Keep Your Family Healthy
1. Old habit: Members of your family tend to skip breakfast, replace meals with candy bars, and snack late at night.
New habit: You can help your family make the connection between good eating and health by providing a variety of nutritious snacks, serving meals at appropriate times, and discussing the health benefits of your food choices. "We need to train our children to eat properly," says S. Jay Olshansky, Ph.D., a population expert at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "And we need to counteract the negative lessons that come from school lunch rooms, which are filled with high–fat, high–sugar, high–calorie foods."
Why it matters: Poor eating habits can open the door to illnesses that affect the whole family. Snacking late at night, for example, can lead to weight gain, acid reflux, and insomnia, says Helene A. Emsellem, M.D., director of the Center for Sleep & Wake Disorders in Chevy Chase, Md., and author of Snooze... or Lose! (Joseph Henry Press, 2006). Eating too much of the same thing can also trigger allergies or sensitivities in multiple family members. A dairy allergy, for example, may show up as chronic sinus congestion in one person, recurring headaches in another, and bed-wetting in a child, says Dan Lukaczer, N.D., associate director of medical education at the Institute for Functional Medicine in Gig Harbor, Wash.
2. Old habit: Your family recreation time involves hours of passive entertainment, often in front of the TV, playing video games, or surfing the Internet.
New habit: Encourage the whole family to get outside and exercise (play Frisbee, walk, throw a ball around) for at least 30 minutes twice a week. Emphasizing exercise helps your children make it a priority.
Why it matters: Studies suggest that one person's behaviors and ideas about fitness can highly influence others in a group or network to get and stay fit. Your exercise routine, eating habits, and weight status can all influence people three degrees or more away from you in a social network, says Nicholas Christakis, M.D., Ph.D., a Harvard Medical School internist and social scientist who specializes in social factors and health care. Christakis and other Harvard researchers evaluated a densely interconnected social network of 12,067 people from 1971 to 2003 as part of the landmark Framingham Heart Study. Along with other signs of social connectedness, they found that obesity can spread among friends and family. Likewise, when people around you lose weight, start eating better, quit smoking, or stop drinking 20 cups of caffeine a day, your idea of what's normal behavior tends to change for the better, says Christakis.
3. Old habit: You're a family of insomniacs, triggering sleeplessness in each other.
New habit: Introduce wind–down times for each person in your family to get quiet, dim the lights, and turn off electronics. Remove TVs from the bedrooms, suggests Emsellem. To diagnose your sleep problems, "keep a family sleep log for a week to see what's going on in your household," she suggests. (You can download a sample log at snoozeorlose.com or sleepfoundation.org.)
Why it matters: If your whole family is short on sleep and one of you has a cold, you're more likely to pass the virus around, Emsellem explains. Even worse, not getting enough sleep can raise your family's risk of type 2 diabetes, according to research by the Sleep and Circadian Research Group at Woolcock Institute of Medical Research in Sydney, Australia, which has found evidence that sleep positively affects your body's ability to regulate sugar. Skimping on sleep can also lead to obesity by altering levels of the sleep hormones that help regulate your blood sugar, according to a 15–year study published in 2007 at Stanford University. "If you already have diabetes, not sleeping can make it difficult to control your weight, which will make your diabetes worse," says Emsellem.