Advance with MUSC Health

Good News: A Healthy Lifestyle Can Be Habit Forming

Advance With MUSC Health
January 09, 2024
Woman eating a salad.

It’s that time of year again. You know, when you reach for that fourth (or was it a fifth) cookie and a super-sized mug of rich hot chocolate? You vow to go “cookieless” for the next 30 days and to embark on the strictest regimen ever to shed pounds and get in shape.

Not so fast.

Kaitlin DaPore, director of Health Coaching and Wellness Programs at MUSC Health, challenges the conventional approach to health, emphasizing that it's more than just counting calories and hitting the gym. According to DaPore, a truly healthy lifestyle involves elements like quality sleep, stress management, cultivating relationships, and finding a sense of purpose. Here, she challenges you to embrace these foundations that can make a healthy lifestyle not just a resolution but a lasting habit.

Being healthy is more than counting calories and working out. It requires an understanding and embracing of the foundational elements of health and well-being, says DaPore.

“In this day and age, when we know so much and there is a lot of “noise” in the health and wellbeing space, it’s important for people to have a well-rounded approach to well-being to truly live a healthy life, and that includes much more than nutrition and physical activity,” she says.

Elements of good health

In addition to good nutrition and physical activity, a healthy lifestyle encompasses:

  • Stress management
  • Good sleep
  • Mental wellbeing
  • Cultivating relationships
  • Having a sense of purpose

So, what does that look like? DaPore, who works with clients at MUSC Health’s Health and Wellness Institute in Mount Pleasant, unpacks it all:

  • Good sleep hygiene

“Quality sleep is paramount to health and wellbeing, and most people need seven to eight hours of quality sleep each night to wake up feeling rested,” DaPore says. She advises clients to have consistent sleeping and waking times in a cool, dark environment with a room temperature between 68 and 72 degrees.

Eliminate blue light and all lights on your devices. Rest and digest. Avoid eating or drinking one hour before bedtime to calm the digestive system.

  • Stress management

Simple resting, yoga and meditation can calm the nervous system and reduce cortisol, which causes harmful inflammation in the body. Breathing techniques are the fastest way to accomplish this. DaPore recommends box breathing, a three-step technique that involves slowly inhaling, holding breath, and exhaling, each for four seconds, and repeating until you feel relaxed. “Just about anyone can do this any time, whether driving to work or sitting at a desk, and it has an immediate result,” she says. The technique can be expanded to longer inhalations, such as six, seven and eight as well.

  • Physical activity

Walking immediately after a meal, called post-prandial walking, helps lower blood sugar and regulates insulin production. “We want people to move more and increase insulin sensitivity, and walking after a meal is an excellent way to accomplish this,” DaPore says. “It’s a great weight management strategy, especially from a metabolic standpoint.”

Strength and resistance training is another essential component of a well-rounded exercise routine for any age. “The American College of Sports Medicine recommends 150 minutes minimum of cardiovascular exercise per week, which includes strength and resistance training,” DaPore says. “If we were to prioritize exercise, for most individuals, strength and resistance training would be first. Strength training builds lean muscle mass, which boosts metabolism and improves balance and protects the bones.” Lifting weights and yoga are excellent exercises in which muscles are subjected to time under tension.

  • Nutrition

Prioritize fiber-rich fruits and vegetables. DaPore recommends filling half your plate with colorful vegetables and half with protein. “You’re automatically setting yourself up for success with this overall meal composition,” she says. “Protein not only makes people feel full, but it also is essential for building and maintaining lean muscle mass. Unlike carbohydrates, protein can’t be synthesized, so it must be consumed in our diets. At least 50 percent of Americans eating the standard American diet are not getting enough protein. Ideally, 0.6 to 0.8 grams of protein per pound of ideal body mass are required for optimal health.

Although DaPore customizes nutrition plans to meet her clients’ needs, for the general population, she recommends the Mediterranean diet, with its emphasis on fruits and vegetables as well as healthy protein such as poultry, fish, beans, and legumes.

  • Cultivate a daily practice of mindfulness and gratitude

The importance of having a sense of purpose is very closely linked to longevity. “Knowing why you’re getting up every day is very important to overall health and longevity,” DaPore says.

  • Cultivate healthy relationships

Additionally, she shares the importance of relationships. “Cultivating and maintaining relationships is not only essential for emotional wellbeing, but also has a profound impact on physical health and longevity,” she says. “Numerous studies have consistently shown that individuals with strong social connections tend to live longer and experience better overall health.

Positive relationships contribute to lower levels of stress, anxiety, and depression, which are known risk factors for various health issues.”

Benefits of a healthy lifestyle

DaPore says the benefits for anyone who adopts a well-rounded health plan are numerous, but she singles out the following:

  • Increased longevity
  • Reduced risk factors for chronic disease
  • Improved mental and emotional health
  • Improved energy level
  • Healthy weight

How to start

So, you may be asking just how to get started on your path to wellness. First, ask yourself what’s motivating you to be healthy. “It’s different for everybody,” DaPore says. “It could be anything from having enough energy and flexibility to play with your grandchildren to training for an athletic endeavor or wanting to be at the top of your game at work.” 

Getting started isn’t as hard as you think. Once you’re ready, break down your desired behavior into microactions or small, manageable interventions that you can do daily, DaPore says.

“As an example, if you want to start exercising every day, start small. Every time you use the bathroom, brush your teeth or walk to the kitchen or break room for a snack or drink, do a certain number of squats or another exercise. Adopting this strategy reinforces a feeling that you indeed can do these things. As a result, you’re more likely to achieve your smaller goal, which leads to long-term behavior change.”

Regardless of your age, it’s never too late to get healthier.

Consistency is key

“You can pursue a healthy lifestyle at any age,” DaPore says. “That may be different for different people, so I take a personal approach with clients. Even if you have been diagnosed with diabetes, metabolic syndrome or cardiac disease, there is so much you can do that will make a difference in a matter of days or weeks at a cellular level. In fact, individuals who are just beginning to make a change will see results sooner.”

She encourages parents to model their own health behaviors and urges young adults to adopt a healthy lifestyle to minimize their risk for chronic disease as they age.

Willpower is not unlimited, and lapsing is to be expected.

“If you fall back, give yourself grace,” she says. “People are very hard on themselves, but our brain is like a muscle: The more you use it, the stronger it will get. In the current climate, people often resort to extreme interventions, but they’re not being consistent and paying attention to these foundational elements and building a healthy life from the ground up,” DaPore says.

She encourages everyone to remember one key word: consistency. “It will outpace any extreme behavior every single time,” she says.

DaPore sees clients at the MUSC Health and Wellness Institute at 1122 Chuck Dawley Boulevard, Building B. To make an appointment with her, call 843.985.0802.