It only takes a few minutes a day to dramatically improve your health. And with our list of fun and easy good-for-you habits, you’ll want to get started right away.
Yeah, yeah — you know that exercising and eating right should be at the top of your daily to-do list. But let’s face it: Some days there’s barely enough time to sprint from the car to the pizza parlor to grab a pie to go. We’re in no way suggesting you abandon those bigger long-term health goals, but we would like to help you by giving you these 22 simple, science-backed steps that you can take today— and every day — to live a longer, healthier, happier life. And don’t let the small nature of these lifestyle tweaks fool you: They’re proven to have a major impact on your health.
Buy a bouquet.
Looking at flowers can put you in a brighter mood, research from Rutgers suggests. In three different studies, receiving flowers was shown to have both immediate and long-term positive effects on emotional outlook.
Go overboard on sunscreen.
Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in this country, but it is largely preventable. While you definitely want to use a broad-spectrum sunscreen (which blocks both UVA and UVB rays) with an SPF of 15 or higher, slathering on enough sunscreen is actually the most important factor for determining how effectively a lotion works, according to a study published in The Lancet. If you’re spending a full day on the beach, aim to go through a whole small 3- to 5-oz tube. In winter months when UV rays are weaker, applying an SPF moisturizer to your face and other exposed skin in the morning or before you head outdoors is probably enough. But know that there’s no hard evidence that sunscreen protects against malignant melanoma, which is the deadliest form ofskin cancer, so your best protection is to minimize direct sun exposure and wear protective clothing in addition to lubing up.
Have oatmeal for breakfast.
Why? For starters, it may help you shed unwanted pounds: In one study, participants who had oatmeal for breakfast ate 30 percent fewer calories at lunch compared to those who had cornflakes. Oats are complex carbs, so they digest slowly and keep blood sugar steady, which fends off hunger and may help control type 2 diabetes. Oatmeal also acts like a sponge during digestion by soaking up excess cholesterol for faster excretion, which can lower risk of heart disease, says Dee Sandquist, R.D., an American Dietetic Association spokesperson.
Play some head games.
Keeping your mind stimulated boosts memory and brainpower and slashes your risk of developing dementia nearly in half, according to a study conducted at the University of New South Wales in Australia. Look for fun ways to challenge your brain: Try to memorize the phone numbers programmed into your mobile phone and make calls without using speed dial; brush your teeth or try using chopsticks with your nondominant hand; mentally tally the total cost of your groceries as you put each item in the shopping cart; or start a monthly trivia game night with friends.
Turn the tube off during dinner.
You already know that watching television at mealtime can lead to mindless eating and subsequent weight gain. Now, a study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association suggests that families glued to the TV at dinnertime eat fewer fruits and veggies during the meal. To protect your family’s health— and their waistlines — move the TV out of the kitchen and put it near the treadmill instead.
Cook with herbs and spices.
Flavoring recipes with fresh herbs and spices rather than cooking with the old standbys — salt, butter, and sugar — can cut sodium, fat, and calories and improve a food’s overall health benefits, says Suzanna Zick, N.D., a naturopathic physician at the University of Michigan. “Many herbs such as thyme and oregano are similar to green, leafy vegetables in that they’re high in vitamins and minerals,” says Zick. Seasonings such as saffron and basil are believed to contain cancer fighters, and “warming” or spicy herbs such as nutmeg and black pepper may also help lower blood pressure.
Treat yourself to dark chocolate.
For years, experts have touted chocolate’s ability to help fight cancer and protect your heart. The latest good news: Enjoying about 30 calories of dark chocolate a day (one or two dark chocolate Hershey’s Kisses) can help lower your blood pressure enough to reduce your risk of dying from heart disease by 5 percent and of stroke by 8 percent, according to a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Switch to whole-wheat bread and brown rice.
Let go of your nostalgia for the refined white stuff you grew up on — it’s basically an empty-calorie food that takes your blood sugar for a roller-coaster ride. Whole grains, on the other hand, contain slow-digesting complex carbs that help keep blood sugar levels steady, plus they’re high in fiber, which has been shown to decrease your risk of heart disease, diabetes, and some cancers, says Sandquist. Swapping white for whole- wheat bread can also improve regularity and help you feel full faster, so you’re less likely to overeat. Aim for three servings of whole grains a day.
Snack on blueberries.
Compared with more than 40 other fruits and vegetables, blueberries pack the greatest antioxidant punch per serving, according to USDA data. Other research also shows that the antioxidants in blueberries may protect vision and improve motor function and short-term memory. Since berries aren’t in season right now, grab a bag from the freezer section — frozen berries are just as good for you as fresh ones — and toss a handful into your homemade pancake batter or blend them into smoothies.
Lift with your legs.
Women are more likely than men to suffer back pain because we tend to have weaker back muscles, says Miriam Nelson, Ph.D., author of Strong Women, Strong Backs. When you’re heaving heavy items, kneel down to pick them up — don’t bend over from the waist — and clench your abs as you stand up to take the strain off your lower back.
Chew, chew, chew.
