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Welcome to 2020!  It’s the Chinese year of the Rat – the first in the 12-year rotation of zodiac signs, which means that this is a year of renewal.  What better way to start fresh than to make a few simple changes – so you can feel better and look forward to a healthier, happier, more active life?

The good advice you are about to read comes from Elizabeth Platz, Sc.D., M.P.H., an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins, who does a lot of research on factors that raise and lower the risk of prostate cancer.   These tips aren’t prostate cancer-specific, but they will help you to get and stay healthier – so you won’t just be another year older, but another year better!  It’s easier than you might think.  Ready?  Let’s get started!

PART 1

Don’t bother looking for a quick fix.  There isn’t a magic pill or miracle supplement or treatment, no matter what they may say on TV and the internet.  Getting healthier can’t be achieved by anything hawked in an infomercial.  “For healthy living, for good well-being, for avoiding premature mortality,” says Platz, “the right things to do are the things you have to work at,” like eating right and getting exercise.  But take heart:  you can make big changes by doing lots of small things, if you do them steadily.  You can also live it up sometimes – eat that slab of birthday cake, or have pizza night – if, in general, you practice moderation most of the time.

Be active: this doesn’t mean that you must haunt the gym.  One of the best things you can do for your health, says Platz, is easy:  avoid sitting all day.  “In the modern world, people tend to sit.”  We sit in the car.  We sit when we’re on our phones.  We sit at the computer.  “We have protracted periods of time where we’re just stationary.  Build intentional activity into your day.”  This doesn’t mean you have to spend hours on the treadmill or elliptical; remember, we’re talking about small changes here:  Don’t park right next to the building; park farther out and walk a little longer.  Take the stairs instead of an elevator to go up one floor.  Set a timer and walk around your house.  Take the dog for an extra walk.  Just move around.

Focus on the “big three macros,” proteins, carbohydrates, and fats.  “Macromolecules” is a trendy word, but it describes something very basic: “these major, fundamental components of our diets,” says Platz.

Protein:  “As we get older, we need more protein to help keep from losing muscle mass.”  How much?  This varies a lot; one recommendation from an expert panel is 1.2 to 1.5 grams per kilogram of body weight; this could mean 123 grams for a 180-pound man; the minimum amount recommended by the U.S. government for the average 160-pound man is 56 grams.  Bottom line:  You need more protein than you think, and more than you’re probably getting.  Make a point of eating protein with every meal.  Instead of just having a piece of toast or some cereal for breakfast, for example, add Greek yogurt (which is higher in protein) or an egg.   Protein doesn’t just come from meat; it’s in fish, beans, dairy products, eggs, and soy products, too.  It’s also in meal replacement drinks like Ensure and Boost, and in protein bars.

Carbs: Again, moderation:  “Don’t overdo simple carbohydrates,” the kinds of sugars found in sweets, white bread, and even plain old potatoes:  yes, the humble potato, minding its own business and serving as a dietary staple to millions, now finds itself on the nutritional naughty list of “simple carbohydrates,” because it takes less energy to digest a spud than, say, a sweet potato, which is a more complex carb.  “Whole grains can be delicious,” notes Platz.  “They’re more than just what’s in whole-wheat bread” (which, admittedly, can taste like cardboard).  “Many grains can be mixed into your diet without a lot of effort.”  In the rice and pasta aisle in the grocery store, check out farro – a nutty-tasting grain.  There’s also quinoa, barley, and bulgur, to name a few.

Fats:  “Good fats are good for you.  Try cooking with olive oil instead of butter,” suggests Platz – who is quick to add:  “You don’t have to remove butter from your diet; olive oil just tastes good.”  And watch out for calorie-rich dressings, sauces, and gravy.  Again, this doesn’t mean don’t eat them; “just make sure it’s the right serving size – which is often more like a tablespoon, rather than a quarter-cup.”

Indeed, watch your portions.  One basic strategy to make sure you’re not getting more than you need:  use a measuring cup.  “Even when you’re eating something that’s healthier, make sure you’re not overdoing it from a calorie perspective.”  Those pesky calories add up, and this is how you gain weight: consuming more calories than you burn.

Weigh yourself.  As we get older, sadly, the weight we gain “tends to be fat,” says Platz, “at the same time as we are losing muscle mass.  Loss of muscle mass is particularly worrisome, and is linked to premature death.  It’s not just how much you weigh, but the proportion of lean mass – muscle and bone.”  What’s a good way to maintain and build muscle mass?  “Weight-bearing or resistance exercise.  Lifting weights.”

Weight-bearing exercise.  Again, this isn’t as hard as you may think.  Nobody’s suggesting that you need to bench press the weight of a Saint Bernard, or dead lift the equivalent of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.  “I’m talking about hand weights.  Light-weight weights.  You can even use your body weight,” by doing planks, push-ups, or yoga-type exercises. If you are new to exercise or are trying a new regimen, be sure to consult your health care provider before you start.

For part 2 of this article click here.

 

Janet Farrar Worthington
Janet Farrar Worthington is an award-winning science writer and has written and edited numerous health publications and contributed to several other medical books. In addition to writing on medicine, Janet also writes about her family, her former life on a farm in Virginia, her desire to own more chickens, and whichever dog is eyeing the dinner dish.