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Remember how thrilled you were when you found out that eating chocolate was good for you? Well, we've got more happy news: The latest research shows that the simple pleasures in life, like going out for lunch, laughing, and even having sex, boost your immune system. Here, these and seven other ways you're improving your health.
There's no need to feel guilty about indulging in a gossip-fest with your girlfriends. Researchers at the University of California at San Diego found that women with large social networks (more than six close relationships) weighed less and had lower rates of smoking, diabetes, high blood pressure, and depression than women with fewer friends. These women also reduced their risk of dying from heart disease by more than half. That's not all. In a study at the University of Wisconsin published last December, women who reported having close relationships with pals had low blood levels of interleukin-6, a protein linked to Alzheimer's disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and cancer. "Strong social ties may be protective against disease, perhaps because they buffer the effects of daily stressors," explains study author Elliot Friedman, PhD, a psychologist.
Top That: Go on a girlfriend getaway, even if it's just for a weekend. Women who take at least two trips a year are less likely to be tense, depressed, or tired than those who rarely get away, according to a study by the Marshfield Clinic, a health research center in Wisconsin.
So what if the cashier at Starbucks greets you by name? "Drinking three 8-ounce cups of coffee every day slashes your risk of both Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's, by 40 percent and 20 percent respectively. Enough studies have been done that we can say this with confidence," says Michael Roizen, MD, chair of the division of anesthesiology, critical-care medicine and comprehensive pain management at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio.
Top That: Need an afternoon caffeine boost? Instead of java, drink two or more cups of tea. You'll reduce your risk of ovarian cancer by 46 percent, according to a new study from Sweden -- perhaps because of the antioxidants in tea.
Go ahead, crack up: Laughter can actually be as healthy for you as exercise. A study published this past February in the British Medical Journal found that watching a funny movie (There's Something About Mary) made viewers' blood vessels expand more effectively, while a stressful film (Saving Private Ryan) caused vessels to narrow, restricting blood flow. "When you laugh, your body releases endorphins, chemicals that help counteract the effects of stress," says Lee Berk, a professor and laughter researcher at Loma Linda University's School of Public Health and Medicine in California.
Top That: Having a crazy day at work? Close your eyes and visualize yourself at home watching your favorite comedy. Berk's research has found that just anticipating a humorous event can boost your mood by increasing the body's production of endorphins as much as 25 percent.
Rest easy: Research shows that seven hours is actually best for your health. According to a 2002 study, women and men who slept about seven hours a night had the lowest mortality rates. "The average woman sleeps about six and a half to seven hours, which is close to the ideal," says study author Daniel Kripke, MD, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California at San Diego. "We found at least a 15 percent increased risk of dying among women who slept more than eight hours or less than four." (Researchers theorize that these women may be prone to conditions such as depression or sleep apnea.) The bottom line? "If you're getting six or seven hours a night and feeling energized and alert, you've got nothing to worry about," says Dr. Kripke.
Top That: Schedule a.m. workouts. Women who exercised for more than 30 minutes each morning were 60 percent less likely to have sleep problems than on days when they didn't work out, according to a study done at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.
It might seem virtuous to scarf down a sandwich in front of your computer every day, but a 15- or 20-minute break outdoors is a much smarter move. The sunlight can boost your mood, making you more productive for the rest of the afternoon, and it may also help prevent disease. A review of studies published in the American Journal of Public Health found that getting sufficient vitamin D significantly reduced the risk of developing colon, breast, prostate, and ovarian cancers. Fifteen to 20 minutes of daily sun exposure helps your body manufacture vitamin D, which can boost your immune system. Just don't go more than 20 minutes unprotected, as that increases the risk of skin cancer and sun damage. If you live north of Washington, D.C., however, you're probably not getting enough sun to produce vitamin D from November to March. Make up for it by taking a multivitamin that has at least 200 IU daily; and also load up on D-rich salmon and fortified milk and orange juice.
Top That: Spend your time outside strolling, not sitting. In a Harvard Medical School study, women who walked about a half an hour a day reduced their risk of heart disease by 35 percent.
