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Healthy Habits

8 hints for healthy living

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If getting on the road to good health has been on your to-do list longer than you’d like to admit, give yourself a jump start with these eight helpful hints. None requires an outrageous time commitment, yet all may help you feel stronger, happier and more energetic today—and for the rest of your life, inspiring you to make bigger changes down the road.

Reach Out and Touch Someone

There are plenty of reasons friends and loved ones help you stay healthy. People with the support of friends or spouses typically feel a greater sense of self-esteem and take better care of themselves by adopting a healthy lifestyle. A strong social network may also help reduce stress, and there’s strong evidence that psychological well-being can promote physical health. In a study published in the August 1999 issue of the British Medical Journal, 2,761 people, age 65 and older, were followed for a period of 13 years. Researchers tracked participation in 14 activities, including swimming, brisk walking, shopping, doing volunteer work and playing cards. People who spent time engaging in social activities—volunteering or getting together with friends—were as physically fit, mentally alert and able to actively enjoy life as those who spent time exercising. These researchers found that people with no close ties to friends, relations or the community are three times more likely to die sooner than those with at least one source of social support. “Social engagement is as strong as anything we have found in determining longevity,” says Thomas Glass, gerontologist, PhD, and assistant professor at the Harvard School of Public Health. “It is stronger than maladies such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol or other measures of health.”

“There’s no question that staying active, physically and socially, contributes to successful aging,” says Ron Sprinkle, MD, a family physician at the University of California, Davis Medical Group in Sacramento. Though genes play a big role in our aging process, our lifestyle choices also significantly affect how we age. The Chicago-based MacArthur Foundation Consortium on Successful Aging conducted research at several universities and hospitals and found that people who entered their eighth decade healthy and independent shared several characteristics for successful aging: regular physical activity, continued social connections, resiliency during the loss of relationships and a sense of self-worth.

Laugh at Life

Laughter really is the best medicine. Not only does your breathing improve, but stress hormones drop and immune cells spring into action when you giggle. By laughing, your whole outlook on life can shift to the positive, which is crucial to maintaining health. According to the American Association for Therapeutic Humor in Phoenix, when we hold negative feelings inside, they can transform into unfavorable biochemical changes—which often manifest themselves as systemic, nervous and immune disorders. A good guffaw is cathartic, which explains why some people who are upset or stressed go to see a funny movie or enjoy a comedy club. New research suggests that you begin to reap the benefits of laughter just by deciding to do something that’s a guaranteed chuckle. In a 2001 study at the Susan Samueli Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at the University of California, Irvine, College of Medicine, researchers found that when subjects simply anticipated watching a funny TV show two days before it aired, mild depression, anger, fatigue and tension were reduced by as much as 50 percent.

Track Your Medical History

While fitness and a good diet play a significant role in helping you stay healthy and live longer, scientists say our genetic traits are also determining factors. “Knowing both your parents’ and grandparents’ medical histories can help cut your risks for developing serious diseases,” says Jeffrey N. Weitzel, MD, director of the Cancer Screening & Prevention Program at the City of Hope Cancer Center in Los Angeles. By keeping track of your family’s medical history, your doctor may be able to detect diseases you’re likely to develop as you age. For example, if you know that cardiovascular disease runs in your family, you can minimize your risk for it by keeping a close watch on your cholesterol levels and monitoring your blood pressure. And to maintain control of the health care you receive, it’s a good idea to keep records of your own medical history.

Wash Your Hands

Only about half of adult Americans wash their hands after visiting a restroom. And even if you do, you may not do it properly because you don’t wash long enough, says Philip Tierno, MD, director of clinical microbiology and diagnostic immunology at New York University Medical Center and New York-based Mount Sinai Medical Center and author of The Secret Life of Germs. Tierno advises rubbing warm, soapy water all over your hands and fingers for 20 to 30 seconds, including under your fingernails. As you create friction by rubbing your hands together, you loosen disease-causing particles, which, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, is the most important thing you can do to keep from getting sick. The CDC says you can easily prevent more serious diseases, including hepatitis A and meningitis, if you make a habit of washing your hands.

Can the Soda

Cutting just one can of soda daily from an otherwise healthy diet can help you lose 15 pounds in one year, says Jo Ann Carson, MD, of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. Simply switch to sugar-free iced tea or seltzer with lemon—or, if you must, caffeine-free diet soda—and you’ll cut out 150 calories a day.

If calories alone aren’t enough to make you kick the soda habit, consider this: In 2000, Americans downed an average of 53 gallons of soda apiece, each containing a quarter cup of sugar, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, DC. Soda contains calories but no nutrients and thus may replace other foods with more nutritional value. Many also contain caffeine, which reduces the body’s stores of calcium. So people drinking large amounts of soda could be at risk for osteoporosis, especially if soda replaces milk or other calcium-rich foods. This is a special concern for teens, whose bones are increasing in density and who need two to three servings of milk or milk products daily to help them do just that, according to the United States Department of Agriculture’s food guide pyramid. The acid in soda can also dissolve tooth enamel and lead to tooth decay.

