One of the most painful experiences for a physician is to tell patients they brought their medical problems upon themselves. As they roll toward the operating room, I always see a mixture of terror and regret as they contemplate those walks they should have taken, those burgers they shouldn't have eaten. Those regrets compelled me to create books, a radio program and, recently, "The Dr. Oz Show," to convince Americans that their fate is, in fact, in their own hands.
During my decades of clinical practice and thousands of open-heart surgeries, I've learned that people change behaviors not because of what they know, but because of how they feel. So don't struggle with all of our recommendations if some of them seem unnatural. Focus on the ones you easily can program into your life. When you don't even realize that you're on a new lifestyle program, we have succeeded.
Let's take advantage of the new year by highlighting the top habits that could make us all healthier in 2010. Dr. Oz *
Don't skip meals. A morning meal rich in fiber or protein slows the passage of food through the small intestine. As a result, you feel satisfied longer and don't start foraging for candy or soda a few hours later. Not surprisingly, those who have successfully lost weight and kept it off report consistently eating breakfast. But don't take this as carte blanche to gorge on junk food. Doughnuts or syrupy pancakes are definitely worse than nothing at all.
Ditch extreme diets. People almost always fail to lose weight because they try diets that are too radical to stick with. For a lifestyle change to succeed, it must be sustainable. So instead of eliminating all foods that fit into a certain category or counting every calorie, try making changes that are less noticeable but no less significant. If you can eliminate just 100 calories from your daily intake, for example, you will lose about a pound per month. How hard is that?
Savor every bite. So many of us agonize over what to eat, then don't spend any time actually enjoying our meal. We wolf it down so quickly that our stomach doesn't have a chance to tell us it's full. In fact, new research shows that eating a meal quickly stops the release of hormones that induce feelings of fullness. So eat with awareness. Turn off the TV and put the computer to sleep. Sit down across from a friend or your spouse, have a leisurely chat, and chew at least 20 times before swallowing. Not only will you savor and appreciate each bite, but you'll also eat a lot less.
Become a pill popper. I wish we all could get 15 minutes of daily sun exposure and have high levels of vitamin D. But most of us spend our days indoors, and if you live north of Atlanta, the winter sun isn't strong enough for your body to make D anyway. Instead, take 1,000 international units (IU) of vitamin D daily, like I do. If you don't, you could become vitamin-D deficient, increasing your risk of heart disease, cancer, multiple sclerosis and immune disorders. Omega-3 fats are also critical; we need them to stay sharp because they're a major component of our brains. Take 400mg daily. If you want to take both of these crucial supplements at once, chug a tablespoon of lemon-flavored cod liver oil every morning -- before you brush your teeth!
Eat well, then eat what you like. Many people know what they shouldn't eat, but what about the daily foods that are essential? Check nutrition labels and make sure your daily dose meets my suggested criteria below. Then you can add proteins such as chicken or beef. After that, you can eat whatever you want -- well, almost. Your waist still should be less than half of your height.
Throw out your scale. As a nation, we're obsessed with weight. But our waist circumference is actually a more informative measurement than the number of pounds on the scale. The size of your waist indicates how much dangerous "omental" fat you have -- that's the fatty layer of tissue beneath your belly muscles that pumps inflammatory chemicals throughout your body, driving up blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar. Measure your waist at the belly button (go ahead and suck in!). That number should be less than half of your height. For the average woman, that's 32 inches; for men, it's 35 inches.
Go for a walk. Get a pedometer and stick it in your pocket. If, by the end of the day, the number of steps is under 10,000, walk around the block until you reach that goal. This simple challenge will significantly improve your health. Walking strengthens your core muscles, promotes endurance and blasts fat. It also explains why the Amish (who don't use automobiles) have an obesity rate of less than 10%. If you must drive, park in the spot farthest away from the building, then walk to your destination.
