When it comes to habits for healthy living, it’s no secret most of us could be doing a lot better. And the fact is, we have to do better.
If you see yourself in these statistics, know that even small changes can make a big difference in your health and how you feel. SUCCESS spoke to Hilary Tindle, M.D., M.P.H., author of the book Up: How Positive Outlook Can Transform Our Health and Aging, to find out the simplest, biggest-bang-for-your-buck ways to improve health, celebrate more birthdays and feel great year after year.
Why not start these healthy habits right away?
1. Believe you can.
It may sound like a simplistic mantra fit for a bumper sticker, but it’s the perfect place to start. And it may be the most important piece of the healthy habits puzzle. After all, optimism is just the expectation that good things will happen in the future—and they will.
“Staying motivated and working toward a health goal entails believing on some level that it’s possible,” says Tindle, an associate professor of medicine at Vanderbilt University. “In a study I published in the journal Circulation, optimists were healthier on a number of important metrics such as body mass index and blood pressure, and after eight years of follow-up, they also had a 16% lower risk of having a first heart attack and a 30% lower risk of death from heart disease.”
What’s so special about optimism? “Our outlook affects our brain activity, our decisions and our daily habits,” Tindle says.
For example, a pessimist in a minor traffic jam may experience a stress response that causes immediate and short-term reactions such as raised blood pressure. In the long term, however, chronic stress can have a negative impact on our physical and mental health. Those less than pleasant situations we find ourselves in throughout the day—like when that jerk cut you off on the highway—may not be as jarring to the mind and body of an optimist: Hey, everybody’s got somewhere to be.
Not a born optimist? Even small adjustments in attitude make a difference.
“One of the best ways to build hopefulness and confidence is to simply remember past successes,” Tindle says. “Your own history is concrete proof that you’ve met goals before and you can do so again.”
One tactic that works well for people who don’t go for “blind” optimism? Go ahead and indulge your inclination to focus on what could go wrong, but don’t stop there—plan to avoid those very pitfalls so you will succeed. Once you train your brain to look on the bright side, you’ll be able to keep thinking along those lines, even in stressful situations.
2. Start the healthy habit of sleeping 8 hours.
Believe it or not, lying in bed for eight hours can help you lose weight. When your body catches z’s and recharges, so does your pancreas. It’s the organ that regulates blood sugar levels and produces glucagon and insulin, which can affect weight.
“In one  study where healthy people slept an average of only four hours a night for six days, their metabolic profiles changed to look like older people with prediabetes,” Tindle says. “They couldn’t clear blood sugar as quickly and had one-third less insulin in their blood than normal.”
While the stomach is the main producer of ghrelin, the pancreas also helps make our “hunger hormone.” Studies show that sleep deprivation spikes levels of ghrelin. The feeling that you’re always hungry after a bad night’s sleep? It’s real.
3. Eat a leaner diet.
Even if you clock eight hours of sleep a night, you might still feel drowsy if your daily diet looks like the Burger King drive-thru menu. A 2019 study published in the journal Nutrients found that the consumption of saturated fats was “positively associated with [excessive daytime sleepiness], with a modest similar association of carbohydrate intake.” The consumption of protein, however, had the opposite effect. A 2020 study, this one performed using rats, found that rats who consumed a high-fat diet not only experienced weight gain, but also “performed poorly on the novel recognition test when compared with the control group,” displaying the potential effects of a high-fat diet on our cognitive abilities.
A bonus benefit of eating lighter fare: Fat has more calories per gram than either protein or carbs. According to the Food and Nutrition Information Center, “carbohydrates provide 4 calories per gram… and fat provides 9 calories per gram,” so you’ll lower your calorie intake and slim down as well. If you want to snack, the healthy habit is to nosh on whole-wheat crackers, air-popped popcorn (no butter!), veggies and fruit.
4. Stop the train of runaway thoughts.
Stress is part of life, but if you don’t manage it, it can wreak havoc on your body and mental state. Target the kind of stress that’s unproductive. The healthy habit is to not worry about things that may not be true or might never come to pass. These figments of our imagination—called “cognitive distortions”—can pop up anytime, anywhere.
“Let’s say you’re at a work party. You wave to your boss across the room, and he glances at you but doesn’t respond,” Tindle says. “Your first reaction might be, He’s mad at me, which is a cognitive distortion—it’s jumping to a conclusion. Then you might go one step further and think, He doesn’t like me…. Lots of people don’t like me—that’s a cognitive distortion, too, overgeneralization.”
If you’re really on a roll, you may think you’re going to get fired. The reality is, your boss may not have seen you, or was in mid-conversation and couldn’t respond. And, yes, there is a chance he is mad at you, but you don’t know that. Meanwhile, your body has geared up for fight or flight. You’re anxious, your breathing is shallow, your blood vessels are constricted and you’re probably not having a very good time at the party.
When you recognize your mind is driving these thoughts, stop, breathe and ask yourself what you know to be true. Then formulate a plan of action: Set up a meeting with your boss on Monday to touch base about your performance.
Until then, raise your glass and enjoy yourself.
5. Hang out with a buddy to build healthy habits.
Research finds that having social support during a stressful time provides a buffer against the effects of psychiatric distress.
