Checklist: 7 Habits to Have a Healthier Life

Are you ready to be healthier but don’t know where to start? We talked to UNC Health family medicine physician Sarah Ruff, MD, about seven habits you can put in place to improve your overall health.

It’s important to note that you don’t have to tackle them all at once.

“If you’re making a huge lifestyle change, it’s hard to go in with the mindset of doing everything,” Dr. Ruff says. “Pick one thing at a time and focus on that.”

Once you’ve picked your focus, Dr. Ruff recommends writing down your goal and keeping it somewhere you can see it.

“You have to find your why,” Dr. Ruff says. “If there’s something you’re trying to change, write it down and look at it so you can remind yourself of your reasons for pursuing the goal when things get hard.”

1. Build a Relationship with Your Doctor

Seeing a doctor regularly is a good first step toward better health. If you don’t have a primary care provider, it’s time to find one you like and establish a relationship.

A primary care provider can help you navigate preventive care, from ensuring you get necessary vaccines to scheduling appropriate cancer screenings for your age and medical history. You can collaborate with your primary care provider to create plans based on your specific health needs and to achieve your long-term health goals.

“Doctors really love to help people stay healthy,” Dr. Ruff says.

Your primary care provider can also be your first call when you’re sick, which may save you a trip to urgent care.

2. Move Your Body

Exercise provides many benefits for your body, from lowering your risk of chronic disease to improving your energy levels to boosting your immune system. It can also give you physical strength to get through the day. If the idea of hitting the gym makes you groan, however, Dr. Ruff says that’s OK.

“What’s important is to find a way to move your body that you like, even if it’s not traditional exercise,” she says.

People with active jobs may enjoy moving their body with yoga; people with desk jobs might prefer to schedule a break for a brisk walk. Making time for regular movement is what’s key. If you haven’t found a type of exercise that you like, keep an open mind and explore various options for movement, whether it’s a dance class or a new sport with a friend.

3. Get Enough Sleep

Getting quality sleep improves mood, helps with weight management and fortifies the body against illness. So, make sleep a priority every night, not just occasionally.

The right amount of sleep is dependent on age. Newborn babies, teenagers and people older than 65 tend to need more sleep; for everyone else, the proper amount varies, though it’s most commonly between seven and nine hours.

“Most people know how many hours of sleep they need so that they feel rested,” Dr. Ruff says. “Aim to get that amount of sleep so that your brain can retain what it learned in school or on the job. Sleep helps your brain to process and your body to recover.”

4. Tend to Emotional and Spiritual Needs

“Health is more than just your physical and medical needs,” Dr. Ruff says. “Health includes spiritual and emotional components, and sometimes our physical symptoms are connected to those emotional states.”

One of the best ways to tend to emotional health is to reach out to friends and spend time with family.

“As we all learned during the pandemic, isolation is not good for physical and mental health,” Dr. Ruff says. “We need people we can do life with, people who can help us process things.”

Find activities that add meaning to your life, whether it’s attending religious gatherings, volunteering, taking care of a pet or pursuing a creative hobby.

“Everybody needs something to believe in, something that gives hope,” Dr. Ruff says. “It’s different for everyone, so find what it is for you.”

5. Manage Stress

Chronic stress causes many physical and mental health problems, including high blood pressure, anxiety, depression, sleep trouble, digestive distress and headaches, and it can interfere with daily functioning. Although some of the issues can be addressed with medication, Dr. Ruff says it’s more important to address the underlying cause.

“It’s not always realistic to find a new job, if that’s what’s stressing you out,” Dr. Ruff says. “You have to identify ways you can manage stress, whether it’s yoga, meditation or exercise. Stress is such a big cause of physical problems, and those problems won’t go away without mitigating the stress.”

Fortunately, many of the items on this list—including sleep, exercise, and spiritual and emotional self-care—can help you lower your stress levels.

6. Don’t Smoke

“The easiest thing you can do to stay healthy is to not smoke,” Dr. Ruff says, noting that smoking is a risk factor for many health problems, including lung disease, heart attack and stroke.

Quitting smoking can be difficult, so if you don’t smoke, don’t start. Dr. Ruff recommends that people looking to quit consider smoking cessation programs, which offer resources and an individualized approach to quitting. If you smoke because of stress, for example, these programs can help identify healthier options for stress relief.

The good news is that just one year after quitting, lungs return to normal function, and the risk for disease drops dramatically.

“If you’re ready to quit,” Dr. Ruff says, “your doctor will be happy to help you.”

7. Eat a Healthy Diet

“A well-balanced diet fuels the body to do the things we want it to do,” Dr. Ruff says.

Because everyone processes fuel differently and has different dietary needs, Dr. Ruff says that people should connect with a dietitian to learn about healthy eating that’s specific to their situation.

One thing all bodies have in common is a need for plenty of water. Dr. Ruff recommends that people aim for eight glasses of water a day, and more during hot summers.

“If you’re dehydrated, you’ll be tired and your body won’t function properly,” she says.

Although research has suggested that red wine can provide health benefits, Dr. Ruff says that no amount of alcohol is beneficial, according to newer studies.

“I’m not saying you have to quit drinking alcohol, but it’s worth thinking about its purpose in your diet,” Dr. Ruff says. “Are you drinking in times of stress? Do you feel you need it to get to sleep? How does it make you feel the next day? If it’s not benefiting your health, you may want to reconsider your usage.”

Check off your first healthy habit by scheduling an appointment with your primary care provider. Need a doctor? Find one near you.