When we wake up January 1, many of us are seized by the same impulse: Must make self healthier.
Surveys show that personal wellness is the primary driver of our New Year's self-improvement plans: More than half of adults in the United States vow to exercise more, and another 35 percent make a general pledge to lose weight, according to a recent poll. Other popular goals include eating more nutritiously, getting better sleep, and living more joyfully. Given this ambitious to-do list, you might be tempted to try almost anything.
Not so fast: As it turns out, some of today's most talked-about health trends are also, well, some of the dumbest. With help from leading experts, we've rated them on a scale of 1 (skip it!) to 5 (try it!) so you can see which ones really are worth your time and money.
Trend: Supermarket Nutrition Counseling
Try-it Rating: 5/5
Most of us grasp the basics of healthy eating. But in the grocery store, where it's common to find 20 varieties of sliced bread, the best choices aren't always clear. In response, some supermarkets are staffing up with nutrition experts who can offer shoppers free guidance in filling their carts.
For example, the Midwestern chain Hy-Vee now employs registered dietitians in nearly all of its 235 stores. ShopRite has staff dietitians in stores across four states, with an expansion planned this year. Kroger recently rolled out a pilot program in some Kentucky stores. While each chain operates a bit differently, ShopRite's approach is typical. "You can make an appointment for a longer one-on-one session or pop in and ask a quick question, like how much fiber you need," explains Natalie Menza, R.D., a corporate dietitian for the chain.
"With so much misinformation out there, this is a great service," says Dee Sandquist, R.D., a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. "And if you have a health issue that requires a special diet, having an R.D. in the store can be invaluable." Menza notes that ShopRite's dietitians must meet strict certification criteria and are not beholden to brands. "If we recommend a product, it's because we believe it's good," she says.
Trend: Minimalist Sneakers
Try-It Rating: 3/5
Several years ago, scores of serious runners traded their cushioned sneakers for shoes with skimpier support. The thinking is that old-school running shoes, with their thick heels and pillowy padding, interfere with foot mechanics and hamper performance.
Now casual exercisers are getting in on the kick. In the second half of 2012, sales of minimalist sneakers—characterized by thin soles, ultra-lightweight uppers, and in some cases, separated toes—rose about 50 percent over 2011, says Matt Powell, a market analyst with SportOneSource. But unless you've worked with a trainer on how to move in minimalist shoes, they might not be safe for high-impact pursuits such as tennis and Zumba, says running coach Jason Karp, Ph.D., coauthor of Running for Women (Human Kinetics, 2012).
"These activities produce a lot of force on the lower body, especially if you're carrying extra pounds," he says. "If you land wrong in a shoe with little support, you could injure your ankle, Achilles tendon, and more."
And if you have an irregular gait—say, your feet tend to roll inward—minimalist shoes won't provide the stability you need, he adds. Otherwise, for low-impact activities such as walking and strength training, Karp says minimalist shoes are fine provided they fit right and feel good on your feet.
Trend: Buying Better Sleep
Try-It Rating: 2/5
The link between sound slumber and good health is indisputable. Study after study has shown that consistently racking up 7–9 hours of snooze time per night can rein in the risk of problems from depression to type 2 diabetes. The question is how to get that shut-eye.
Right now, it appears many of us are trying to buy it: Sales of over-the-counter sleep medicines climbed by 31 percent between 2006 and 2011, and they show no sign of slowing, according to market research company Mintel. Technology makers are cashing in, too, with pricey gizmos—such as a headband sensor that logs brain-wave activity—aimed at restless consumers. Such interventions are no substitute for the sandman, says William Kohler, M.D., medical director of the Florida Sleep Institute in Spring Hill.
"Insomnia is often caused by underlying issues—stress, acid reflux, and chronic pain— that can't be fixed quickly with devices or sleep medications," he says. Certain habits (like not sticking to a regular bedtime) also can keep you up. Learn more at BHG.com/SleepTight. If sleep issues persist after a few weeks, see your doctor.
Trend: Live Web Workouts
Try-It Rating: 5/5
Have you slogged through your old fitness DVDs so many times you can recite the patter in your sleep? Some exercise buffs are waking up their home workouts with real-time classes streamed from the Web.
