What does it mean to be healthy? Berkshire health experts break it down | Local News

New Year’s Day is in the rearview mirror and with it are many resolutions for a healthier version of ourselves. That is, if we even remembered to create those goals. 

However, it’s important to put them into perspective. The Eagle spoke with Maureen Daniels, Berkshire Health Systems director of wellness and community health, as well as Dr. Rebecca Caine, a primary care provider of Berkshire Internists of Berkshire Medical Center, to provide guidance on how to create achievable goals and clarify what it means to be healthy.

How do we come up with a resolution? When do we know it’s time to change something?

“I think the opportunity comes when what we’re doing is no longer working for us,” Daniels said. “This might be the opportunity to take a pause, ‘What am I doing? Is this working for me?’”

Daniels and Caine agree that sometimes a resolution is a result from a health scare or the realization that we may not be able to do all the things we were once able to do.

“From a medical perspective, a lot of people choose goals based on a diagnosis they receive,” Caine said. For example some people who find they have arthritis make it an intention to exercise more, or people who are prediabetic may pay more attention to their eating habits. People with anxiety or insomnia may want to reflect on their alcohol intake.

For whatever health concern you’re facing, Caine suggests using that information to choose “the next step to feel better. Make that part of a healthy lifestyle, which is most likely to attenuate the health problem you’re suffering from.”

Here’s what the experts have to say about these common resolutions.

Kid drinks from fountain

We get our daily water supply from our food as well, so it’s unlikely we really need to be drinking eight glasses of water a day. Instead, check in with your body and drink the amount that’s best for you.

I know I should drink more water. Should I aim for eight glasses of water a day?

“Eight glasses a day is a fallacy, it’s completely fabricated,” Caine said. The correct amount, she said, is different for every person and many people don’t realize part of our daily water intake comes from food already. The best way to know is to take a look at the color of your urine: The darker the yellow color is, the more water your body needs.

If drinking water sounds boring, it’s okay to stay hydrated with other beverages as well. Caine says along with water, tea and seltzer are some of the healthiest beverages. Milk and juice, however, are not as healthy as we once thought. 

“People may be getting their calories through beverages unexpectedly. We’ve been taught drinking things like juice and milk are good for you,” she said. “Yes, there’s calcium in milk. But if you’re worried about your blood sugar, don’t drink milk. Juice is a mock-healthy way to drink sugar water.”

I want to exercise more. Do I really need 10,000 steps a day?

Friends hike in woods

Experts say we don’t really need 10,000 steps a day, and instead we should just aim to move our bodies more. Movement and exercise can be more fun with a friend or partner, and you’re more likely to stick with the activity if it’s something you enjoy. 

“10,000 steps is overrated,” Daniels said. Instead of having a goal of steps to walk, aim to find new or different ways to just move your body. “We’re the first generation to be sitting more. We have a convenient lifestyle. We need to find ways to get up and move.”

She suggests setting a goal of a certain number of minutes to exercise each week, ideally 150 minutes, whether that’s spent walking or incorporating strength building.

“Finding what works for you is important,” Daniels said. “If you [exercise] because you think you should but you don’t enjoy it, you’re not going to be doing it after two weeks.”

While we may not need to reach 10,000 steps to be healthy, exercise and movement are still very important.

Caine shared a quote from Dr. Robert Butler, who, in 1980, famously said “If exercise could be packed into a pill, it would be the single most widely prescribed and beneficial medicine in the nation.”

So how much exercise do we need?

“Any level you do that is more than you did yesterday is a step in the right direction,” Caine said. “Patients look at exercise in two ways. They find something they enjoy and they look forward to it. Dance, Pickleball, tennis with a friend, a walk in the woods, yoga … you find something you enjoy and you’re more likely to do. Or, people think of it as a prescription they have to do to be healthy. You do it the way you take a blood pressure pill, taking it because you know you need it.”

If the thought of having to exercise makes you feel overwhelmed, Daniels suggests reframing this thought to just seeking more movement.

“Sometimes [the thought of] exercise conjures up negativity,” Daniels said, explaining that it can be draining to have thoughts like: We have to change into gym clothes; we have to drive to the gym; we have to get sweaty. Instead, we should just find ways to move more, she says.

“We live in an amazing area with access to the woods, hiking paths, the Ashuwillticook Rail Trail, free skating at The Boys & Girls Club of the Berkshires, there’s different niches,” she said. Try movement for 10-12 minutes, she said, and then see if you can go for longer.

