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Bad Habits Gone Good


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.

More Not-So-Bad Habits

Bad habit: "I wash my hair about as often as I change my sheets."
— Heather Muir, beauty director

Surprise payoff: Shinier strands and fewer trips to the salon. "Hair is a fiber, like wool, so you can't expect to wash and iron it daily without it losing some of its shape or strength," says Paradi Mirmirani, MD, a dermatologist in Vallejo, California. Frequent shampooing can also cause color treatments to fade more quickly.

So how often should you wash? Let your scalp be your guide, Dr. Mirmirani says. If it's dry, wash your hair a couple times a week. If it's oily, try sudsing up every other day. And if you can't bear to go 48 hours without shampooing, consider using a dry shampoo on off days; it absorbs sebum without washing it away completely, which prevents your oil glands from producing excess.

Bad habit: "Make breakfast before my morning run? Yeah, right."
— Bethany Gumper, senior editor

Surprise payoff: A slimmer middle. Some people can't exercise on an empty stomach because it makes them feel light-headed or nauseated. And if you're training for a competition, like a marathon or a triathlon, pre-sweat session fuel can maximize your performance. But if you're working out to drop pounds or maintain your weight loss, hitting the gym before eating breakfast could help you score better results.

Belgian researchers discovered that when study subjects consumed a high-fat, high-calorie diet for six weeks, those who exercised before chowing down didn't gain weight. Scottish researchers also found that pre-breakfast exercisers expended, on average, 33 percent more calories during their workout. One explanation: "When you're fasting, you have to burn fat rather than food in order to get energy," explains Jonny Bowden, PhD, a weight-loss coach and the author of Jonny Bowden's Shape Up Workbook.

Bad habit: "I haven't sat still since my last root canal."
— Samantha Shelton, associate web editor

Surprise payoff: Less time on the treadmill. "Fidgeting speeds up your metabolism by stimulating neurochemicals and hormones that increase the body's ability to turn stored fat into energy," explains Michael Mantell, PhD, a senior fitness consultant for the American Council on Exercise.

Not a natural fidgeter? Attach specific behaviors to everyday activities, like doodling during meetings or tapping your feet as you watch TV. Researchers at the Mayo Clinic found that small movements while sitting can help you torch up to 54 percent more calories.

Originally published in FITNESS magazine, May 2014.