It's that time of year again when many of us start thinking about what we might do differently this year to make our life, and perhaps the world, a little bit better. You may think that people with HIV are no different from anyone else, and you're right, for the most part. But if you are living with HIV, here are a few ideas for resolutions you may want to think about for the coming year, in no particular order.
1. Quit smoking.
We've all heard this one before at one point or another, and it's one of those situations where smokers are likely to argue, "Hey, I've given up everything else, so don't take that away from me!" But seriously, a recent study found that people with HIV who smoke have a higher rate of death and are more likely to die of smoking-related causes than from HIV itself. Moreover, smoking can make it more difficult to fight off serious infections. And think of the money you'll save! Since I quit smoking eight years ago I've probably saved over $25,000. For help in quitting smoking, go to smokefree.gov.
2. Reduce or eliminate alcohol/recreational drugs.
Alcohol is metabolized (broken down) through the liver, and the liver is used to metabolize many HIV drugs. This added stress can damage the liver and may be especially detrimental in people who are co-infected with hepatitis C. HIV meds can boost the level of recreational drugs in your system, sometimes in dangerous ways. Drugs and alcohol can also affect decisions you (and your partner) make about safer sex. Bottom line: If you're unable to quit altogether, then use drugs and/or alcohol in moderation.
3. Exercise regularly.
The benefits of exercise are the same for people living with HIV as for those who are HIV-negative. Exercise is a great way to help manage stress and can also boost your self-esteem and a give you a sense of accomplishment. Start slow and build when beginning an exercise program. Any amount of exercise is good, even if you only take a 20-minute walk three days a week. Resistance or strength training can also help offset the loss of muscle mass sometimes caused by having HIV.
4. Maintain a healthy diet.
Proper nutrition will help keep your immune system strong so that you can better fight disease. It also helps the body process many HIV medications and may help alleviate some common symptoms such as diarrhea, nausea and fatigue. Good nutrition can sometimes be used to ward off side effects of the drugs. Here are some good tips for eating right for people living with HIV.
5. Learn ways to manage stress.
Stress is a major contributing factor to coronary artery disease, cancer, respiratory disorders and other life-threatening illnesses, including HIV. Everyone experiences some level of stress, and while you can't entirely eliminate it from your life, there are many techniques that people with HIV have found that can help them manage their stress. Some of these include yoga, meditation, breathing exercises, connecting with nature or simply seeking out support through private therapy or an HIV support group. No one way is the right way, so find whatever way works best for you.
6. Review your treatment options.
Whether you are on HIV treatment or considering starting for the first time, it's good to review what your treatment options are periodically. You may decide you want to switch medications due to side effects, or to simplify your drug regimen. You will need to do your homework; Positively Aware's HIV Drug Guide gives you information on every drug currently available, including tips on how to use them. Always talk to your health care provider before starting or switching meds, and make sure to tell him or her every drug you are taking, including non-HIV drugs. Some drugs interact with HIV meds and may cause them to not be as effective, which can lead to the development of resistance to the medication.
7. Volunteer/donate to a worthy cause.
The holidays are a time for all of us to reflect on and be grateful for what we have, as well as to remember those who are less fortunate. HIV/AIDS organizations can always use your help year round, whether it's by volunteering your time or expertise or providing financial or in-kind donations. By giving to an organization, you demonstrate to them and to others that you care about and support the work that they do, which I can tell you means the world to those of us working in the nonprofit arena. And in this case giving truly is receiving: You always receive a whole lot more back than you are asked to give.
8. Seek out support.
Living with HIV can sometimes be overwhelming, and people with HIV are often so busy taking care of their families and worrying about their next meal or keeping a roof over their head that they tend to put themselves last and neglect their own self-care. There are people who are there to help, from case managers who can help you manage your health care or financial needs to support groups where you can share with and learn from other people who are in the same boat. Remember, you are not alone, so contact your state AIDS hotline to find a local agency in your area.
9. Protect yourself and your partner.
Having HIV doesn't mean your sex life is over. But you (and your partner) will need to continue to take precautions in order to keep from transmitting/acquiring HIV or other sexually transmitted infections (STIs) such as syphilis and gonorrhea. Whether it's using condoms, PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis, which only provides protection against HIV, not other STIs), serosorting (having sex with someone of the same HIV status), reducing the risks you and your partner take during sex or never sharing needles when injecting drugs, find the tools that work best for you -- and use them!
10. Don't be ashamed of having HIV.
With the treatments that are available today, many people can be expected to live a long and healthy life with HIV, but it's no cakewalk. The stigma associated with having HIV can still cause a person to lose their job or housing or be ostracized by friends or family. HIV stigma can also prevent people from accessing care and treatment. Still, many of us have been lucky enough to be able to live openly and honestly with HIV, showing that there is no shame in having HIV. Hopefully one day we will all be able to be so lucky to be "out" about our HIV status. Only then will we be able to start to make all the other changes necessary to finally achieve an AIDS-free generation.
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