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11 healthy resolutions for 2011

By Elizabeth Cooney
Globe Correspondent / January 3, 2011

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So how will those New Year’s resolutions work out for you?

Congratulations if you make it to the gym or eat more nutritious meals in 2011. Keep it up — if you can.

That’s the catch. When we make resolutions, we aren’t always realistic, tending toward the ambitious rather than the achievable.

With that in mind, here are 11 suggestions for resolutions you might actually keep, based on advice from specialists in psychology, weight control, nutrition, physical therapy, and patient participation. If they have a common theme, it’s to think differently about diet, exercise, family life, health care — and resolutions themselves.

DON’T DIET

1. Unless you want to doom yourself to feeling frustrated and deprived, that is. Dr. David Ludwig, who directs the Optimal Weight for Living Program at Children’s Hospital Boston, says diets backfire when people put a lot of energy into unsustainable ways of eating — cutting way back on a whole food group, for example. It’s better to follow the advice even the 5-year-olds in his clinic can grasp: Eat real foods, not fake foods. Stay away from food that is made in a factory, comes in a package, and has unpronounceable ingredients. Stick with food our Stone Age ancestors would recognize.

“We need to fill up our stomachs and our houses with so many nutritious, delicious foods, there’s no longer any room or interest in the junk,’’ he said. “Even independent of weight, risk for heart disease and diabetes is greatly determined by the quality of food. We can begin to improve our health before the first pound has been shed.’’

BE AWARE OF STRESS AND HOW YOU RESPOND TO IT

2. We all have stress in our lives. Some is unavoidable, but we may be able to do something about the way we respond to it. Dr. Jason Block, an obesity researcher at Harvard Medical School and a general internist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, invites his patients to recognize the impact that stress has on them.

Many people eat when they are stressed, and the foods they choose for comfort may be high in fat and sugar. That could undermine their best intentions to maintain a healthy weight. Block suggests alternatives to reaching for the chips or chocolate: Try talking with friends or getting some exercise. “It’s a small thing but it could have a big impact,’’ he said.

PICK A GOAL AND TRY TO GET CLOSER TO IT

3. Boston Medical Center cardiologist Dr. Gary Balady says take aim at one of the American Heart Association’s targets: weight, diet, smoking, blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar, or physical activity. Make it your resolution to improve, even if you don’t reach your goal. If you smoke, cut down. If you are overweight, eat fewer calories. If you don’t know your blood pressure or blood sugar, see a health care provider and get them checked. McLean Hospital’s internal medicine director Dr. Arthur Siegel also sounds a note of moderation in goal-setting. “Consistency and moderation are the tickets to a healthy lifestyle, regarding nearly everything from diet (portion size), exercise, and sex.’’

GET GOING

4. If you’re a walker, get in the fast lane. That’s the advice Anne Lusk of the Harvard School of Public Health gives, based on research that showed women in the Nurses Health Study who walked slowly for exercise didn’t control their weight that way, but brisk walkers did. “They should pretend to be BMWs in the fast lane, going faster than the general population,’’ she said. And while winter snows are here, start planning for a vacation that includes a bike trip. Or, if you can afford it, adopt a dog. That’s another way to get you moving, suggests Dr. I-Min Lee of Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

KEEP MOVING

5. J. Alex McKinney of Marathon Physical Therapy and Sports Medicine goes further. Say you’ve gotten in the recommended 30 to 45 minutes of daily exercise. Don’t forget about your muscles once you settle into your desk at work. First, make sure your workstation is ergonomically correct so you don’t get into painful bad habits that could result in muscle shortening.

Second, engage those muscles when you can. “I tell patients when you sit, contract your abdominals,’’ he said. “Use the muscles that are the prime movers.’’ That means the abs and the glutes, the hip and shoulder stabilizers. Set a timer at your desk to get up and walk every 30 minutes of so, to make sure those muscles don’t get tight from sitting all day.

FOCUS ON FAMILY

6. Celebrate family members’ best qualities, and yours. “Every day identify at least one strength in yourself and one in each of your children, partner, or other family members,’’ said University of Massachusetts Medical School psychologist Joanne Nicholson, who helps families cope with mental illness. It’s also important to slow down and really hear and observe one another — and if necessary, forgive. “Maybe ‘focused acts of forgiveness’ are the flip side of ‘random acts of kindness.’ ’’

BE AN ACTIVE PARTICIPANT IN YOUR HEALTH CARE

7. Dave deBronkart of Nashua, better known as ePatient Dave for his blog about participatory medicine, got engaged in his care after being diagnosed with stage 4 kidney cancer that had spread throughout his body. He beat the odds and shares his story, speaking at conferences around the world. “Get involved in your care before a crisis hits,’’ he advises. “As Dr. Spock said, ‘Trust yourself. You know more than you think.’ ’’ If a crisis does come along, “know your options,’’ he said. “Ask, learn, do everything you can to help your doctors help you.’’

PICK SOMETHING SMALL TO ADJUST

8. We all naturally put on weight as we age. Tufts University nutrition professor Alice Lichtenstein recommends making small changes that will last longer than temporary diets. If you put cream in your coffee, change it to milk. Put lighter cream cheese on your bagel. Eat two cookies instead of three. They may not be major changes, but they will save calories every day. “We do have to modify diet and physical activity, particularly as we get older,’’ she said. “What you want is to nip in the bud any weight gain.’’

EAT ONE FAMILY MEAL TOGETHER EVERY DAY

9. Do this without the TV on, and try a new food one day a week, suggests Dr. Michael Rich, a Children’s Hospital Boston pediatrician who specializes in the media. You eat better, you pay better attention to one another, and research has shown family meals protect against obesity and a whole host of risky behaviors, he said. Trying a new food will add a little adventure and helps picky eaters to expand their tastes.

DAYDREAM

10. “Take the time to let your mind wander because that’s where not only creativity occurs but also where we develop our sense of self,’’ Rich said. Growing evidence from brain-imaging studies suggests that down time for the brain is also important for doing the kind of maintenance for our minds that sleep does for our bodies.

CHOOSE ACTIVELY

11. That means not doing things by default, Rich also says. We get bogged down in routines, whether ferrying kids from one activity to another with no break for spontaneous fun, or coming home and automatically turning on the TV as if it were “electronic wallpaper.’’ We’re better off being conscious of what we are doing and stopping to savor the moment. “We aren’t around on this earth that long,’’ he said. “Enjoy it, live to the fullest.’’

Elizabeth Cooney can be reached at ecooney@globe.com.