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OPINION | JOE THOMPSON: Make a plan

Let’s go from surviving to thriving by JOE THOMPSON SPECIAL TO THE DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE | January 3, 2022 at 2:35 a.m.


There hasn't been a time in my life when I've been more aware of my health and mortality than the last two years. I'm sure most of us have felt this way.

The covid-19 pandemic has forced us to realize how much of life is out of our individual control, and clinging to old, comfortable--and sometimes bad--habits is a way to maintain some sense of control.

It may sound strange to talk about New Year's resolutions during a global health crisis that has made surviving seem like enough of a challenge, but I propose that in this new year we resolve to move from surviving to thriving. Let's commit to taking greater control of our lives through physical wellness, mindfulness activities, and attention to interpersonal needs.

There are several areas where we can seek to thrive, including stress relief, nutrition and physical activity.

Stress relief

Stress was already a health issue for many before the pandemic, but the public health emergency has exacerbated the problem.

According to a survey by the U.S. Census Bureau and the Centers for Disease and Control Prevention's National Center for Health Statistics, about one in three U.S. adults reported symptoms of anxiety or depression as of September 2021, whereas only about one in 10 adults reported these symptoms in 2019. In late 2021, the American Academy of Pediatrics declared a national emergency in children's mental health, and the U.S. surgeon general issued a warning about youth mental health.

Mindfulness activities like meditation and breathing exercises can help with stress. Stay connected with friends and family as best you can while taking reasonable covid-19 precautions, but politely turn down invitations when you need time to yourself. Talk to your children about what they are experiencing.

Talk to your doctor if you think stress is affecting your health, and be open to seeking help from a counselor or therapist. If you need help finding a mental health care provider, call the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences' AR-Connect program, (800) 482-9921.

Online resources:

The Mayo Clinic has stress management tips at mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress-symptoms/art-20050987 and mindfulness tips at mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/consumer-health/in-depth/mindfulness-exercises/art-20046356.

Johns Hopkins Medicine has tips at hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/how-to-relieve-stress-a-6-step-plan-to-feeling-good.

Nutrition

The typical American diet is woefully unhealthy. We tend to overindulge in foods that are high in calories, saturated fats, added sugars and sodium. And why wouldn't we, when we've created an environment where unhealthy eating is the easy choice? Fast food, heavily processed food and sugary snacks and drinks are inexpensive, don't require us to spend time on preparation, and satisfy our cravings for fats and sweets.

In stressful times, we indulge our cravings even more than we normally would. It's no wonder that 32 percent of U.S. adults, and 36 percent of Arkansas adults, were obese in 2020, according to the CDC.

Slowly introduce healthier foods into your diet; making one diet change per week is a good approach. Increase your consumption of water in place of sugary drinks. Find out what healthy foods you enjoy, and stock your cupboards and pantry with them. Keep healthy, filling snacks on hand. Make a healthy eating plan, and monitor what you eat with a food journal or app.

Online resources:

Dietitian Cecilia Snyder has tips at healthline.com/nutrition/14-ways-to-stick-to-a-diet.

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health, has tips for making a healthy eating plan at nhlbi.nih.gov/health/educational/lose_wt/eat/calories.htm.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a meal monitoring app. Visit myplate.gov for information.

Physical activity

We know that physical activity is crucial to good health, but according to the CDC, 24 percent of U.S. adults and 30 percent of Arkansas adults reported in 2020 that in the previous month they engaged in no physical activities outside work. The pandemic likely has increased the amount of time we spend sitting in front of screens, but we should make time for physical activity and take advantage of Arkansas' beautiful outdoors when weather allows.

Increase physical activity gradually, especially if you are just beginning to exercise. Treat exercise like an appointment and do it on a fixed schedule. If you have a medical condition or injury, consult with your doctor before proceeding.

Online resources:

The Mayo Clinic has tips at mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/fitness/in-depth/fitness/art-20048269.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has tips at health.gov/sites/default/files/2019-09/Physical_Activity_Guidelines_2nd_edition.pdf.


Joe Thompson, M.D., M.P.H., is president and CEO of the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement and was Arkansas' surgeon general under Govs. Mike Huckabee and Mike Beebe.


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