It seems like a no-brainer, but taking good care of your teeth and gums does more than give you a nice smile -- it can protect you from a stroke or heart attack, according to a new study. Researchers in New York looked at 657 people with no history of heart disease and discovered that those with the highest levels of bad mouth bacteria had increased artery thickness and elevated white-blood-cell levels, both of which can raise heart disease risk. "We think the bacteria makes its way into your bloodstream, leaving artery walls inflamed and narrowed," says Sally Cram, DDS, a periodontist in Washington, D.C.
Top That: Go for a cleaning every six months, especially if you're on the birth control pill or pregnant. "Hormone changes can make you more sensitive to the plaque and bacteria that can cause gum inflammation," says Cram.
Good move! Research at the University of Portsmouth in England shows that when a woman runs without a bra, her breasts bounce up and down 3.5 inches for each step she takes. "After a mile, that's about the equivalent of your breasts bouncing 472 feet, which puts huge amounts of stress on the outer skin and connective tissue," says study author Joanna Scurr, PhD. Wearing a sports bra reduced bounce by 74 percent. Just be sure to choose the right fit. "I recommend that you try on at least three sizes and jump up and down in them," says Julia Alleyne, MD, medical director of Sport Care Women's College Hospital in Toronto. Replace sports bras every six to nine months when they lose elasticity and support.
Top That: You can revitalize sag-prone breasts with chest exercises, which help sculpt muscles and make your bust appear higher and firmer, says LaJean Lawson, PhD, an adjunct professor in exercise and sports science at Oregon State University. Bench presses and push-ups are good options; do at least three sets of 8 to 12 three times a week.
Your 20s and 30s are the best time in your life to build up brain reserve; you lose about 1 percent of your brain cells each year by the time you hit your 40s, says Zaldy Tan, MD, director of the Memory Disorders Clinic at the Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital in Boston and author of Age-Proof Your Mind. Mentally challenging activities, including reading and playing musical instruments at least three times a week, can provoke the growth of new cells and connections in the brain. "Someone who does the New York Times crossword puzzle four days a week has an almost 50 percent lower risk of developing Alzheimer's than someone who does it once a week," says Dr. Tan.
Top That: Take ballroom dancing lessons. A study at Albert Einstein College of Medicine found it may be the most effective exercise in warding off dementia. "Ballroom dancing works your body and your mind -- it may be you need both to offer your brain protection," Dr. Tan says.
Lovemaking can help reduce stress, according to a recent Scottish study. For two weeks, volunteers kept diaries of how often they had sex, then researchers monitored their blood pressure in anxiety-raising situations. The results: Blood pressure increased less in the volunteers who'd recently had intercourse than in those who hadn't. "The calming effect may be linked to the stimulation of a wide variety of nerves, including the vagal nerve, which extends from your brain down to your pelvic area and soothes your heart by reducing blood pressure and heart-rate increases during stress," explains Stuart Brody, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Paisley in Scotland. Researchers found no such health benefits from oral sex or masturbation, probably because they don't involve the deep penetration that leads to vagal-nerve stimulation, says Brody.
Top That: Snuggle with your guy afterward. Cuddling releases oxytocin, a hormone that gives you a warm, fuzzy feeling and further reduces stress.
That bowl of bran may improve your mood. People who ate cereal felt more positive, did better at memory-related tasks and were less stressed than those who just grabbed a cup of coffee, according to studies at the University of Bristol in England. Cereal may also help you ward off a cold; research shows that those who eat it report fewer symptoms of respiratory illness. "Some brands are high in fiber, which helps reduce fatigue and increases energy; and they're fortified with micronutrients such as folate and magnesium, which may help boost your immune system," says Andy Smith, PhD, a psychologist at the University of Cardiff in Wales.
Top That: Toss in a handful of blueberries and half a banana and you'll get more than 200 milligrams of potassium, 18mg of magnesium, and 14mg of folate, which may help fight heart disease.
Originally published in FITNESS magazine, August 2006.