Take control of your health. Chronic diseases afflict hundreds of millions, but staggering numbers of people are completely unaware that they're even affected. Forty percent of diabetics, for example, are walking around undiagnosed. In many people with heart disease, the first sign is sudden death. You can't fight a problem if you don't know you have it. No matter how old you are or how well you feel, see your doctor about screening for heart disease, high cholesterol and diabetes. Not knowing your numbers won't make them go away, but getting tested puts your fate in your own hands.
Skip a shampoo. Many of us agonize over the prospect of losing our hair, but we slather it every morning with shampoos containing chemicals that put wear and tear on the follicles. Unless you spend most of your day working under a car, you probably don't need to wash your hair each morning. So give your scalp a break and leave it alone -- just rinse with water every other day.
Pump some iron. Building muscle is an investment that pays off all day long: Muscle burns significantly more calories than fat, and the difference is still great even when we're at rest. So if you've only been jogging, start lifting weights. You can even use your own body weight as resistance. In fact, pull-ups are the most valuable muscle-building exercise you can do. Get a simple door-frame setup on the cheap, then resolve to do as many pull-ups as you can twice a day. It takes only minutes, and you'll be amazed by how many you can do as the weeks go on. As you age and testosterone levels decline, causing muscle tissue loss and possible muscle atrophy, these strength-building moves become even more important.
Stop rushing to work. If you're not early, you're late, and you lose your feeling of control. Starting this year, arrive early at every appointment. You'll regain control of the agenda and feel less disheveled and more confident. And because you'll be getting up a bit earlier, add my yoga routine (search for "beginner yoga" at doctoroz.com) or meditate (hide in the bathroom, where no one would dare bother you) to get centered for the day. Are you already thinking that you won't have enough time to do this? Well, consider this: Are you willing to admit your life is so out of control that you can't spare seven minutes to improve it?
Get your ZZZs. Your ability to sleep is a barometer of how well you're coping with life. In the long term, inadequate sleep increases the chance of heart disease and diabetes, and in the short term, it can lead to accidents and interfere with work performance. Make it a priority to get at least 7.5 hours of shut-eye a night to reboot your brain and feel younger. Just a few simple changes can help many insomnia sufferers. For example, dim your lights 20 minutes before bedtime, wear loose clothing to bed, and keep the room cool and quiet. If you're at risk for sleep apnea (for instance, if you smoke, are overweight or have high blood pressure, among other factors), get diagnosed and treated.
Brush and floss daily. Inflammation causes more health problems than you'd imagine. In fact, your body becomes dangerous when it's inflamed. Inflammation causes rusting of the body -- it's like an apple turning brown 20 minutes after being cut. Gingivitis is a leading cause of an immune civil war that stimulates inflammation, a major cause of heart attacks. Brush for two full minutes (that's right -- two minutes) every morning and night to reduce your risk of heart disease. And floss to clean the 40% of tooth surfaces that you otherwise would miss if you only brush.
Kick up your feet. After a long day running around the set of "The Dr. Oz Show," I like to soak my feet in a tub of hot water with Epsom salts. The magnesium helps to relax sore muscles. For massage, I use unscented, pure vegetable or seed oil mixed with some essential oils, such as lavender, rose or wintergreen, for an added aromatherapy benefit.
Help someone else. For life to be truly fulfilling, it has to be about more than ourselves. If you've picked up something -- an activity, a hobby, maybe a philosophy -- that has improved your life, then share it with others. Dedicate at least a few hours every week to helping those who need it. The dividends on your investment will be tremendous.
Be fearless. The new year allows you to challenge the invisible assumptions that can stall progress and meaningful change in your life. Remember, the goldfish doesn't know that there's a world beyond the bowl until he is lifted out. Similarly, you can't appreciate the limitations of your current life until you have challenged and moved past them.
No matter when you start making changes, remind yourself that New Year's resolutions are not wind sprints -- they are marathons. Be persistent and keep going. Are you ready to take the first step? There's no better time than now.
* Mehmet Oz, M.D., is a professor of surgery at Columbia University, the host of "The Dr. Oz Show," and the co-author of "You: The Owner's Manual" and other books.