Originally published for Better Homes & Gardens by Hallie Levine
Visiting your doctor is just one part of staying healthy. Here are 9 other things you can do on a regular basis to optimize your health.
1. Go Mediterranean.
In the way that you eat, that is. Following a Mediterranean-style diet has been found to lower the risk of heart disease and diabetes. Focus your foods around whole grains, fruits and veggies, legumes and nuts; have fish or seafood at least twice a week; and limit red meat to once a week. When possible, choose heart-healthy fats such as olive oil over saturated fats such as butter. One Harvard study found that people who followed a Mediterranean diet had a 43% lower risk of weight gain and a 35% lower risk of developing metabolic syndrome (a condition that ups the risk of both type 2 diabetes and heart disease).
2. Get moving every day.
Picking up the habit of physical activity is one of the best things you can do for your mood, your memory and your health. Regular exercise can help you manage your weight; lower your risk of heart disease, diabetes and some cancers; and improve your mood. It can also prepare you for good health as you age: it can strengthen bones, lower your risk of falls, improve your memory and even make it more likely that you will live longer. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week, but if you’re not at that level, you can build up to it slowly. No time for exercise? Try to work more physical activity into your day by scheduling walking meetings, taking the stairs instead of the elevator or parking your car at the far end of parking lots. And be sure to talk with your doctor before you start or change your exercise routine, especially if you have a health condition.
3. Snack on dark chocolate, tea and berries.
This trio is particularly rich in flavonoids, and a large European study recently showed that people with the highest flavonoid intake had a significantly reduced risk of type 2 diabetes. What’s more, flavonoids may help reduce inflammation, which is associated with a host of diseases, including cancer. Tea and berries won’t wreak havoc on your healthy eating efforts, but keep the chocolate in check. Look for bars that are at least 70% cacao, and aim to eat no more than 1 ounce (usually a small square) per day.
4. Don’t sit on your duff.
The more you sit, the greater your health risks—even if you regularly hit the gym. Case in point: one study out of Kansas State University found that men who sat more than four hours a day were much more likely to report having a chronic disease such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease or high blood pressure. Get up and walk around at least every half-hour if you’re at a desk all day. Also consider using an exercise ball or backless stool as a desk chair—you’ll work your core muscles, which will keep circulation moving—or set a timer and stand at your work station for at least five minutes every hour.
5. Eat some dark green, leafy veggies every day.
Spinach, kale and other leafy greens have high amounts of lutein and zeaxanthin, two antioxidants that studies show protect your eyes against diseases such as cataracts or macular degeneration. Other good sources include egg yolks, corn, orange peppers, kiwi, grapes and zucchini. Make it easier to load up on these fresh vegetables by joining a CSA or visiting your local farmers’ market regularly.
6. Take a technology timeout.
Research shows that being plugged in 24/7 stresses us out. Compulsive smartphone use has been linked to higher levels of depression and anxiety and lower levels of sleep quality. Being hooked to your computer or phone in the evening can be particularly troublesome: studies show that surfing the web or reading on a computer or tablet screen just before bed can promote wakefulness and affect sleep. Try shutting off your computer in the evenings and limiting phone use. You can also use web-blocking software that limits your screen time. When the weather permits, try leaving the tech inside and heading outside, even if it’s just sitting on your porch, patio or deck. And make the time to connect face-to-face with family and friends—even if you also keep in touch online.
7. Grab a tape measure and check your waist.
Carrying too much fat around your waist (visceral fat) can raise your risk of several health conditions. To keep disease risk low, experts say a measurement of under 35 inches for women and 40 inches for men is best—check yours by wrapping a tape measure around your stomach, just above your hip bones. Research has found that women who have a waist circumference over 37 inches have an 80% higher risk of various conditions, including heart disease and cancer. The best way to keep your number in check: regular exercise—ideally, 45 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity three times a week, and three 15- to 20-minute sessions of resistance training.
8. Be sure to get your vitamin D.
Many Americans have too-low levels of vitamin D, and that’s been linked to a higher risk of many diseases. At your next checkup, have your levels tested so you can figure out how much D you need to take. While you can get some D from foods, it’s usually not enough: 3 ounces of salmon has about 7 micrograms, a cup of fortified OJ about 3 mcg and a cup of nonfat milk about 3 mcg. The recommended Daily Value of vitamin D for adults is 20 mcg. Because vitamin D is fat-soluble, experts advise taking it with a meal containing fat, ideally the largest meal of the day. If you live in a sunny climate, ask your doctor whether you should decrease your vitamin D supplementation in the sunny months—vitamin D can be synthesized from sun exposure.
9. Don’t sweat your water intake.
While water is crucial for your overall health, you don’t necessarily have to schlep a water bottle everywhere. While guidelines generally recommend about six to eight glasses per day, the right amount of water for you will depend on your body size, how active you are and the climate you live in. A good guide is to drink liquids with most meals and rely on your thirst to tell you when you need more water. Not getting enough water can affect your energy levels, bring on headaches or even make it harder to think. When you’re aiming to meet your water needs, remember that fruits and veggies, soups and most beverages, including coffee and tea, can all help you hydrate. (Studies show that the fluid in caffeinated beverages compensates for their diuretic effect.)