Before you get bombarded with ads for a quick fix or a new trend, take a deep breath and think about the long haul. Good health for the whole family comes in basic steps. They are simple, even if not always easy, and build your resilience and that of your children. Ready to start? Beth Motley, a family medicine and lifestyle medicine physician and a mom of three, practices what she teaches her patients. Here are her tips for growing a healthier family in the new year.
1. Start with your plate. “From a family perspective, we like to focus on the default eating style – I don’t even like to use the word ‘diet’ – the default eating style being a healthier one where we make good choices. At home, we eat plant-based.”
Motley recommends a whole food, plant-based diet, but doesn’t focus on what not to eat.
“Let’s try to include as many healthy things as possible to crowd out the things that are less healthful,” she said. “Offer healthy choices, and if you’re going to a holiday party, give yourself and your family a little more grace.”
2. Keep moving. Especially this time of year, it can be challenging to get everyone outside. Motley keeps a running list of playgrounds and parks and even indoor play areas for her family to try so they never run out ideas. For an activity that has many benefits, Motley recommends getting children enrolled in swim lessons. Low or no cost programs are often available all year. The YMCA offers scholarships based on financial need, so all families can have access.
3. Manage your stress. It can be easier said than done, but find what helps you keep stress under control in a healthy way. For Motley, that means inviting the grandparents over often to help entertain her little ones. “It’s always nice to increase that adult to kid ratio,” she said. And she said simply going outside can help dial back everyone’s stress level.
No grandparents nearby? See if you can trade breaks with a friend. Try an online meditation program or a breath bubble (calm.com/breathe) to regain calm. Always reach out for help if stress becomes unmanageable.
4. Build relationships. Another pillar of lifestyle medicine, having social support is a key part of living a healthy life. Building community is tough even when there isn’t a pandemic, so make it a priority to connect with friends, neighbors, or a religious or social community. According to the American College of Lifestyle Medicine, social connectedness is essential to emotional resiliency and important for overall health.
5. Sleep. Everyone of every age needs a good night’s sleep in order to function well. “If you give a kid a strict sleep schedule, it is actually very freeing,” Motley said. “You may think of it as restrictive, but your kids’ body clock adjusts to that schedule you set.” And having that set time to sleep and wake can help reduce the stress level of the whole family, Motley said.
See our sleep tips on page XX.
6. Model what you want to see. Motley said she and her husband try to model behaviors, like honesty, that they want to see in their children, but that extends to what they eat and their physical activity, too. Children will be what they see.
“We go on a lot of family walks,” Motley said.
Motley also reminds parents to model good behaviors related to alcohol use, which has increased during the pandemic.
“If you have a home filled with alcohol and you’re using it all the time, that’s teaching kids that it’s normal,” she said.
7. Make mental health a priority. Since the start of the pandemic, stressors of all kinds have increased, and during the winter months people are less likely to be outdoors and active. Some also suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD). It’s time to take the stigma out of mental health care. Motley said just about everyone could benefit from seeing a counselor and any primary care provider can offer a referral.
“It is basically a third party to help you navigate your life and your goals,” she said.
8. Catch up on health screenings. In an effort to avoid COVID, many people delayed routine well visits and health screenings. Motley has seen some conditions that were advanced because of that delayed care. Schedule now, especially since wait times for appointments may be longer than normal. Ask your primary care provider what is due – blood tests, in-office screenings, mammograms and more.
“This is a really great time to get things done,” Motley said. “Even if you don’t feel comfortable right now, at least make the appointment.”
9. Catch up on pediatric and adult vaccines. Just as with health screenings, the pandemic delayed some appointments at which vaccines would have been recommended or given.
“Vaccinations are important,” Motley said. “They are recommended for a reason. If you look at physicians, including pediatricians, I would guess that 99.9 percent of them are fully vaccinated because we believe in it and we recommend it. That’s very important, and it often only leads to regret when an infant or child acquires an illness that could have been prevented. An important part of vaccines is not to protect ourselves but to protect our loved ones.”
10. Set the stage for a healthy future. Weight can be a difficult subject, but Motley said rates of childhood obesity are rising.
“As a parent, sometimes we don’t even notice that kids are overweight because they look like other kids,” Motley said. “If kids are overweight as children, they are much more likely to be overweight and have chronic disease as adults. I know we think of kids are invincible, but now is the time to set the stage with healthy habits. Those habits will carry over to adulthood. We’re raising adults. We’re not raising children.”
Learn more about lifestyle medicine and growing a healthy family at bethmotleymd.com and lifestylemedicine.org.