5 Ways to Optimize Your Health in 2021, According to a Primary Care Doctor

Cooking more and relying less on takeout could make a difference in your overall health.
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Resolutions are great, but they tend to suggest you've done something wrong, you know? A better take? Approach your goals from the perspective of optimizing your health, Angela Wright Marshall, MD, FACP, president and CEO of Comprehensive Women's Health, tells LIVESTRONG.com.

"Often, I have patients who want to better their health, but some doctors might dismiss them if they don't have chronic health problems like diabetes or high blood pressure," she says. "One thing I've learned practicing women's health over the years is that I can find recommendations for everyone to feel better now and preserve their health for the future."

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After the WTF year that was 2020, where habits like exercise and healthy eating may have (understandably) fallen by the wayside, consider entering 2021 with a recommitment to your all-around wellness.

Here are five ways to optimize your health this year, according to Dr. Marshall.

1. Investigate Your Family History

The first thing Dr. Marshall chats with her patients about is their personal and family history of disease. Does your dad have heart disease? Does your mom have diabetes? Do you have a brother who was diagnosed early with cancer? Those can all be windows into your own risk for your health.

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From there, your doctor can advise you on the tests you need and help you develop a screening schedule, she says. Your move? To make sure you make those appointments and get screenings on time.

2. Simmer Down Your Stressors

"Limit stress" is a vague ask that most people know they need to do. Here's why it's important, Dr. Marshall says: "Stress raises your level of epinephrine (adrenaline) and cortisol, hormones that increase your blood pressure."

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Chronic, uncontrolled high blood pressure can lead to stroke, heart attack, heart failure, kidney disease and more, according to the American Heart Association.

Where to start to bring down your stress levels? Identify the main source or sources of stress in your life, Dr. Marshall says. Your employer/job, toxic relationships and overcommitting yourself are all common themes, but do a deep dive into what's getting under your skin. Let that inform your next steps. Is there anything you can do to address the bigger picture? (Consider this your excuse to say no more often, search for a new gig or finally cut ties with that frenemy.)

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Optimizing your health also means prioritizing self-care, because things that threaten your happiness are as important as those that threaten your physical health.

"You need to make time for yourself," Dr. Marshall says. She likens the necessity of self-care to being in a grocery store where someone rolls their cart over your foot. If you're chronically stressed, you'll react in a — let's just say — negative way. If you feel as if your needs are well taken care of, then your good mood and calm will just shrug it off. That's a microcosm for how you approach life.

Your ability to care for yourself and prioritize your own happiness "affects how you see and experience life and ultimately your lived experience," Dr. Marshall says.

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3. Hit Your Strength-Training Quota

The push-up is a great total-body move that builds functional strength.
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Along with the minimum 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity cardio exercise (think: walking, biking) recommended by the American College of Cardiology, don't forget you should also get in strength training twice a week, Dr. Marshall says.

Lifting weights or doing body-weight exercise develops your body into a formidable force from now into your elder years. It keeps bones strong, creates core strength needed for functionality and builds balance, too.

Dr. Marshall shares that her great aunt, who is 94 years old, does 50 push-ups a day. "And they're not modified push-ups either!" she says.

Recently, her aunt tripped over a vacuum. "She caught herself in a plank position. That was so inspiring to me, because without that strength, she could have suffered a fracture. If you don't invest in your strength over the years, you pay the price as you get older," she says.

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4. Rely on Food Delivery Apps a Little Less

"I really think we need to stop eating on-the-go. The foods we eat in restaurants are made for taste and enjoyment — they want you to come back. And most Americans are eating out way too much," Dr. Marshall says.

While the pandemic has pushed many people to start cooking more at home, there's also the growing problem of on-demand eats, she says. Delivery apps have doubled business during restaurant shut-downs and shelter-in-place orders this year, according to MarketWatch.

"Anything you have a taste for, you can order it through an app and receive it in a short period of time. That's dangerous because it can set you up for food addiction," Dr. Marshall explains.

Indeed, a June 2015 ​Public Health Nutrition​ study found that cooking more at home was associated with a healthier overall diet. And another study, published November 2014 in the same journal, found that people tend to consume an extra 200 calories when eating restaurant food.

You don't have to give up the apps completely, but it's time to assess how often you order from them, what you're ordering and how you could cut back this year.

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5. Create Your Health Tribe

Your doctors aren't the only ones on your health team.

"Cultivate a supportive network of friends or family members who are also health-conscious," Dr. Marshall says.

For instance, if your goal is to exercise more often, find a workout partner.

"Find someone who has it figured out and tap into their momentum a bit," Dr. Marshall says. "Finding role models or health mentors can create that health tribe."

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Is This an Emergency?

If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911. If you think you may have COVID-19, use the CDC’s Coronavirus Self-Checker.
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