also many benefits to getting a strategic amount of sunlight.
“You’ll get stronger bones, lower blood pressure, and even deeper sleep if you get some sun exposure,” says Michael Holick, M.D., director of the Heliotherapy, Light, and Skin Research Center at Boston University Medical Center. “There are advantageous biological processes that occur with sunshine that you won’t get by taking vitamin D supplements.”
He advises that it’s best to get sun on your shoulders, arms, or legs instead of your back or face—the former increases cancer risk and the latter ups your wrinkle and blemish risk. So, grab some sun in the late morning or early afternoon—before the stronger mid-afternoon sunshine kicks in—and use your sunscreen afterward if you’re going to stay outside.