Disregard them, and you may well be taking a big gamble with your mental and emotional well-being.
By Dulce Zamora WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD
There are 13 ways to boost your chances of living a happy, healthy life. More can be added to this list, but, for simplicity’s sake, we’ll stick with this typically unlucky number.
Instead of bringing misfortune, however, the 13 habits promise a life of vigor and vivacity. There are, of course, no guarantees, but many of the practices mentioned here have been published in scientific journals. Disregard them, and you may well be taking a big gamble with your mental and emotional well-being.
HEALTHY HABIT NO. 1: EAT BREAKFAST EVERY MORNING
Breakfast eaters are champions of good health. Research shows people who have a morning meal tend to take in more vitamins and minerals, and less fat and cholesterol. The result is often a leaner body, lower cholesterol count, and less chance of overeating.
“That one act [of eating breakfast] seems to make a difference in people’s overall weight,” says Melinda Johnson, RD, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association (ADA). She says breakfast can hold off hunger pangs until lunchtime and make high-calorie vending machine options less enticing.
Not only that, researchers at the 2003 American Heart Association conference reported that breakfast eaters are significantly less likely to be obese and get diabetes compared with nonbreakfast eaters.
Another study in the International Journal of Food Science and Nutrition showed that people who consumed breakfast cereal every day reported feeling better both physically and mentally than those who rarely ate cereal in the morning.
For kids, breakfast appears to enhance alertness, attention, and performance on standardized achievement tests, reports the ADA.
To get the full benefits of breakfast, the Mayo Clinic recommends a meal with carbohydrates, protein, and a small amount of fat. They say that because no single food gives you all of the nutrients you need, eating a variety of foods is essential to good health.
Yet, even with so much scientific support that breakfast does the body good; many people still make excuses not to eat in the morning. They include not having enough time and not feeling hungry. For these people, Johnson suggests tailoring breakfast to the day.
“When I’m getting ready in the morning, I don’t really want to take the time to eat breakfast because that would mean sacrificing sleep,” says Johnson. “So I bring my breakfast with me, and I know I have an hour when I’m reading emails in the office when I can eat it. By that time, I’m hungry because I’ve been up for almost a couple of hours.”
HEALTHY HABIT NO. 2: ADD FISH AND OMEGA-3 FATTY ACIDS TO YOUR DIET
The AHA recommends a serving of fish two times per week.
Besides being a good source of protein and a food relatively low in the bad type of dietary fat called saturated fat, fish has omega-3 fatty acids — which have been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease.
Fatty fish such as mackerel, lake trout, herring, sardines, albacore tuna, and salmon, are rich in two kinds of omega-3 fatty acids: eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
Foods such as tofu, soybeans, canola, walnuts, flaxseed, and their oils contain alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which convert to omega-3 in the body. Even though the benefits of ALA are controversial, the AHA still recommends foods containing it as part of a healthy diet.
In addition to their heart-health benefits, there is some evidence that omega-3 fatty acids may also soothe an overactive immune system, says Johnson. Even though this benefit is still being studied, she says there appears to be a link between getting more omega-3s in your diet and reducing allergies, asthma, eczema, and autoimmune disorders.
HEALTHY HABIT NO. 3: GET ENOUGH SLEEP
“Your body has to have enough time to rest,” says Michael Fleming, MD, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP). Otherwise, he says you may find yourself feeling cranky and tired.
This may sound like common sense, but according to the National Sleep Foundation (NSF), more than two-thirds of older adults suffer from sleep problems and many American adults don’t get the minimum amount of shuteye needed to stay alert.
Sleep is vital to good health and to mental and emotional well-being. The NSF reports that people who don’t get enough slumber are more likely than others to develop psychiatric problems and to use health care services. Plus, sleep deprivation can negatively affect memory, learning, and logical reasoning.
Not enough ZZZs can also be hazardous. More than one-half of adult drivers — some 100 million people — say they have driven drowsy in the past year, according to NSF polls. About one out of five of these drivers — 32 million people — say they’ve fallen asleep while driving.
Each year drowsy driving causes more than 100,000 car crashes, 1,500 deaths, and tens of thousands of injuries, reports the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The NSF recommends taking a 15 to 20 minute nap. Because it takes about 30 minutes for the caffeine to work, taking a nap while you wait for the caffeine to kick in can help restore alertness.
To avoid the pitfalls of insufficient sleep, make sure to get at least seven to 10 hours of slumber each night. Kids need more sleep, depending on their age.
