If this new year is like many others, you are statistically likely to suffer at least two colds — make that five colds if you have children. This may also be the year your spirits sag because one in 10 U.S. adults tends to report depression early in the year. Plus, your chances of an overnight hospital stay? About 6 percent.
How can you beat those odds?
Staying healthy takes more than luck and wishful thinking, but having the right mindset can help, says cardiologist Michael Miller, MD, professor of medicine, epidemiology and public health at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
Here are Miller’s top suggestions for sustaining health, year-round:
1. Croon a tune.
The calming power of music is potent, Miller says. “Singing may reduce blood pressure as much as blood pressure medicine [does].” He cites a medical report published in the Arthritis Care & Research journal. A woman was about to undergo knee replacement surgery when her blood pressure spiked so high the doctors considered canceling her surgery. The patient asked if she could sing to alleviate her anxiety — as she did at home — and her doctors agreed.
Her singing normalized her blood pressure, and the surgery proceeded as scheduled. “Singing is simple, safe and free,” the study authors write. Research is ongoing to determine just how music lifts your mood, lowers perceptions of pain and steadies blood pressure.
2. Adopt a cocoa habit.
Chocolate, specifically cocoa, helps your heart, health and mood, and it might even help you concentrate better.
“Try a daily cocoa extract that contains at least 200 milligrams of heart-protective flavanols,” Miller says. “Flavanols not only make you feel good but also improve the health of your blood vessel lining, which is key to overall good heart health.” The 200-milligram level is set by experts as the amount needed to contribute to normal blood pressure flow.
3. Conjure compassion.
Surprise someone by doing something kind and thoughtful. “Nothing fancy, but doing something unexpected for someone else is very fulfilling and great for your heart,” Miller says.
So go ahead, be unpredictable, and improve your health (and your attitude) at the same time. Kindness makes both the giver and recipient feel good and can cost nothing. In an often-quoted study from the University of North Carolina, women who hugged their partners more than less touchy-feely participants had lower blood pressure and higher levels of the feel-good hormone oxytocin.
4. Laugh until you cry. Really.
“One good laugh each day can produce heart-related benefits for hours,” Miller says. Study after study has found that laughing not only makes you feel good emotionally, it can help you feel good physically. Make it a super-size belly laugh, though, and do it until the tears start flowing.
“Turns out that the physiologic benefit of laughing is most pronounced when laughing brings tears to our eyes,” Miller says.
Humor can also stimulate your immune function and circulatory systems, according to the American Cancer Society, which recognizes humor therapy as a supplemental way to promote health and cope with illness.
5. Walk it off.
You are not likely to feel your best if your body has to deal with the burden of extra weight or unhealthy habits like smoking. So the top recommendation for being your healthiest self? No surprise here: Physical activity performed most days of the week is directly linked with happier moods, optimal body weights, stronger hearts and a host of other advantages.
“All you need to do is walk the equivalent of a 20-minute mile for good heart health and a feeling of well-being,” Miller says.
A 20-minute mile translates to 1.75 miles in 35 minutes, according to the National Institutes of Health. Note that more exercise is always better. In order to boost your health all year long, your goal should be 30 to 60 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise on most days of the week.