If you talk to doctors about what they think is important for good health, you might be surprised. Rather than a list of do’s and don’ts, they often say it’s better to take a big-picture view and focus on a few simple ideas: get enough sleep, spend some time moving, cut down on stress, try to eat a balanced diet. But above all, be happy. Here’s what two experienced doctors say every patient should know.
1. Focus on a healthy lifestyle that works for you
Rather than obsessing over how many milligrams of calcium you’re getting or how many minutes of deep sleep you get, take a step back and figure out which healthy changes will work for your life. It could be small things, like switching to a whole-grain cereal or getting to bed sooner, or big things like a more flexible job or more walkable neighborhood.
“How we live affects our health,” says Ameena Ahmed, an internist and primary care physician at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in San Francisco. “Your health isn’t about what happens at the doctor’s office, it’s about your whole life … what you do, what your family does, what your community does.”
2. Don’t overdo it
Everything in moderation, as they say. It’s true for eating and drinking, but it’s also a good idea for other activities, even healthy ones.
“We want to work enough but not too much, we want to exercise enough but not too much,” says Michael Potter, a family physician and professor of clinical family and community medicine at the University of California at San Francisco. “I see all these marathon runners and ironman athletes, and they’re the fittest specimens you can imagine. And when they get to be 50 they need hip replacements or knee replacements.”
3. Pick the best time for a routine office visit
“The best time of year to see your doctor is in the summer because there’s much less in the way of colds and flu going around,” says Dr. Ahmed. “Other patients are on vacation, so your doctor has a more open schedule.”
“On the flip side, the worst time of year is right after New Year’s because it’s the peak of cold and flu season,” she says. “You can pick up something in the waiting room, and your doctor is going to be really busy.”
4. Bring someone along to your doctor visit
Another person can help you take notes, remind you to ask questions, and generally be there for support. Doctors find it useful too, because a second person can offer valuable perspective. “It gives me as a doctor an understanding of how a person interacts with the world when they bring someone with them,” says Dr. Potter.
Dr. Potter finds it’s especially important for older people or others who have caregivers who buy medicines or schedule appointments — he can talk to them and get more information about his patient, and he can also explain to them why it’s important to do certain things.
5. Ask questions and communicate
If you were buying a TV, you’d want to understand all the features and figure out if it’s a good deal to pay for that fancy new 4K tech, right? Health care is the same way. You want to be a smart shopper and know what you’re buying. Questions are key to understanding all that.
“When you see your doctor, write a list of what you want to talk about,” says Dr. Ahmed. “Make two copies, one for you and one for your doctor. That way you’re working off the same list of priorities.”
That said, doctor-patient relationships are two-way streets. After two or three visits your doctor should really understand who you are and remember you, says Dr. Potter. He says your doctor’s advice should feel personalized, “not cookie cutter advice but advice specifically for you based on the knowledge of who you are.”
6. It’s okay to switch doctors and shop for care
“Sometimes you can have a perfectly good doctor who’s really skilled, but you don’t have good communication with them,” says Dr. Potter. “And that’s fine, there’s no need to feel guilty. You should just find someone you can communicate with. There’s someone out there for you if you keep looking.”
Whether you’re looking for someone who speaks your native language, or you’re more comfortable with a male or female doctor, or just prefer offices that use email and online services, it’s okay to break up with your doctor and look for someone new.
7. Find balance and be happy
“Long lists of do’s and don’ts can be really burdensome if you take them too seriously because life is meant to be enjoyed,” says Dr. Potter. “What’s the benefit of living an extra three years if you’re miserable and starving yourself?”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Dr. Potter says his happiest patients have a sense of control over their lives and find a way to do the things they love without feeling rushed. “They have time for their family, they have time to do something that they love, they have time to do things well, they have time to do nothing.”
Dr. Ahmed agrees. “Try to do something you enjoy every day,” she says. “I would go for a walk in the woods every day if I could because that’s where I feel most calm and centered.”