You probably already know the importance of receiving an annual health exam. This is the best way to maintain your peak health and wellness and catch any emerging health concerns. But it isn’t enough on its own. Many aspects of your physical and mental health and wellbeing are under your control. You may never have considered how much you can improve from one annual exam to the next. If you would like to get into better shape before next year’s preventive exam, consider the key areas of wellness as defined by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).


Eating a more nutritious diet can dramatically impact your health over the next year. You’ll feel better overall, lower your risk for many illnesses, and find it easier to maintain a healthy weight.

Risks of not eating well

  • Unhealthy weight gain
  • Lower energy
  • Gastrointestinal distress
  • Higher risks for health conditions from diabetes to heart attack to certain cancers

If you haven’t read up on nutritional guidance since the days of the five food groups, now is an excellent time to get familiar with MyPlate. This government resource offers personalized dietary recommendations based on your age, height and weight, gender, and even your average activity level.

MyPlate is rooted in the latest dietary guidelines. If you are an adult between the ages of 19 and 59, general daily recommendations include:

  • Vegetables: 2 to 4 cups, including beans and lentils, as well as a variety of colors
  • Fruits:5 to 2.5 cups. Focus on “eating the rainbow”
  • Grains: 5 to 10 ounces, including plenty of whole grains
  • Dairy: 3 cups, which can include milk, cheese, and other milk-based products
  • Proteins: 5 to 7 ounces. Besides meat, eat a healthy mix of eggs, seafood, nuts, and other proteins
  • Oils: 22 to 44 grams, with a focus on healthy fats

Kids, teens, and older adults have different guidelines. But there’s no need to do a lot of math to feed your family. The most important thing to remember is that you need a wide range of food types, including all different colors of fruits and vegetables. Treats are fine, but enjoy them in moderation.

Physical health

Risks of not getting enough exercise

  • Unhealthy weight gain
  • Increased chance of acute injuries such as muscle strains or tears
  • Heart problems
  • Depression and anxiety

Many people are intimidated by the CDC recommendation that all adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity each week. But this works out to just 30 minutes, five days per week. And you can break it up even further, perhaps into 10-minute chunks. Most importantly, you don’t have to “exercise.” You can play with your kids, start a dance-off with your coworkers, toss a football with the neighbor…and even chores count. If you’re carrying groceries or mowing the lawn, it all counts! You should do some muscle-strengthening work twice a week, which could be as simple as lifting heavy grocery bags.

Physical activity offers some tremendous health benefits, including but not limited to:

  • Better mood
  • Healthier weight
  • Improved sleep
  • Lower risk for some cancers, as well as Type 2 diabetes
  • More stable blood pressure
  • Reduced stress
  • Sharper focus

Be sure to talk to your doctor before starting a new exercise program in the New Year, especially if you have underlying health conditions. And remember any form of activity counts toward improving both your physical and mental health.

Smoking and alcohol cessation

Smoking risks

  • Cancer
  • Stroke
  • Diabetes
  • Lung conditions such as COPD

Quitting smoking is one of the most impactful ways to improve your health quickly. You’ll see immediate benefits in the first 24 hours and then new benefits throughout the next year and beyond. Your current health will be dramatically boosted, and your risk of future illnesses will sharply decline.

Alcohol risks

  • Heart damage
  • Liver problems
  • Brain changes
  • Pancreatitis

A small amount of alcohol consumption may boost your health, but overindulgence has definite health risks. Unless you take medications that interact with alcohol or have certain underlying conditions, such as liver disease, there is no need to stop drinking altogether. But try to cut your consumption to no more than one drink per day for women or two drinks per day for men. Occasional overindulgence is unlikely to do much harm (as long as you don’t drive or drink so much you risk alcohol poisoning), but it should be very rare.


Risks of not sleeping well

  • Depression
  • Chronic pain
  • Heart disease
  • Unhealthy weight gain
  • Impaired thinking and judgment

High-quality sleep is essential to overall health. According to the Sleep Foundation, the benefits of a good night’s sleep include:

  • Better athletic performance
  • Healthier immune system
  • Heart health
  • Improved mood
  • Stabilized blood sugar
  • Stress reduction
  • Stronger memory and cognitive skills
  • Weight maintenance

Brain health

Risks of ignoring your brain health

  • Early cognitive decline
  • Memory problems
  • Poor decision making

Just like your body, your brain needs regular activity. Exercising your brain every day can help it stay healthy and ward off age-related declines. And you only need a few minutes of brain challenges per day to start seeing benefits such as improved memory and better decision-making skills. Activities you might try include:

  • Video games
  • Board games
  • Brainteasers
  • Logic problems

You may also want to incorporate challenges focusing on manual dexterity and brain health. These include:

  • Drawing
  • Jigsaw puzzles
  • Origami
  • Painting

Your brain will also benefit from physical exercise, and many sports and games have a mental and physical component. Try team sports such as soccer or volleyball, or learn a choreographed dance routine.

Mental Health

Risks of ignoring your mental wellbeing

  • Depression or anxiety
  • Increased stress
  • Loss of interest in hobbies and friends
  • Self-harm

Even before COVID-19 upended our lives, one in every five adults was living with a mental illness. Then the pandemic hit us all hard, leading to skyrocketing rates of depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues. This year has been a bit of a transition as we learn to live with the virus, and many people are having difficulty bouncing back.

Consider taking an online screening test if you’re struggling with the transition or have other mental health concerns. Although they are not as accurate as traditional therapist-led testing, they can help you decide whether to seek professional assistance.*

You can’t change your genetics, and you may have chronic illnesses that will never fully be resolved. But you can lower your risk of developing many physical and mental health conditions and improve your quality of life, no matter your current health status, by renewing your commitment to your wellbeing. A lot can change in a year, so why not decide that now is the time to focus on improving your physical and mental health?

*If you are having any thoughts of self-harm, text MHA to 741-741 or call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK. If you are in immediate crisis, call 911.