HEALTHY HABIT NO. 4: MAKE SOCIAL CONNECTIONS
Volunteer. Go to church. Join a club. Whatever you do, do it with people. Communal activities are good for your physical and mental health, according to a study published in the March/April 2004 issue of the American Journal of Health Behavior.
It makes sense, says C. David Jenkins, PhD, author of Building Better Health: A Handbook of Behavioral Change. He says social ties have many benefits, including:
- Providing information. You may think for instance your frequent nosebleeds, coughing, and sneezing episodes are trivial, but when a close friend or relative hears of it, he or she may encourage you to go to a doctor. If the symptoms turn out to be a serious condition, the social tie could have saved your life.
- Instrumental help. Friends and family can provide physical support in time of need. They may help with cooking, cleaning, running errands, doing grocery shopping, and driving to the doctor’s office.
- Emotional support. Sharing a problem with a trusted person can help alleviate an internal burden. “It’s a load off your chest,” says Jenkins.
- Offering a sense of belonging. This feeling not only helps reinforce a person’s identity, it also assists in preventing and overcoming depression and anxiety.
Community ties also help improve mental functioning, says Fleming. Group activities can help keep the mind active and maintain desirable levels of serotonin — the brain chemical associated with mood. “Lack of social interaction will [decrease] serotonin levels,” says Fleming.
HEALTHY HABIT NO. 5: EXERCISE FOR BETTER HEALTH
We already know that physical activity has a bounty of benefits, which makes it so puzzling why so many people just don’t do it. According to the CDC, more than 60% of Americans do not get regular exercise.
In case you needed an incentive, here is a review of the advantages of exercise, per the National Cancer Institute:
- Helps control weight
- Maintains healthy bones, muscles, and joints
- Reduces risk of developing high blood pressure and diabetes
- Promotes psychological well-being
- Reduces risk of death from heart disease
- Reduces risk of premature death
Studies have also shown a link between exercise and a reduced risk of certain cancers.
Besides its long-term effects, moving your body has immediate benefits, says Cedric Bryant, chief exercise physiologist for the American Council on Exercise. The short-term results of exercise include helping people to think and move better, manage stress, improve mood, and get an energy boost.
The excuses that people often give to not exercise are the precise reasons to exercise, says Bryant. People who say they are too tired or don’t have time to workout don’t realize that exercise gives people more energy and allows them to be more productive with the rest of their time.
HEALTHY HABIT NO. 6: PRACTICE GOOD DENTAL HYGIENE
Flossing your teeth every day could add 6.4 years to your life, according to Michael Roizen, MD, author of RealAge. In his book, Roizen lists flossing as one of the most important daily activities — along with exercise and quitting smoking — that could extend life span.
Roizen’s calculation may raise some eyebrows, but the idea that oral health is connected to overall health isn’t far-fetched.
The mouth, after all, is an integral part of the body. “Teeth have a blood supply, and that blood supply comes from the heart,” says Richard Price, DMD, consumer advisor for the American Dental Association (ADA).
Researchers suspect that the bacteria that produce dental plaque enter the bloodstream. They say these bacteria are somehow associated with the inflammation that occurs with plaque that blocks blood vessels and causes heart disease.
Other researchers have found links between oral bacteria and stroke, diabetes, and the birth of preterm babies and those that have low birth weight.
In addition to preventing disease, flossing and brushing can help keep your pearly whites intact for more than just cosmetic reasons. Teeth help you chew food, speak properly, and smile — which, according to Price, can help you keep your dignity.
HEALTHY HABIT NO. 7: TAKE UP A HOBBY
Look up the word “hobby” in the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, and you will find the definition as “a pursuit outside one’s regular occupation engaged in especially for relaxation.”
Since they are relaxing activities, hobbies are usually enjoyable. Some people find joy in craftwork, bird watching, sports, going to flea markets, walking in the park, or playing cards.
The joy may help people live healthier and recover better from illness. For one thing, taking part in hobbies can burn calories, more so than just sitting in front of the TV.
In a study of people who had undergone surgery, Jenkins found that people who were involved in hobbies before their operation had better recovery six months later, compared with people who did not have hobbies.
The participants with hobbies tended to have more drive and interest in things and other people, says Jenkins. “It was a more active orientation to life.”
HEALTHY HABIT NO. 8: PROTECT YOUR SKIN
Our skin starts to age as soon as we are born and, according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), the best way to protect it and look younger is to stay out of the sun.
