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Bad Habits Gone Good

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Here at FITNESS, we've sipped beet juice, sweated our way through wacky workouts, and slathered on the newest sunscreens, all in the name of better health. And though we try to practice what we preach, no one's perfect. So we confessed our sins to health writer Melinda Wenner Moyer. She reported back with some surprising news: Our "vices" could make us fitter, slimmer, and happier. Read on for the surprising reasons that living a little can have big benefits.

Not So Bad After All

Bad habit: "Might as well face it -- I'm addicted to chocolate."
-- Pam O'Brien, executive editor

Surprise payoff: Mood boost. You already know that dark chocolate can lower your blood pressure and "bad" LDL cholesterol. But it's also good for your well-being: People who sipped a daily drink containing the polyphenol equivalent of one to two ounces of dark chocolate (that's about half of a large high-quality chocolate bar) for 30 days reported feeling calmer and more content than those who received none at all.

"It may be that the plant-based chemicals in dark chocolate activate neurotransmitters in the brain that cause a slight reduction in anxiety," explains Con Stough, PhD, a cognitive neuroscientist at Swinburne University of Technology. Buy bars made with at least 70 percent cocoa solids (sometimes listed as "cacao"); generally, the higher the percentage, the more of these chemicals are in the chocolate.

Bad habit: "The last time I did a crunch was in PE class."
-- Lisa Haney, senior editor

Surprise payoff: More energy for exercises that actually work. When researchers at San Diego State University put 13 ab exercises to the test, they found that crunches were one of the worst in terms of how hard they worked the obliques and the rectus abdominus, a long muscle that extends down the front of the abdomen.

What's more, crunches don't "efficiently prepare the abdominal muscles for the role they predominantly play in real life, which is to brace and stabilize the spine," says Jessica Matthews, an assistant professor of exercise science at Miramar College. Instead, crunches repeatedly bend the spine, "which can cause back pain, the breakdown of spinal disks and possibly disk herniation." For flat abs, she recommends doing stabilizing moves like planks.

Bad habit: " Gossip Girl was pretty much modeled after me."
-- Juno DeMelo, nutrition editor

Surprise payoff: Good Samaritan status. Your mom always told you that it was rude to talk about people behind their back, but it may help prevent bad behavior. "Someone who's planning on behaving selfishly or unfairly might think twice if they know that others will gossip about them," explains Matthew Feinberg, PhD, a researcher at Stanford University. Case in point: A Dutch study found that people were more generous around gossipers. Steer clear of assigning motive or blame; experts say that sharing info in a neutral way encourages constructive criticism.

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