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Rehab Your Bad Habits Now

It's never too late to undo the damage from your former smoking, sunning, or couch-potato ways. Learn how to reverse the effects for a healthier future.

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Christopher Gallo
Woman in a pink hat and bathing suit
Joseph Montezinos
Christopher Gallo
Karen Pearson
Christopher Gallo
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The Crime: You were a couch potato until you hit your thirties.

It would have been great if you had gotten the exercise bug in your twenties, but don't sweat it. Evidence shows that you'll get health benefits no matter when you start, according to Alpa V. Patel, PhD, an epidemiologist for the American Cancer Society. Case in point: Women who work out regularly -- even if they started later in life -- slash their risk for breast cancer by 25 to 30 percent, according to a recent study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. You can expect a slew of other health perks, too: stronger bones, a brighter mood, and a reduced risk for heart attack, stroke, and diabetes.

Your rehab plan: Now that you're moving, the trick is to make your new workout kick stick. Whenever you feel like reverting to your lazy days, remember how being active improves your life right now, suggests Michelle Segar, PhD, associate director for the University of Michigan Sports, Health and Activity Research and Policy Center for Women and Girls in Ann Arbor. Her studies show that women are more likely to keep up their routine when they focus on the immediate payoffs, such as less stress, higher energy levels, and a more positive outlook. "As a result of regular exercise, you're more likely performing well at work, being a better parent, and not snapping at your spouse," Segar says. "When you think about it that way, it's easier to stay motivated."

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The Crime: In high school you were tanner than Snooki.

If you spent the summers of your youth at the pool and winters in the tanning booth, you soaked up enough ultraviolet rays to weaken the collagen in your skin, promoting discoloration and wrinkles, and to lower your body's ability to repair the cell damage that causes skin cancer. "The skin never forgets what you did to it in high school or college," says Patricia Farris, MD, a dermatologist in Metairie, Louisiana. "But the damage is cumulative, so you often don't see it all until you're in your forties or fifties."

Your rehab plan: Choose cleansers and moisturizers containing vitamin C, peptides, and botanical antioxidants, ingredients that will help improve your skin's appearance, Dr. Farris says. Also add retinol, a form of vitamin A that repairs sun-damaged skin, to your arsenal. Drugstore products may not be powerful enough to make a difference, says Dr. Farris, who suggests seeing a dermatologist for a prescription cream such as Retin-A. While you're there, get a full-body skin cancer check so your doc can look for and examine any suspicious moles and growths. Remember to apply SPF 30 religiously to your face, neck and other areas of exposed skin every day. Sunscreen can reduce your risk for melanoma, the most dangerous type of skin cancer, by at least 50 percent, a recent study found.

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The Crime: You never missed a concert, and now you like to crank up your iPod.

Fifteen percent of adult Americans have hearing loss due to noise exposure, according to the National Institutes of Health. Loud sounds damage the tiny hair cells in the inner ear that are responsible for converting sound waves into electrical impulses. Often the loss is gradual, so you don't even notice it at first. But because it's also cumulative, it pays to protect your ears from further harm by avoiding loud and prolonged noises, like blaring music or the pounding of jackhammers.

Your rehab plan: Use foam or silicone earplugs, available at drugstores, while vacuuming or drying your hair, says Ron Eavey, MD, chair of the department of otolaryngology at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville. Most blow-dryers produce sounds at around 90 decibels (the same as a motorcycle!); anything above 85 can induce hearing loss. Check out quieter models, such as the Centrix Q-Zone Quiet Dryer from Cricket ($180, ulta.com) or the T3 Featherweight ($200, sephora.com), which emit around 70 decibels of noise.

Pack a pair of musicians' earplugs ($2 and up, earplugstore.com), which reduce the volume of music without distorting its sound, whenever you go to concerts. It's wise to wear them at the gym, too. Researchers at Wichita State University in Kansas found that many health clubs blast music at more than 100 decibels during fitness classes. If you usually play Gaga at full volume on your MP3 player, dial it down. "Halfway on the volume control is a safe place to be," says Cameron Cowan, an audiologist at Midwest Hearing Consultants in Geneva, Illinois. Limit headphone use to a few hours a day, she advises.