Here's how it works: You sign up with a live fitness site, choose the class you'd like to take, log on at the appointed time, and follow along with your instructor. "Live Web classes are different every time, and they don't require you to leave the house," says Jessica Matthews, an exercise physiologist with the American Council on Exercise. "That variety and convenience can really help you become a regular exerciser."
At this point, most live-streaming services offer one-way video, meaning your instructor can't see or hear you. Two popular such sites are EMG Live Fitness and Flirty Girl Fitness Live. Wello, another new site, goes one step further with two-way video that allows your instructor to provide personalized feedback. Several competing workout sites are under construction.
As for technical requirements, all you need is a high-speed Internet connection with video software (if you can watch a YouTube video, you're good) and, if you're using a two-way service, a webcam. EMG Live Fitness starts at $5 per class; Flirty Girl Fitness Live starts at $5 per day; and 30-minute sessions at Wello start at $15.
"Many activities are suited to the home—yoga, step classes, strength training," Matthews says. "You can experiment and see what you like."
Trend: Juice Cleanses
Try-it Rating: 1/5
The concept seems perfect after an indulgent holiday season: Consume nothing but special fruit and veggie juices for a few days, and you'll slim down and flush toxins from your body. Few things could be easier—or less effective.
Unlike the liquid diets of yore, today's cleanses are marketed as nutritious and foodie-friendly, a drinkable extension of the clean-eating movement. Bottles tout fresh ingredients such as kale and beets. And some supermarkets have begun selling cleanse kits right in the dairy case.
But before you stock up on straws, weigh the evidence: "There have been no good studies proving the benefits of a juice fast," says Adrienne Youdim, M.D., director of the Cedars-Sinai Weight Loss Center in Los Angeles. "Any weight people lose is mostly water, and they tend to regain it quickly." In fact, a cleanse could leave you heavier in the long run: In a Cornell University study, 75 percent of people who skipped solid food for a day ended their fasts by bingeing on greasy carbs. Don't swallow the claim that cleanses can purify your system, either. "The body is designed to eliminate toxins on its own," Youdim says.
"The idea that a juice fast can improve that process is totally unfounded." If you want to give your diet a fresh start, cut back on processed foods and up your intake of lean protein, whole grains, and fully intact fruits and veggies.
Trend: Mirror Fasting
Try-it Rating: 2/5
A mirror can quickly turn from a practical tool (Do I have spinach in my teeth?) to a springboard for self-criticism (Ugh, I hate my neck!). In an effort to boost confidence and stop worrying about their looks, some women are doing "mirror fasts"—swearing off all reflective surfaces for a week, a month, or even longer. After catching fire on blogs last year, the trend has spawned hours of news coverage and at least one major book deal.
Not all experts are on board. "If you avoid your reflection altogether, you're not really making peace with your appearance," says psychologist Vivian Diller, Ph.D., coauthor of Face It (Hay House, 2011).
More important is what happens when the mirror returns, says Kristin Neff, Ph.D., an associate professor of human development at the University of Texas. She offers a different approach.
"If you start to think something negative about your looks, stop and ask yourself what you'd say to a friend," she says. Then grant yourself the same kindness.
Trend: Furry Family Members
Try-it Rating: 4/5
Americans are getting a new leash on life: From mid-2011 to 2012, an estimated 1.63 million households welcomed an animal companion, bringing the total number of pet-owning families to a record high of 63 percent, according to a survey by the American Pet Products Association.
That bodes well for the nation's health. Various studies have found that caring for an animal— whether a golden retriever or goldfish—can quell anxiety, brighten mood, and promote a healthier heart.
"People form beneficial bonds with their pets," says psychiatry professor Sandra Barker, Ph.D., director of the Center for Human–Animal Interaction at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine in Richmond. "Our research has found that interacting with dogs, for example, can have positive effects on heart rate, stress hormones, and blood pressure."
Before you bring home a furry (or feathered or fishy) friend, be sure to study up on the care the animal requires. "If you don't have the time to train, feed, or play with your pet, or if your budget can't accommodate trips to the vet, owning a pet can add to your stress rather than reduce it," Barker says.
Check out our pointers on adopting an animal.