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The start of spring traditionally marks a time of renewal. We clean out our garages, sort through our closets and get rid of waste for a fresh start. With this renewed energy to make positive changes on the home front, it's also the season when many of my patients come in to discuss ways to  clean up their health. Keeping this motivation in mind, I thought I would challenge you to do the same.

Over the next few weeks, we'll be running a reader health challenge to help sweep out old health habits and try out some new healthier ones. You may already have an excellent routine of healthy diet, regular exercise and sleep cycles so some of these challenges may come easy to you. For others though, even with your best efforts, it may be difficult. Perhaps by identifying where small but meaningful changes can be made, we can work together to increase your well-being.

We'll start with taking inventory of your current health, then work through specific goals related to sleep, diet, exercise and stress reduction. Feel free to share your suggestions to your fellow readers through the comments section, or involve your family and friends in your home and work environments to help motivate you to face these challenges. While it may be difficult to make change with busy work and family commitments, hopefully these small concrete steps will help you identify areas that you can improve upon.

Let's get started with Week 1:

Before setting any goal, it's important to understand where you're starting from. By identifying what works and what may be hindering your health goals, we can work together to prioritize one or two to make positive changes that are realistic and sustainable for you.

Challenge 1: Take inventory of your Zzzs

Keep a sleep diary this week to understand what your patterns are and how the quality and length may be effecting your energy and how productive you are during the day. Consider keeping track of the following questions which will lead us into week two's challenge:

  • What time do you go to bed?
  • What time do you wake up?
  • How long does it take you to fall asleep?
  • How often are you waking up at night? If you wake frequently — is it for a specific reason (to go to the washroom, pain)
  • How do you feel during the day? Do you need to nap during the day?

Challenge 2: Keep a food diary

Take inventory of what you're putting into your body by writing it down in a diary. For motivation, consider networking with a friend or workmate and share your daily intake (i.e. through e-mail) so you are both accountable to each other. By writing it down, you'll be able to identify where you can change things up for a healthier diet.

Challenge 3: Get your numbers

Often when we go to the doctor, we are told that we're "normal" in terms of our blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar. My challenge to you for this week is to know your actual numbers. Get your last copy of bloodwork so it's not only your doctor keeping track of your health but you are also responsible. By knowing your numbers, you can track your progress as you make your changes.

Challenge 4: Call your mom

All to often, we don't talk about the health conditions that run in our families. While it can be uncomfortable or difficult to recall what illnesses our family members had or suffer from, this information gives you important clues as to what you may be at risk of in the future. So find out what runs in your family and share it with your doctor. Pay particular attention to heart disease, diabetes and cancer — all of which are known to run in families.

Challenge 5: Get your prevention on

Depending on your age, there are different screening tests that are recommended to identify potential conditions that can be treated early to prevent long term complications. This week, considering your age, family history and current health, find out if you're up to date for your preventative care. Consider booking an appointment with your doctor to confirm what screening tests you may need. To know what to ask for, here's a basic summary of what you should be having done based on age:

  • All ages: weight, blood pressure check, smoking cessation discussion
  • Over 21, sexually active women/trans-men: Pap testing
  • Over 40: fasting blood sugar, cholesterol
  • Over 50: mammograms for women; colorectal cancer screening for men and women
  • Over 65: bone mineral density testing

Keep in mind that depending on your family history, your time for screening may be earlier in life.

Best wishes for taking inventory of your health this week and check back next Tuesday for next week's challenge.

Dr. Sheila Wijayasinghe is the medical director at the Immigrant Womens' Health Centre, works as a staff physician at St. Michael's Hospital in their Family Practice Unit and at Hassle Free Clinic, and established and runs an on-site clinic at Women's Habitat Shelter in Etobicoke.

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