A New Year's Primer on Resolutions

by Dr. Robert Koffman, Medical Director

It’s February. How are those New Year resolutions working out for you? For many, the start of a new year brings an avalanche of aspirational resolutions, but as January flies by, most of us start to lose momentum. This year, the Fund would like to help you look ahead and resurrect those meaningful resolutions. And, since there is nothing more important than the health and well-being of our service and family members, veterans, and caregivers, allow us to share some of our hopes for this new year.

Reality: Let’s start with some facts that may be shocking, followed by helpful and hopeful solutions. Since we’re talking about well-being, let’s first examine life expectancy which is one of the most important measures of health. American life expectancy declined for the first time in a quarter-century. This is the first downtick since 1993. All of the usual suspects such as heart disease, diabetes, and stroke played into this statistic. Alarmingly, 8 of the 10 leading causes of death all increased. While the cause of this change in life expectancy is complicated, what is not complicated is the fact that every year, every month, every day, life matters. We cherish you and want your good health!

It Begins with Lifestyle: According to the National Academy of Sciences, since 1998, in contrast to other developed countries that saw mortality rates fall by 2%, the mortality rate in the United States rose by a half percent in the white, non-Hispanic population. No other developed country experienced this increase. This amounts to about half a million Americans who passed from an increase in so-called diseases of despair— suicide, alcohol and drug poisoning, overdoses, and alcohol-related liver disease. Unfortunately, these diseases give way to infirmity, poverty, homelessness, and the real killer—social isolation. And, the vicious cycle accelerates—more social isolation leads to more despair, which leads to self-medication with pills, food, alcohol or opiates. This, in turn, feeds depression and may result in negative behavioral consequences. When one in three of our fellow citizens reports suffering from chronic joint pain, we can more easily understand what has fueled the opiate crisis—no one wants to live in pain without hope of relief. For this reason alone, the Fund has initiated our Integrative Wellness Program. It is our goal to educate everyone on important health options and, perhaps, give hope to those living with various ailments.

Tipping the Scales: To be sure, deaths from unintentional causes have become a national focus.  In this multi-factorial world, one in which a single determinant doesn’t typically exist, obesity stands out as the leading cause of stroke, heart disease, and chronic respiratory disease. Ten percent of deaths in the US are thought to result from morbid obesity. Once again, depression, stress, poor nutrition, lack of exercise, and social isolation are all implicated.

Social Connection: Study after study tells us that it is not loneliness that shortens lives, rather, it is the lack of connection—disconnection, to be specific—which accounts for the health risks associated with isolation. Physically engaging and connecting with people who are isolated or socially disconnected may be more therapeutic and add years to survival more than simply tackling the feelings of loneliness. Shared activity is a wonderfully effective method of connection. Not only does exercise lead to lower cardiovascular risk (see below), a less sedentary lifestyle, and, by extension, more socialization, but helps combat obesity. Closely related to connectedness, is having a sense of purpose. Scientists are a little more stumped to understand why individuals who derive meaning and purpose from an aspect of life, actually enjoy lower risk of mortality from cardiovascular disease. This may be one reason why researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that family caregivers may live longer relative to non-caregivers. The Fund encourages ‘recovery through sport’ through Team Semper Fi. Participation in this sports program benefits service members and their families by offering opportunities to be active, while also encouraging that sense of connection and purpose.

The Fund is Here to Help:  A recent study from the CDC reported that a whopping 80% of Americans do not get enough exercise. This is clearly an opportunity for vast improvement! U.S. guidelines recommend 2.5 hours per week of moderate aerobic exercise or one hour and fifteen minutes of vigorous activity each week —or a combination of both. Adults should also add muscle building to their exercise regimen such as weight lifting or pushups at least twice weekly. Considering that physical inactivity has been linked to causing more deaths worldwide than smoking, nearly everyone should be inclined to add exercise to their New Year’s resolution list. Need to stoke the fires of self-discipline, motivation, and accountability? Help yourself be more accountable with the use of wearable technology. A Fitbit™ or similar activity tracker can help with motivation. Finally, for those of you with children, you should be aware that kids spend an average of 7.5 hours each day in front of computer screens, TVs, and video games. Sitting is the new smoking. A British medical journal found that even regular exercise couldn’t negate the harmful effects of prolonged sitting.

It’s All About Lifestyle—and Accountability: Considering the fact that only about 5% of dieters will keep lost weight off longer than a couple of years, lifestyle changes are paramount to continued success. Lifestyle is more than the tenets of good health: diet, exercise, and sleep. It is about self-worth, self-discipline, and accountability. Successful lifestyle changes require incorporating the values of social support, collaboration, and cohesion. Organizations such as Weight Watchers™ succeed where other diet plans fail largely because of the value and importance of social connectedness and accountability.

All New Year Resolutions Require Lifestyle ChangesHere are some tips from the American Psychological Association to help make lasting, positive lifestyle and behavior changes:

  • Make a plan that will stick. Your plan is a map that will guide you on your journey of change.
  • Be realistic. Start small.
  • Set yourself up for success. Change one behavior or habit at a time.
  • Don’t go it alone. Involve a buddy (or, even better an entire organization of buddies).
  • And always remember that it is OK to ask for support.

For more information, check out Semper Fi Fund’s Integrative Wellness Program.