Taking the time to thoroughly chew and break up your food makes it easier for your body to extract and absorb nutrients, explains Jack A. Di Palma, M.D., director of the gastroenterology division at the University of South Alabama in Mobile. Plus, keeping food in your mouth longer increases production of saliva, which helps neutralize the stomach acids that cause reflux. And because it takes about 20 minutes for the stomach to signal the brain that you’re full, the more slowly you eat, the fewer calories you’ll likely consume before you’re ready to drop your fork.
Toast with wine.
Red or white, take your pick. The latest research suggests that drinking wine of any hue helps protect against cardio-vascular disease, tooth decay, and upper respiratory infections. But there can be too much of a good thing: Downing two or more alcoholic drinks a day has recently been linked with an up to 82 percent greater risk of developing breast cancer.
Stretch after a hot shower.
Increasing your flexibility with regular stretching can prevent muscle soreness, improve posture, and reduce your risk of injury. “It’s best to stretch when muscles are warm and more elastic, whether from exercising or simply standing under hot water,” says Nelson. She recommends doing the following three post-shower stretches, which target women’s tightest zones (hold each stretch for 20 seconds and repeat three times):
For your lower back: Stand 2 to 3 feet away from a chair and hold on to the back. Keeping your abs tight and your back straight, bend forward at the waist as far as you can comfortably go.
For your calves: Place your hands on a wall in front of you, step your right leg back about 2 feet, and gently press your right heel down; repeat with your left leg.
For your shoulders: Stand with your fingers laced behind your head and gently pull your elbows back.
Cleaning between your teeth helps get rid of the bacteria-laden plaque that causes gum disease and possibly a plethora of other problems, including heart disease, stroke, and premature births.
When nature calls, go!
Even if you feel too swamped to take a two-minute potty break, don’t put it off. “Stagnant urine in the bladder can lead to urinary tract infections in healthy women,” says Jacques Ganem, M.D., a urologist in Charlotte, NC. When you do go, don’t hover over the seat, even in public restrooms. It may cause you to rush and not fully empty your bladder, plus the seat’s not as dirty as you think: Out of 14 different areas in kitchens and bathrooms, the toilet seat was found to be the least contaminated in a study published in the Journal of Applied Microbiology. If you’re still feeling squeamish, wipe the seat with toilet paper and line it before you sit (which, by the way, keeps it dry for the next customer so she can sit down!).
Wash your hands before going to the bathroom.
Think of all the germs you touched while pushing that grocery shopping cart or handling toys at your child’s preschool, says Ganem. To avoid transferring them to your private parts, he advises washing your hands thoroughly for at least 10 seconds before peeing.
Make time for me-time.
The list of reasons why chronic high stress is bad for us seems never ending: It can lead to depression, high cholesterol, and weight gain, to name a few. “You want to keep everyday stress levels low, so that when something really nerve-racking happens, your body’s stress response isn’t over the top,” says Pam Walker, Ph.D., a Dallas-based clinical psychologist. Find regular outlets for blowing off steam, such as yoga, journaling, or having fun with friends.
Take a daily multivitamin.
It’s good health insurance for imperfect diets — which many of us have, says Michael F. Roizen, M.D., author of You: Staying Young. He recommends choosing a multi that contains the following nutrients: vitamin D (800 to 1000 IUs); calcium (600 mg twice a day — you’ll need a separate supplement to meet these needs); magnesium (400 mg); and folic acid (400 mcg; 800 mcg if you’re pregnant or trying to become pregnant).
Sport UV-blocking shades.
“Sun exposure can have significant long-term effects on your eyes and on the sensitive skin around them,” says Elaine Hathaway, M.D., an ophthalmologist in Highland Park, NJ. Some potential risks: cataracts, macular degeneration (the leading cause of blindness in older Americans), and basal cell carcinoma, the most common form of skin cancer. To protect your peepers, look for sunglasses that promise to block 99 to 100 percent of UVA and UVB rays, and wear them year-round since the sun’s rays are damaging even on cloudy and winter days.
Sip white tea.
White tea is gearing up to replace green tea as the ultimate health brew. While both beverages contain cancer-fighting antioxidants called Polyphemus, the leaves and buds used to make white tea undergo less processing than green tea leaves and as a result retain more antioxidant power. Studies have also found that white tea extract may help fight some common bacterial infections, including strep and staph.
Relax the right way before bed.
Sleep deprivation doesn’t just leave us groggy and grumpy — it also puts us at greater risk for obesity, heart problems, depression, and motor vehicle accidents. Unfortunately, more than half of American women get a good night’s sleep only a few times a week, according to the National Sleep Foundation’s 2007 Sleep In America Poll. One likely reason: Eighty-seven percent of us opt to zone out in front of the tube for an hour before bed rather than turning in early, and watching television stimulates the brain, making it harder to fall and stay asleep. To ensure sound slumber, TiVo your favorite late-night shows for later viewing, and crawl into bed.
Snuggle with your honey.
Hugging your partner is linked with higher levels of Oxycontin, a hormone believed to help form sexual and social bonds, plus it lowers your blood pressure, according to research at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Need another excuse to get close? Research shows that women in strong, committed relationships lead happier, healthier lives.