“It’s something we intuitively know to be true, but, yes, the stress-buffering and heart-healthy effects of friends have been verified in the laboratory,” Tindle says. And while the size of your social network matters somewhat—those with more friends may feel less lonely and depressed, according to the Survey Center on American Life—what’s most important is the quality of those friendships. Do you trust your friends and feel that they have your back? If so, then they’re keepers.
If you’re not a very social person, consider adopting a pet, which can confer similar health benefits as a human sidekick. A 2019 meta analysis published in the Journal of the American Heart Association finds that owning a dog is linked to a lower mortality risk, one which is possibly due, in part, to the “augmented physical activity provided by dog walking.”
6. Develop a healthy habit for exercise.
There are loads of reasons to make exercise one of your healthy habits. It improves high-density lipoprotein function, has a positive effect on cognitive functioning and can help reduce symptoms of anxiety. Did you know that it’s also a fix for feeling blue?
“Exercise likely increases the brain’s neurotransmitters that make us feel good, and that can help control negative emotions,” Tindle says. The biggest health benefits come from moderate and vigorous workouts—like fast-walking, jogging or cycling at a steady clip.
Not sure you’re pushing it hard enough? You want to work yourself to the point that having a conversation is doable but a bit difficult, when your heart rate is roughly in the 60 to 80% zone of your maximum heart rate. (To calculate maximum heart rate, subtract your age from 220.) Those who are already fit and have checked with a doctor about a tailored exercise plan can push toward even higher levels of exertion.
7. Make eating more fish one of your healthy habits.
A quick science lesson: Researchers have discovered that one sign—and possibly a cause—of aging is shortened telomeres. Telomeres are the specialized ends on our chromosomes, like the plastic ends of a shoelace. They are critical to DNA replication. Our telomeres naturally shorten as we age, and when they get really short, cells stop replicating and die.
The great thing is that there are actions we can take to keep telomeres from shortening, including boosting our consumption of omega-3 fatty acids. These anti-aging fats are most plentiful in fatty fish such as salmon, sardines, tuna and anchovies. Shoot for eating two servings of fish each week, according to the American Heart Association.
8. Quit smoking to overhaul your health.
If there’s one thing that will catapult you from poor health to living the dream, it’s snuffing out the cigarettes. Smokers, you’ve probably heard these stats before, but they bear repeating. Smoking is the “leading cause of preventable disease, disability and death in the United States,” according to the CDC. It’s also a major risk factor for cardiovascular conditions including heart disease, stroke and hypertension, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. That’s the bad news.
The good news: Within just one year of quitting smoking, heart attack risk falls dramatically. Five years after putting out that last cigarette, your risk of mouth, throat and voice box cancers is halved, and your risk of experiencing a stroke is decreased. Within 15 to 20 years, according to the CDC, the risk of coronary heart disease—as well as mouth, throat, voice box and pancreatic cancers—“drops to close to that of someone who does not smoke.”
Use a combination of smoking cessation medication (such as the patch) and coaching, such as 1-800-QUIT-NOW. In a 2020 clinical trial, participants receiving intensive treatment (“4 weekly telephone counseling sessions and medication advice… [alongside] 4 biweekly and 3 monthly telephone counseling sessions and choice of Food and Drug Administration-approved cessation medication”) had a quit rate of 34.5% at a six-month follow-up. In contrast, participants receiving standard treatment (“4 weekly telephone counseling sessions and medication advice”) had a quit rate of 21.5%.
9. Go to the park.
Or just get out in your own backyard. A 2020 study found that, “Greener home neighbourhoods may protect against risk of cardiovascular disease [in older adults] even after accounting for [socioeconomic status (SES)].” Additionally, a 2021 review published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that “green space had greater protective effects for low-SES people and neighborhoods than for more affluent groups,” though the effects were stronger for those in Europe than in North America. The review considered that this may be due to green spaces being of “higher quality in Europe’s low-SES neighborhoods than in North America’s disadvantaged neighborhoods.”
In other words, people in poor communities who don’t often get the best health care and face myriad other barriers to health (such as being unable to afford nutritious food) may close some of that gap simply by spending time in green spaces. And spending time outside is the easiest of the healthy habits you should adopt.
What gives? It’s all about physical activity and stress management, both of which are linked to heart disease. “There’s something about Mother Nature that lowers stress levels,” Tindle says. “And when you’re in nature, you just want to move more.”
10. Reduce how much alcohol you drink.
Cheers probably erupted around the world when scientists discovered alcohol can cut the risk of a heart attack. However, those findings have been contested by a 2022 study published in JAMA. It found that “observed cardioprotective effects of light to moderate alcohol intake may be largely mediated by confounding lifestyle factors.” That is, those whose healthy habits include drinking alcohol in moderation “exhibited healthier lifestyles than abstainers” and heavy drinkers. It was not the alcohol itself providing health benefits. Additionally, a 2022 study published in Nature found that, at least for those in the U.K., “consuming just one alcoholic drink daily (or two units of alcohol)” may have a negative effect on your brain’s gray and white matter volume.
This article was published in August 2013 and has been updated. Photo by Ground Picture/Shutterstock