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The Crime: You used to smoke a pack a day.

Congrats on kicking butts! You gain health benefits almost as soon as you ditch the habit. Within 12 hours of your final cigarette, your blood oxygen levels, which plummet when you smoke, return to normal, and within two days, your senses of smell and taste return. Within a year, your elevated risk of coronary heart disease, heart attack, and stroke due to smoking drops to less than half of what it had been when you still puffed. And after a smoke-free decade, your risk for death from lung cancer will be 50 percent less than that of a pack-a-day smoker.

Your rehab plan: Pump up your lungs by eating right. "A diet rich in antioxidants -- especially leafy greens, like spinach, kale, and collards -- boosts lung health by stopping free radical damage," says Norman Edelman, MD, president of the American Lung Association. Toss a handful of baby spinach into omelets, stir-fries, or salads, and use collards or kale leaves as wraps for burritos and sandwiches.

If you still light up occasionally, commit to a combination of support programs -- such as behavioral therapy, in which you learn to avoid your smoking triggers -- and medications, Dr. Edelman says. Quitters are about 40 percent more likely to succeed when they use medication in combination with counseling rather than a solo method, research found. And keep up your cardio workouts. "Strenuous exercise generates endorphins, which might control cravings, plus it helps tone the cardiovascular system, so your lungs don't have to work as hard to deliver oxygen," Dr. Edelman says. Yoga also helps women quit, according to a new study in the Journal of Women's Health.

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The Crime: You gained 25 pounds during pregnancy and never lost it all.

Failing to shed the extra pounds raises your risk for obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. "It can also cause complications for subsequent pregnancies," says Patrick M. Catalano, MD, former chair of obstetrics and gynecology at Case Western Reserve in Cleveland. Being overweight increases your chances for miscarriage, preeclampsia, gestational diabetes, and difficulties during labor. And it ups the odds that your baby will become overweight and develop health issues like diabetes in childhood.

Your rehab plan: If you're hoping to have another baby, schedule a preconception health checkup. Your ob-gyn can test your insulin level to determine your risk -- and your infant's -- for developing diabetes. Your doc can also advise you on how to reach your ideal baby-making weight and tell you what is a healthy amount for you to gain during your next pregnancy. Normal-weight women (those with a BMI of 18.5 to 24.9) should gain 25 to 35 pounds; overweight women (a BMI of 25 to 29.9), 15 to 25 pounds; and obese women (a BMI of 30 or above), only 11 to 20 pounds.

As for losing the postpartum pounds, avoid junk food and get back into a routine of regular physical activity. Start by sneaking in small bursts of movement throughout the day. For example, gently dance with your infant, suggests Anita Weil Bell, author of Get Your Body Back. Make time for your own workouts, too.

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The Crime: You drank like a fish.

A drink a day is good for your heart. Enjoy more than that, though, and the health risks start to add up. Having just two alcoholic drinks daily increases your odds for breast cancer. Three a day over time can damage your liver and impair your memory. Excessive consumption is also linked to other cancers, heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, and diabetes. "Women are much more susceptible to the harmful effects of alcohol, such as liver damage, than men are," says David Sack, MD, CEO of Promises Treatment Centers in California. "That's because alcohol is distributed in the body's water, and women have less water in proportion to their weight than men."

Your rehab plan: Luckily, damage to the liver or brain is often reversible if you simply stop drinking. And in many cases, the progression of diseases related to alcohol use (except for cancer) can be stopped or slowed by avoiding alcohol, Dr. Sack says. If you're worried about your liver, ask your doctor for an alanine aminotransferase (ALT) blood test, which identifies damage to the organ. Overimbibing repeatedly also depletes certain vitamins, especially A, B (in particular, thiamine, or B1), and C, and minerals, such as calcium and iron. So have your doc check your levels of these; if they're low, talk to her about taking supplements. And make sure to get your mammogram once a year starting at age 40.

Originally published in FITNESS magazine, March 2012.

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