I want to eat healthier. I should probably quit fast food, right?

Doughnuts on a conveyor belt

Just because doughnuts are not a healthy food, it doesn’t mean we have to avoid them completely. When you can, choose the healthier options, but never demonize food — it will only make you want it more.

When it comes to wanting to eat healthier, it’s important to consider how we think about food.

“I think the important thing is not to demonize any food, it will just make us want it more,” Daniels said. “It’s how our brains work.” For example, Daniels suggested instead of telling yourself you can’t have doughnuts, allow yourself to have the doughnut and savor it, although maybe not every morning for breakfast.

“When you can, choose better, healthier options,” she said “Give yourself some leeway and freedom.” But at the same time, she says to pay attention to what’s at the end of your fork.

“There’s been tons of research on processed foods and words we can’t pronounce [on food labels] that mess our system up.” Daniels said.

She suggests we stick to whole foods, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, clean proteins, etc.

“Fill up on things that are grown by farmers, and things that grandma and grandpa used to eat.”

Caine agrees, saying we should eat real food, but not too much of it.

“As a physician caring for patients, we’re asking: ‘What health-problems are we trying to address,’” Caine said. “One person might have chronic kidney disease, so they should eat less protein. If you have diabetes, you should eat less sugar. Be cautious about how we should eat to be healthy.”

Like Daniels suggested, Caine recommends: “avoid processed food and stick to fresh fruit and protein sources. Artificial sweeteners are not doing you any favors. It is time consuming to eat well.”

It’s also important to keep in mind how much food we’re eating.

“Portion control has gotten extreme,” Daniels said. “We’re trained to believe that we win if we supersize something for only 20 cents more. That’s not doing us any favors.” If we’re taking into consideration the foods that grandma and grandma ate back in the day, Daniels says we should try to use the same size dinner plates they used as well.

What steps can I take to have better mental health?

If it seems that everything in the world feels overwhelming right now, you’re not alone. Taking care of ourselves is the first step to taking care of others. But where do we start?

Hands holding cellphone

Protecting our mental health is important. Experts suggest we set screen limits and go do something else with our hands and bodies.

“The big two are exercise and not depending on substances to manage mental health,” Caine said. “Many people drink alcohol to relax, but it is a depressant and it triggers anxiety. Regular physical activity can calm the body, mind, and spirit separately. Sleep is better when you exercise regularly.”

Limiting screen time can also improve mental health.

“Unplug. Turn down the noise,” Daniels said. “We live in a world that is very busy and connected to electronics. Some is great but a lot is too much. On social media, we watch other people’s lives and we listen to news 24/7. It’s not great for mental health.”

She suggests turning off or unplugging devices and try doing something physical instead.

“Knit, hike, breathe. Just a minute of breath and deep breathing. Just turn off the noises,” she said.

Do I need to lose weight?

Caine says she sees a lot of patients who come into her office and say they’re concerned and want to lose weight.

“Weight loss has become even more in the forefront of people’s minds,” she said. “I encourage you to be as healthy as you can at the weight you are. The health consequences are the result of your weight. If you’re overweight and diabetic, focus on getting your sugars down, not your weight. It’s been shown to be more successful, and also I think less stressful for patients.”

We’re one month in and I failed my New Year’s resolution. I need inspiration to start again …

When setting or restarting a health goal, the consensus is to start small and try to make it fun.

“I suggest not going too big. Stick to a couple, very specific things that you can tackle for 30 days,” Daniels said. “A year is a lot. If you tell yourself, ‘I’m going to walk Monday, Wednesday, Friday for 20 minutes on my lunch break and 30 minutes on the weekends for the next four weeks,’ boom.”

And don’t be afraid to treat yourself after key milestones.

“Reward yourself. If you get to 30 days, buy yourself new sneakers,” she said. “Listen to a different podcast. Get a manicure. Go out to poker night. Whatever works for 30 days of one or two changes. Rome was not built in a day.”

Everything is more fun with friends, right?

“It helps not to do it alone,” Caine said. “Everyday is a new day.”

The experts agree that health goals don’t have to be all or nothing, and while none of us are perfect, focus on the progress. If you only get 12 days of your 30 day goal, that’s still something.

“It’s the step in the right direction that counts,” Caine said.

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