The sun has harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays that can cause wrinkles, dryness, and age spots. Overexposure can cause sunburn, skin texture changes, dilated blood vessels, and skin cancers.
Avoiding the sun, however, is not always ideal or practical. To reduce the risk of skin damage, the AAD offers the following tips:
- Always wear sunscreen with SPF 15 or higher.
- Don a hat with a brim and wear other protective clothing.
- Don’t deliberately sunbathe.
- Try to avoid sun exposure between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.
HEALTHY HABIT NO. 9: SNACK THE HEALTHY WAY
The ADA recommends five or more servings of fruits and vegetables a day as part of a healthy diet. These plant foods can do many things to boost good health, including:
- Reduce the risk of some cancers
- Beat the signs of aging
- Improve memory
- Promote heart health
- Enhance the immune system
One way to incorporate fruits and veggies into your diet is to have them as snacks. “If you can do one thing [to improve your health], concentrate on getting fruits and veggies,” says Johnson. “They are low in calories and high in nutrients.”
She says baby carrots and cut-up produce make tasty, convenient munchies. Other healthful snacks include low-fat yogurt and nuts (in moderation).
The best time to snack is when you are hungry between meals, says Johnson. But beware: Cravings could easily be mistaken for hunger cues, especially for people who are dieting.
HEALTHY HABIT NO. 10: DRINK WATER AND EAT DAIRY
Water and milk are essential fluids for good health, but they can also help with shedding pounds.
The body needs water to keep properly hydrated and individuals vary widely in how much water they need. Joints need it to stay in motion, and vital organs such as the heart, brain, kidney, and liver need it to work properly.
If you don’t get enough water, the body goes into emergency mode, and clings to every single water molecule it can find, reports the University of Minnesota Water Resources Center. The stored molecules appear as extra weight. The weight is only released once the body gets enough water.
The calcium in dairy, on the other hand, is known to be important for strong bones and teeth. Studies have also shown it can help prevent high blood pressure, kidney stones, heart disease, and colon cancer.
In the weight loss arena, three 8-ounce glasses of low-fat or fat-free milk appear to encourage body fat loss while maintaining muscle mass, according to the ADA. The dairy consumption must be part of a balanced reduced-calorie meal plan.
HEALTHY HABIT NO. 11: DRINK TEA
“Decaffeinated tea is better,” says Fleming, noting that the caffeinated variety can be dehydrating, and sugary drinks can lead to weight gain.
There is some evidence that tea may help in improving memory, and preventing cavities, cancer, and heart disease. Fleming says, though, that the overall research is still inconclusive.
“There may well be some beneficial effects of tea, particularly the potential antioxidant effect, but we don’t have great data on that right now that is that specific.”
However, there’s no doubt that a cool iced tea can be a refreshing treat during hot days. Try flavoring your tea with juices, fruits, cinnamon sticks, ginger, and other condiments.
HEALTHY HABIT NO. 12: TAKE A DAILY WALK
We already mentioned the merits of exercise in habit No. 5. Now, here’s a tip on how to incorporate physical activity into your daily life: WALK.
We’re not talking about taking the time out of your busy schedule to work out — that’s important, too — but infusing life- and limb-saving movement into your waking hours.
“Just move. Pace during phone calls, while you’re brushing your teeth, while watching your son’s soccer game,” says Bryant, noting that every 20 steps a person takes is 1 calorie burned.
An eight-year study of 13,000 people also showed that people who walked 30 minutes daily had a significantly reduced chance of premature death compared with those who rarely exercised, reports the American Council on Exercise.
And there are plenty of opportunities to move those legs:
- Take the stairs instead of the elevator.
- Walk to the store.
- Window shop at the mall.
- Leave your desk and visit your co-worker instead of sending him an email.
- Walk and talk with friends instead of meeting for a meal.
HEALTHY HABIT NO. 13: PLAN
There is, perhaps, no better word in the English language to better illustrate how you can incorporate healthy habits into your everyday life.
“A little planning goes a long way,” says Johnson. “Eating healthy never happens by accident.”
For the most part, neither do good fitness, skin protection, healthy teeth, weight loss, and social ties. Many of these habits take effort that need to be scheduled into busy lives.
To eat healthy, for example, it would help to set aside time to draft a menu, make a grocery list, go to the store, prepare meals, and pack breakfast and lunch.