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Think you can put off taking care of yourself? Start thinking differently. "Only one-third of our health is determined by genetics. The rest is due to lifestyle choices," says Gary Small, MD, director of the Center on Aging at UCLA and author of The Longevity Bible. "It's easier to protect well-being than it is to repair damage," he says. To make a U-turn now and head down the road to good health, try these newly updated, very doable strategies.Weigh Yourself
Yes, your weight can fluctuate from day to day, but daily check-ins have been shown to help protect against added pounds.
Our best advice: Step on the scale at the same time every day. "If you're up three to five pounds in a span of a few days, watch your portions and work out longer," advises Kathy McManus, RD, director of nutrition at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. For the big picture, including understanding how your cycle affects your weight, track your readings on a calendar.Stand When Getting Dressed
Sounds too simple to make a difference, but forcing your body to balance while you put on your pants or skirt strengthens your reflexes and core muscles. "This will protect against falls and broken bones, particularly as you get older," says Sherry Marts, PhD, vice president of scientific affairs at the Society for Women's Health Research in Washington, D.C.
Our best advice: Stand on one leg, then on the other, while pulling on your jeans. Shifting your weight from foot to foot is what you want to get good at.
Getting too little natural light not only affects your mood but can also mess with your internal clock, making you drowsy during the day but wired when it's time to sleep, says Gary Aston-Jones, PhD, a professor of neuroscience at Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston.
Our best advice: Although researchers don't know exactly how much natural light we need, Aston-Jones believes that light's influence over our circadian rhythms indicates that even a little bit can be crucial. His suggestion: Go outside for at least 10 extra minutes of sunlight every day. To get the full spectrum of light, which may be the most beneficial, venture out at the brightest time of day. Don't forget the sun block!Carve Out Some Off-the-Net Time
As useful as computers and handhelds are, e-mail, message boards, and just plain surfing are highly addictive. "It's incredibly easy to do nothing else, when most of us are already too sedentary," says Jack Guralnik, MD, PhD, chief of the laboratory of epidemiology, demography, and biometry at the National Institute on Aging in Bethesda, Maryland.
Our best advice: Take off all of your electronic leashes for several hours at least once a day, Monday through Friday -- say, during and after dinner -- and on weekends. (Sorry, the time that you're asleep doesn't count!) Use the hours that you're disconnected to do something healthy, like taking a walk rather than watching TV. When you hop back on the computer to shop or answer e-mail, give yourself a limit. Set a timer for an hour: When it goes off, you log off.Have a Superlight Lunch
Yes, you need to eat regular meals, but could they be smaller? Certainly, says Christiaan Leeuwenburgh, PhD, a professor of aging and geriatric research at the University of Florida's College of Medicine in Gainesville. "You may find you have more energy if you eat lightly, because cells may work at their optimal level when they're not supersaturated with calories," he explains. What's more, consuming fewer calories over a life-span can reduce and even reverse age-related cell damage.
Our best advice: You know what counts as light: a salad, half a sandwich, a cup of soup. But if you want to go even further, Leeuwenburgh suggests having an apple or other piece of fruit instead of lunch on days when breakfast is late or dinner will be early. If you have any medical conditions, check with your doctor first.
About a quarter of women get fewer than six hours of sleep a night (most of us need seven to eight hours). Recent studies link chronic deprivation to a weak immune system and an increased risk of diabetes and heart disease, among other dangers.
Our best advice: "Refrain from taking a hot bath or shower within an hour of bedtime, since falling body temperatures can assist in the onset of sleep," says Nancy Collop, MD, medical director of the Johns Hopkins Hospital Sleep Disorders Center in Baltimore. And even though working out improves sleep quality, you shouldn't exercise within two hours of turning in. If you have insomnia, get out of bed rather than toss and turn, but whatever you do to relax, stay away from the computer -- the blue light is stimulating and will wake you up even more.
"Having nothing healthy in the house is often our excuse for picking up something bad to eat on the way home from work," says Jacqueline Suk Danik, MD, a cardiologist and faculty member at Harvard Medical School.
Our best advice: Stock up on vegetables, fruit, and whole wheat pasta and bread, as well as fish, turkey, and other lean meats. Prepare good-for-you dishes beforehand or learn to make basics -- such as steamed fish -- that take little prep time after you walk in the door. For quick and easy recipes, check out Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything series or The Carefree Cook by Rick Rodgers. While shopping, you might also want to limit the processed foods in your cart, since, like restaurant take-out meals, they are apt to contain trans fats. In addition to their adverse effects on cholesterol levels, these fats were recently linked to increases in abdominal fat, which is associated with cardiovascular disease, says Lawrence Rudel, PhD, a professor of pathology and biochemistry at Wake Forest University School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.Oversleep a Little on the Weekend
Ideally, you should follow the same schedule seven days a week. But if you're not getting enough shut-eye, doctors recommend that you sleep in a bit to make up for shortfalls. One tip-off that you're sleep-deprived: You can't wake up without the alarm, says Dr. Collop.
Our best advice: If you really need eight hours but get only seven Monday through Thursday, you've accumulated four hours of sleep debt; however, you need to make up only two. In other words, you only need to "pay back" about half, explains Dr. Collop. If you're getting your winks but still don't feel rested, your sleep may be disrupted. Try to keep dinners light, cut off alcohol after 7 p.m., and exile fidgety pets from your bedroom.
"Young women often think they don't need one, because they're not worried about heart disease," says Paula Johnson, MD, a cardiologist and chief of the division of women's health at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. "But a gynecologist isn't likely to test your cholesterol, which is a must no matter what your age." An internist can also tell you if your levels are normal. (What's healthy depends on a number of factors, but across the board, HDL, the "good cholesterol," should be over 50 for women.) Once you know that your scores are within a healthy range, you should be good to go for the next five years.
"Even when you sit in nonsmoking areas, you're still breathing in toxins -- and there is no safe level of exposure," says David Coultas, MD, of the University of Texas Health Center at Tyler.Skip the Cola
Women who down more than three servings a week have lower bone density (a marker for osteoporosis) than those who drink less. "The body draws out calcium to buffer the phosphoric acid in cola," explains Katherine Tucker, PhD, of Tufts University in Boston.Take a Brisk 30-Minute Walk
A recent study confirmed that regular aerobic exercise (three hours a week) increases brain volume in older adults, which translates to better concentration and memory. "In younger people, this can help stave off mental decline, which starts in your 20s," says Arthur Kramer, PhD, of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.Turn Down Your MP3 Player
Prefer your music cranked? You could be risking eventual hearing loss. If you use your MP3 player for up to four hours a day, listen at 70 percent of the maximum volume, tops, says Brian Fligor of Children's Hospital Boston.Hold Hands
When it's with someone you're close to, like your partner, holding hands can decrease activity in the parts of the brain that release harmful stress hormones, says Jim Coan, PhD, of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Heck -- give 'em a hug!
Next: more tips on how to live longer!
Originally published in FITNESS magazine, February 2007.