When it comes to healthy-living habits, it’s no secret most of us could be doing a lot better. The fact is, we have to do better.
According to a new survey of more than 77,000 Americans by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, six in 10 adults are overweight or obese, 20 percent of Americans smoke, and a full third don’t engage in even one leisure-time physical activity.
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., author of the new 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 get started on these healthy tips 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 maybe the most important piece of the get-healthy 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 assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. “In a study I published in the journal Circulation, optimists were healthier on a number of important metrics such as body mass index (BMI) and blood pressure, and after eight years of follow-up, they also had a 16 percent lower risk of having a first heart attack and a 30 percent 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. Optimists are more likely to approach a new diet or exercise program with the assumption that they have a good shot at achieving their goals, and they follow through accordingly.
One research study showed that optimists were also less likely than pessimists to feel stressed out during the day, and chronic, daily stress is health-harming: A pessimist’s reaction to, say, a minor traffic jam—anger, dejection, strong irritation—triggers the “fight or flight” stress response of inflammatory chemicals. They cause a whole host of negative effects, everything from raised blood pressure to constricted breathing (and it happens pretty much every time you have a negative thought!). 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 can reshape neural pathways to help keep you thinking along those lines.
2. Sleep your way slimmer.
Believe it or not, lying in bed for eight hours can help you lose weight. When your body catches zzz’s and recharges, so does your pancreas, the organ that calibrates insulin output, which affects weight.
“In one recent 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 pre-diabetes,” Tindle says. “They couldn’t clear blood sugar as quickly and had one-third less insulin in their blood than normal.”
In that study, a “tired” pancreas couldn’t do its job well without adequate rest, ultimately resulting in an 8 percent drop in metabolism, a dip that could translate into 10 pounds of weight gain a year. The pancreas—along with the stomach—also makes ghrelin, our hunger hormone, and 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. Wake up to 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-through menu. A new study published by the journal Sleep found that people who ate a high-fat diet—fried foods, full-fat dairy, meats and pastries—felt sleepier during the day than those who didn’t indulge. Researchers aren’t sure why, but it may be related to fat’s ability to increase inflammatory substances that signal your body it’s time to go night-night.
A bonus benefit of eating lighter fare: Fat has more calories per gram than either protein or carbs, so you’ll lower your calorie intake and slim down as well. To increase alertness, nosh on carbs instead, which the study found boosted alertness. Just make sure your carbs are whole–grain picks such as whole-wheat crackers, air-popped popcorn (no butter!), veggies and fruit—the fiber in these foods fills you on fewer calories and keeps blood sugar levels and energy even.
Refined carbs such as white-flour crackers, white pasta, white bread and anything sugary will spike blood sugar levels and then cause you to crash and burn.
4. Stop the train of runaway thoughts.
Stress is part of life, but if it’s not managed, it can wreak havoc on your body and mental state. Target the kind of stress that’s unproductive. Don’t worry about things that may not even be true or might never come to pass—these figments of our imagination are called “cognitive distortions,” and they 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.
Research finds that when you have a friend by your side during a stressful time, there’s a drop in cardiovascular reactivity, a term referring to the heart and blood pressure effects of stress (high cardio reactivity is linked to an increased risk of heart disease).
“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 tend to be healthier—what’s most important is the quality of those friendships. Do you trust your friends and feel 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 the same healthy benefits as a human sidekick. A new study from the American Heart Association finds that owning a pet, particularly a dog, is linked to a lower risk of heart disease, in part because of the calming effect of having a furry friend around (as well as the fact that you move more because you have to walk and care for the pet).
6. Exercise for good vibes.
There are loads of health reasons to get exercise—it lowers cholesterol levels, keeps weight in check and sharpens your thinking—but did you know that it’s also an instant 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 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 in the 60 to 70 percent 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. Go fish.
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, and they are critical to DNA replication. Our telomeres naturally shorten as we age, and when they get really short, cells stop replicating, turn “old” and can even become cancerous.
The great thing is there are actions we can take to keep telomeres from shortening, including boosting our consumption of omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA. These anti-aging fats are most plentiful in fatty fish such as salmon (wild salmon has more omega-3s than farmed), sardines, tuna and anchovies. Shoot for eating fish two to three times each week. (To keep telomeres from shortening more, see tip Nos. 1 and 6—a positive outlook and exercise are linked to longer telomeres.)
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 No. 1 cause of preventable death in the United States and the world; it’s a major risk factor for heart disease, stroke and cancer. That’s the bad news. The good news: Within just one year of quitting smoking, you’ve cut your risk of heart disease in half. And by five years after putting out that last cigarette, your risk of heart disease returns to that of a nonsmoker.
Use a combination of smoking cessation medication (such as the patch) and formal counseling, such as 1-800-QUIT NOW. In clinical trials, counseling plus medication has proved to deliver the highest quit rates—about 15 to 25 percent at one year, which is two to three times the quit rate of people who do not use counseling or medication to quit smoking.
9. Go to the park.
Or just get out in your own backyard. A landmark study published in The Lancet found that access to green spaces negated some of the known detrimental health effects of poverty. Between rich and poor people, the poor who had the most access to green spaces also showed the smallest difference in death risk from heart disease. 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) have closed some of that gap simply by spending time with nature.
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. Keep the glass only half full.
Cheers probably erupted around the world when scientists discovered alcohol can cut the risk of a heart attack significantly—25 to 40 percent. But that’s only if you drink in moderation, which is one drink a day for women (5 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer or 1.5 ounces of hard liquor) and two drinks a day for men.
The magic ingredient in these beverages, ethanol, raises your good (HDL) cholesterol. Anything beyond those amounts is considered heavy drinking and can lead to liver problems, sleep issues (alcohol makes it harder to stay in a deep, restorative sleep), and raises your risk for stroke and certain types of cancer (breast, colon, liver). Not to mention, it makes you sluggish and adds non-nutritive calories to your daily total—beer belly alert! Add the fact some people are genetically predisposed to alcoholism, and it becomes easy to see why you want to dial down your dose.