It has been said that human beings are creatures of habit.
Of course, this applies as equally to bad habits as to good ones. As it turns out, much of our health is dependent upon our habits, and especially the balance we maintain between the good ones and the bad ones.
This holds true just as much for acute illness as for chronic disease. For instance, the yearly habit of getting a flu vaccine generally reduces risk both of contracting flu and suffering severely from it even in the face of infection. Likewise, basic hand hygiene habits, such as frequent hand washing and the avoidance of hand contact with the face, can reduce the spread of viral illness, especially at this time of year.
Classic bad habits that have clear and proven links to illness include cigarette smoking and excessive alcohol consumption. These habits are made more challenging by the impact of addiction. Yet, even habits linked to addiction can be overcome for the betterment of our health.
I think we all learned as children that brushing our teeth reduces the risk of tooth decay. Yet, other lifestyle habits are less common but have equally important impact on our general well-being.
We often refer to lifestyle “choices” when in fact lifestyle is often a reflection of our routines. If we adopt a healthy eating routine, favoring fresh vegetables, fruits and whole grains as well as moderation and portion control, this reduces our risk of chronic illness.
Likewise, if we undertake routine physical activity with components of aerobic and toning exercises as well as maintenance of flexibility, we benefit both in the short and long term with regard to our physical and mental health.
Contrary to popular belief, lifelong habits can be changed. A recent study documented a positive association between cardiovascular health and the adoption of a new regimen of moderate, regular physical activity even among previously sedentary middle-aged adults.
Eliminating bad habits and/or starting new good habits requires three critical components: motivation to change, commitment and follow-through. Perhaps just as important is the resilience to endure initial setbacks and to not lose hope.
Finding a way to change our routines requires overcoming the inertia of bad habits and becoming energized about starting healthy new habits. No matter your age and no matter your baseline health status, there is evidence that everyone can benefit.
I suggest a simple first step in the journey. Begin by making a list of bad health habits you’d like to put behind you and good ones you’d like to start. Then begin making change a little at a time.
Of course, despite our best efforts, disease can still occur. But on the balance, our best chance for a healthy life is to adopt and maintain good health habits.
Dr. Matthew A. Clark is a board-certified physician in internal medicine and pediatrics practicing at the Ute Mountain Ute Health Center in Towaoc.