Many people mark the first day of January as a new beginning and a chance to reset bad habits. After a busy holiday season, Christopher Swales, MD, a family medicine physician with Dignity Health Woodland Clinic, shares how to jumpstart your health and wellness, and build better self-care habits in the new year.
Regular physical activity is important to reduce disease, keep bones and muscles strong, and improve and maintain your ability to do everyday activities. Physical activity has been shown to have positive effects on mental health. Moving your body can also help ease depression and anxiety thanks to the body releasing endorphins, chemicals produced by the nervous system that can alleviate stress and promote a sense of well-being.
Even 30 minutes of daily movement can give you the benefit of improved mood, increased energy and better sleep. With colder temperatures this time of year, try breaking a sweat indoors by dancing, practicing yoga or tai chi, or using an exercise bike or treadmill.
While many people make New Year’s resolutions focused on physical fitness, remember that your mental health is equally important.
“It's especially important to think about the places where we can find gratitude and happiness, and work on letting go of negative experiences,” says Dr. Swales. “Many studies show there are benefits of meditation or mindfulness on both our mental and physical health.”
Meditation has been shown to help people experiencing insomnia to sleep better and for longer, and can help those with chronic pain manage their symptoms and discomfort. If you don’t know where to start, there are helpful smartphone apps like Calm and Headspace that offer guided meditation sessions and sleep aides like white noise and bedtime stories.
Exploring the outdoors helps reconnect your mind and body. Dr. Swales suggests the Japanese concept of “forest bathing,” where one takes gentle nature walks to engage all the senses. The goal of this practice is to bridge the gap between the individual self and the great big world, serving as a reminder that there is much more to life than the things that cause you stress.
Seeking support from a behavioral health professional is an incredibly important tool for anyone experiencing mental health issues. There is no need to feel embarrassed about getting help from someone else. In fact, it may be just what you need.
“I would recommend counseling or therapy to anyone,” says Dr. Swales. “Everyone needs someone to talk to, and sometimes it’s easier when that person is totally independent of your situation. They can provide perspective you or your close comrades may not have considered.”
If you are experiencing feelings of depression, anxiety or loneliness, don't skip mentioning it at your appointment. Your doctor can provide mental health resources to help you get started.
Getting Your Sleep Back on Track
The holidays can be disruptive to our everyday routines. To get back on track, Dr. Swales recommends now as the perfect time to rebuild healthy sleep habits.
“Have a set bedtime routine and stick with a time that allows for up to 9 hours of sleep,” says Dr. Swales. “Most people require 7-9 hours of sleep, so make sure you set aside enough time to let your body recharge.”
“Sleep debt” is the eventual build-up of exhaustion from not sleeping enough, and can grow over time to the point that your body will need to pay it back through worsening mental, physical or emotional health. Dr. Swales suggests building a sleep routine and sticking to it the best you can — get comfy, read a book, shut off the lights and get some well-deserved rest.
An important consideration is keeping screens out of the bedroom. If you use devices or watch television in the evening, stop about two hours before bedtime. Bright light in a dark room can confuse your circadian rhythm (your body’s internal process that regulates your sleep-wake cycle every 24 hours), and the content you consume can keep your brain in an activated state making it harder to relax and fall into deep sleep. Also consider replacing your cell phone alarm with a bedside alarm clock or turn your phone to “sleep mode” to avoid notifications disrupting your sleep.
“Our mind and body are connected, so take time to care for your mental health, which will benefit your physical health — and vice versa,” says Dr. Swales.
Schedule Your Annual Wellness Visit
Annual wellness exams are a key element of preventative care, and help identify health issues early on to provide the most effective treatments. During this year’s annual visit with your primary care physician, your physical health, mental health, and cognitive function will be evaluated. Your physician will run routine exams, discuss risk factors for disease, look for symptoms (even if you haven’t noticed them) and give you an opportunity to ask them questions. Annual wellness exams are a great way to stay on top of your health and identify issues before they become serious.
If you don’t have a primary care physician, visit our "Find a Doctor" page to learn more about Dignity Health Medical Group physicians near you.