Portion Distortion

It’s a good bet that when you were a child, your mother told you to eat everything on your plate. But smart eaters know to watch portion sizes and eat only until satisfied. How to know how much to eat? Try these visual tricks: One serving of cooked rice should equal the size of a computer mouse; one serving of cheese should be about the size of the end of your thumb; and three ounces of tofu should be the size of a deck of cards. It’s relatively simple to figure out the correct portions at home. But restaurants can be confusing because their portions are often twice the size of those of home-cooked meals. According to the National Restaurant Association, over the last decade restaurants have ditched the traditional 8- to 9-inch plates for trendy oversized ones that range anywhere from 10 to 14 inches. These large plates often dwarf the already hefty restaurant portions, further confusing diners. Excess has become the norm. Restaurant pasta dishes often have more than a half-pound of pasta, the equivalent of two servings and 400 calories—and that’s before they add the sauce and cheese. And that doesn’t include any side dishes you’ve ordered or the typical 800-calorie bread basket you downed while waiting for your appetizer. In restaurants, your best line of defense is to eat half the entrée, and take the rest home to enjoy the next day—even if you have to ask the server to wrap up half before you begin eating. Never “super-size” any meal. Buy smaller packages of snack foods, and use smaller plates and bowls at home to trick yourself into thinking your serving is larger. Eat more slowly, and savor your food, since it takes about 20 minutes for your stomach to signal your brain that you’re sated.

Because there has been such an explosion in the number of low-fat and fat-free foods on the market, many of us eat more of these than we would foods without such claims. Low-fat cookies, cakes, candies, ice cream and their ilk may have less fat, but they still contain loads of sugar and calories, which contribute to weight gain. “Since the low-fat craze began, Americans have actually gained more weight,” says Ann de Wees Allen, PhD, Chief of Biomedical Research, Glycemic Research Institute, Washington, DC. So go ahead, have a taste of the real thing—simply limit your servings.

Tea, Anyone?

Tea, particularly green tea, possesses properties that help lower cholesterol and prevent heart disease, certain cancers and dental cavities; protect skin from UV damage; and fight bacteria and viruses. Tea contains flavonoids, antioxidants believed to prevent cellular damage. According to Laurie Deutsch Mozian, MS, RD, and author of Foods That Fight Disease, “The antioxidants in green tea are 100 times more effective than vitamin C and 25 times better than vitamin E at protecting cells from damage that can potentially cause cancer, heart disease and other illnesses.” The secret of green tea lies in its rich stores of catechin polyphenols, compounds found in plant-based foods that act as antioxidants, particularly epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG)—a powerful antioxidant. Besides inhibiting the growth of cancer cells, EGCG kills cancer cells without harming healthy tissue.

Studies conducted by Hasan Muhktar, PhD, at the Case Western University School of Medicine in Cleveland show that green tea can stop the growth of cancer at all stages, affecting both growth and speed. In cases where a tumor has already formed, green tea may help shrink it. Tea is also effective in lowering low-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels—the “bad” cholesterol—as well as inhibiting the abnormal formation of blood clots, the leading cause of heart attacks and stroke. Reaping the benefits of tea may require swallowing a good amount of it—try 4 to 6 cups a day. Brew some in the morning in place of your regular cuppa Joe. Make sure to steep it for at least three minutes, and try it sans milk, since milk can block antioxidant benefits. And give green tea a try as a mouthwash. The polyphenol tannin it contains works as an antibiotic, soaking up bacteria that promote bad breath and tooth decay.

Wear Sensible Shoes

Wearing high heels may be alluring, but it throws a woman’s weight forward, possibly leading to low back pain and injury to the discs, says Kenneth Connor, DC, a chiropractor in Newport Beach, California.

The idea that high heels can be hazardous to women’s health isn’t new. Orthopedists have warned women for years that stilettos and their sister heels can contribute to a litany of problems, from corns and calluses to hammertoes, arthritis, chronic knee pain, shortened calf muscles, sprained ankles and back problems. In 1998, a team of Harvard researchers, led by D. Casey Kerrigan, MD, and associate professor of physical medicine at Harvard Medical School, linked high heels to knee osteoarthritis—a painful, degenerative joint disease characterized by the breakdown of the cartilage surrounding the knee. High heels force the thigh muscles to work harder by putting extra strain on the knee joint and the tendon that runs from the kneecap to the thighbone. Compared to walking barefoot, high heels increase the pressure on the knee by 26 percent.

Researchers also looked at trendy chunkier heels to determine if they too are hard on the knees. The study—the results of which appeared in the April 7, 2001 issue of the Lancet—demonstrated that wide heels increase the risk of developing osteoarthritis in the knee as much as, or more than, spindly heeled shoes. “Wide-heeled shoes give you the perception of more stability when you’re standing—and they feel comfortable, so women wear them all day long,” Kerrigan said. “They are better for your feet than stiletto heels but just as bad for your knees.”

And if men’s dress shoes don’t fit properly—are too small or have narrow toe boxes—men can suffer some of the same painful injuries as women. Men also have to be especially careful with slip-on shoes that may cause the foot to slide forward and cramp the toes.

Seventy-five percent of Americans will experience some type of foot problem in their lives, with women having four times as many problems as men. In an online survey of 1,724 women that the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons released in September 2001, 80 percent of the female respondents said their feet hurt, and nearly 60 percent of them confessed to wearing uncomfortable shoes at least one hour a day.

So what’s a shoe lover to do? When you can’t wear athletic shoes, experts recommend sticking to shoes with no heels or with heels no higher than one and one-half inches. They might not be fashionable, but neither are corns, bunions or knee replacements.

When it comes to your health, small actions you take—or don’t take—affect how you look, feel and age. Use these eight simple tips to set the tone for a lifetime of healthy behaviors. So what are you waiting for? Making a little, healthy change is one task that should be easy to cross off your to-do list!