Welcome To the 40s: Solidifying Healthy Habits

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Our 40s are a decade of reckoning and of opportunity. If, like many, we’ve let a few poor health habits take hold of us, now is the time to shake them off, to begin paying closer attention to the messages our bodies may be sending us, and to work at establishing good self-care and healthy habits as we move into the second half of life. 

Family physician Joshua Ordway, MD explains: “Often, when people hit their 40s, if they’ve not been taking good care of themselves, that’s when chronic diseases can begin to make an appearance. In your 20s, you feel indestructible, and in your 30s, even though you’re a little older, you can still withstand many of your unhealthy habits. And because people may have been generally feeling healthy, and have not seen their primary care provider regularly, problems can sometimes sneak up on them — things like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and obesity.”

As you enter your 40s, it’s a great time to resolve to take better care of yourself. Dr. Ordway reiterates that the time to establish good habits is now, and he offers the following tips that can help you establish and maintain good health throughout your 40s.

Focus On Healthy Eating

“We Americans eat far too many carbs,” says Dr. Ordway. “That’s the primary reason more people are becoming obese. We eat too many carbs and not enough fruits, vegetables, and lean meats.”

Why do we like carbohydrates so much? “They’re delicious!” he says. “And we were programmed that way as we grew up. Carbs are not only delicious, but they’re also cheap, they have long shelf lives, and they’re fast and easy. You put a little salt with carbs, and they’re pleasing to the brain, and you just want more. But they fill you up without doing much for you, metabolically, and you’ll just be hungry again an hour later. If you focus instead on vegetables, fruits, lean protein, and healthy fats — ideally, home-cooked meals, not fast food — those will be more filling and last longer. With too many carbs, you’re just consuming more calories that don’t fill you up.”

Dr. Ordway also stresses the importance of eating breakfast. “This is a big one. When you skip breakfast, you’re teaching your body to hoard calories throughout the rest of the day, which ends up creating bad metabolic effects."

Exercise Faithfully

We’re all so busy with work and family that many of us don’t take the time to get the exercise we need. “Many of our jobs are sedentary now,” Dr. Ordway says, “so we’re not getting the exercise today that we would’ve gotten a hundred years ago.” 

With exercise, every little bit helps, as does making it a regular part of your life. “Getting into a regular exercise routine is important for controlling all your vital signs and helping to make sure chronic diseases don’t show up,” says Dr. Ordway. And it doesn’t have to be going to the gym. You can go for walks in your neighborhood or use exercise equipment at home. It’s important to get up and get moving, at least a few times a week — if not every day. 

Technology offers some help. With wearable activity trackers and related smartphone apps, we can gauge our progress and let our devices occasionally prod us into action. “This can be a great way for people to be held accountable,” says Dr. Ordway. 

Exercise is also vitally important to anyone struggling with mood problems. “Along with healthy eating, and getting plenty of sleep, exercise is one of the most powerful things for helping to maintain mood,” Dr. Ordway says. “If you’re not able to exercise, or if it doesn’t seem to help your mood, talk with your primary care physician about it — we can help.”

Maintain a Healthy Weight

Maintaining a healthy weight is important. And that, of course, is closely related to eating and exercise habits. Dr. Ordway says it’s particularly important to keep an eye on how your weight might be changing. “If you find that your weight is getting away from you, and you’ve put on 10 pounds every year for the past five years, that’s a big deal. The ideal is to keep your weight stable. If it’s been stable for decades, then chances are you’re doing a decent job of managing calorie expenditure — striking a good balance of food intake and exercise.” 

Knowing what weight is “best” for you can be tricky. Dr. Ordway recommends thinking in terms of your BMI (body mass index), which is a number that takes into account your height as well as your weight. There are free, easy-to-use BMI calculators online. You simply enter your height and weight, and they’ll tell you your BMI. “Any BMI over 30 classifies someone as obese,” Dr. Ordway explains. “So that’s a pretty good dividing line. If you can stay under a BMI of 30, that is, if you can stay under the obese category, that’s a really good way to avoid a lot of medical problems.”

Get More Sleep

Most of us don’t get enough sleep — including, by his own admission, Dr. Ordway himself! “We’re just all so busy,” he says. But we should be aiming for at least eight good hours of sleep every night. “Not getting enough sleep can affect your appetite, blood pressure, and mood, and have other health consequences that people might not recognize.”

Exercise can be a help here, too. Regular physical activity can help you sleep better. Dr. Ordway also recommends practicing good “sleep hygiene” habits. “For example,” he says, “playing with the phone in bed is never a good idea. Put your phone on the nightstand, and don’t touch it while you’re in bed. Don’t have the TV on. You want a quiet room without distractions. And ideally, it will be dark and cool.” 

Caffeine, when taken too late in the day, can also interfere with sleep. Dr. Ordway suggests avoiding coffee, tea, or caffeinated soft drinks after noon. “Caffeine has a five-hour half-life,” he says. “So five hours after you drink a caffeinated beverage, half of its caffeine is still circulating through your blood, and that can keep you from getting to sleep.” 

Screenings And Vital Stats

Dr. Ordway says it’s important to be mindful of your blood pressure. “High blood pressure can cause many health problems down the road,” he says. He recommends checking your blood pressure fairly regularly. That can be done with relative ease at blood pressure machines often found in pharmacies or by purchasing a portable monitor for home use. “It’s a good idea to check it at least occasionally,” he says, “so that heart disease or stroke doesn’t sneak up on you.” 

In the 40s, fasting blood tests should be undertaken once a year, primarily to make sure cholesterol and blood sugar are being tracked. For women, Dr. Ordway recommends annual mammograms beginning at 40. Both women and men usually start screening for colon cancer with a colonoscopy or another test at age 50. For men, screening for prostate cancer typically begins in the 50s.

Talk With Your Primary Care Physician

Seeing your primary care physician regularly is important, and in your 40s, the time has come to speak frankly about anything that might be bothering you. “Tell your doctor about symptoms of any kind that you might be having,” says Dr. Ordway, “even if you don’t think it’s important, and even if it’s embarrassing. Symptoms may or may not be significant, but they might indicate a problem, so it’s always a good idea to let your PCP know.”

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