Skip the 11 o'clock news, respect your mouth and 18 other stay-healthy musts
You've heard it before: Eat a healthy diet, exercise and don't smoke, and you'll add years to your life. In fact, one study found that more than half of all deaths from chronic diseases among women could be avoided by following these commonsense strategies. But there's more to good health than just these basic tenets. "There are many surprisingly simple things you can do to improve your health," says Michael Roizen, MD, chief wellness officer at the Cleveland Clinic. "It's up to you to make smart choices on a daily basis." Doctors give their best advice for keeping you in the pink.
Learn How to Relax
You can't always control when stress hits, but you can control how you handle it, says David L. Katz, MD, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center. The key is to first acknowledge its presence. When you feel the anxiety coming on, give yourself a brief time-out. Do some deep breathing--inhale through your nose for five full counts, then exhale through your mouth for five full counts--until you start to feel calmer. To counteract chronic stress, like a demanding job, build in ways to blow off steam. "Not everyone relaxes by doing yoga or meditating-a brisk walk or smashing a tennis ball might be better," says Dr. Katz. "Just figure out what works for you."
Know Your Resting Heart Rate
It could help your doctor identify if you're at an increased risk of having a heart attack. In a study of nearly 130,000 postmenopausal women with no history of heart disease, researchers found that those whose hearts beat the fastest at rest were 26% more likely to have a coronary event--independent of other factors like whether they smoked or exercised. To find your resting heart rate, spend an extra minute in bed when you first wake up (hey, it's a good excuse!) and feel your pulse either on your wrist or neck. Count for 30 seconds and multiply by 2; for best results, do it three days in a row and take an average. If it's above 75, talk to your doc.
...And Your Waist Size
The larger it is, the greater your risk of heart trouble, finds a recent study from Harvard and the Karolinska Institute in Sweden of more than 80,000 women and men. Researchers blame abdominal fat, which is associated with cardiovascular disease risk factors such as high blood pressure, high blood sugar, high cholesterol and high triglycerides. In the study, every 4-inch increase in women's waist size was associated with a 15% higher risk for heart disease--even in people who were at a healthy weight. "A waist size above 35 inches in a woman (and over 40 in men) is a potential risk factor, not only for heart disease but also for other conditions including diabetes," notes Nieca Goldberg, MD, clinical associate professor of medicine, medical director of New York University's Women's Heart Program, and author of Dr. Nieca Goldberg's Complete Guide to Women's Health.
Respect Your Mouth
Floss and brush daily and you'll be rewarded with more than just a bright smile. "Your oral health has a major influence on your systemic health," says Dr. Roizen. "The same bacteria that cause gum disease in your mouth can set off an immune reaction that may lead to wrinkles, heart disease and even stroke." Several studies have linked periodontal disease to an increased risk of heart disease (some speculate that gum disease may cause chronic inflammation, which can in turn cause swelling around the arteries).
Drink Tap Water
Most bottled water isn't just expensive and bad for the environment. It also typically doesn't contain fluoride, which can help prevent tooth decay. Can't stand the taste of tap? Use a carbon filter, which helps remove pesticide residue and other chemicals.
Skip the 11 O'clock News
The economy, war, a rainy forecast: No wonder the nightly news can leave you feeling unsettled, which can make it tough to fall asleep. And that can spell trouble for your health. "Getting good sleep is crucial to keeping your entire body running smoothly," says Dr. Katz. One recent study found that people who got less than seven hours of shut-eye are almost three times more likely to get sick after exposure to a cold virus than those who slept eight hours or more. Other studies have associated poor sleep with everything from obesity to high blood pressure and diabetes. If you can't doze off without a little TV time, watch something funny--just make sure you turn it off in time to get a solid seven to nine hours of rest.
Volunteer for a Cause You're Passionate About
You'll do good not just for others, but for yourself, too. Numerous studies have shown that volunteering has significant health benefits, including reduced rates of depression and greater life satisfaction. And you don't have to be Mother Teresa: A little giving of your time and energy goes a long way. One study showed that people who did just 40 hours of volunteer work yearly lived longer. It's also a great way to stay connected to your community. Get a group of friends together and help clean up a local park, visit a nursing home or organize a fundraiser. Socializing has been associated with lower risk of depression, Alzheimer's, and overall better mental and physical health.
Get Familiar with "C"
As in c-reactive protein, a marker of inflammation (checked with a blood test) that experts think may play a role in the formation of clots that block the flow of blood to the heart. Researchers in the landmark JUPITER study of more than 17,000 women 60 and older and men 50 and older found that those who had normal cholesterol levels but slightly elevated levels of c-reactive protein reduced their risk of heart attack and stroke by taking a statin--meaning that CRP levels may be worth keeping tabs on. However, keep in mind that experts are still trying to figure out CRP's exact role, and whether or not it directly causes heart disease or is a sign that it's developing. "Men and women in this age group with normal cholesterol should ask their doctors about CRP," says Dr. Goldberg.
"Mountains of research show the benefits of vitamin D," such as lowering the risk of osteoporosis, "but many women don't know their levels," says Marjorie Jenkins, MD, executive director of the Laura W. Bush Institute for Women's Health in Amarillo, Texas. And 60% of American women are deficient, whether they live in Boston or sunnier climes like San Diego. (Your body produces D when it's exposed to sunlight.) Because D is fat-soluble, you can get too much of it--so ask your doc to check your levels before you start taking a supplement.
Treat Your Body as Well as You Treat Your Car
"Just as your car needs regular checkups and oil changes to keep it running in top form, you need to practice preventive medicine on a regular basis," says Kimberly McMillin, MD, a physician at Baylor Medical Center in Garland, Texas. That means getting an annual physical with a Pap smear; clinical breast exam; mammogram (for women 40-plus, younger if you have a family history of breast or ovarian cancer); and glucose, cholesterol and blood pressure checks. For more individualized screening recommendations on everything from hearing loss to heart disease, check out the U.S. Preventive Service Task Force's recommendations.
Reapply Sunscreen-and Make Sure You're Using Enough
A few dabs of daily moisturizer with sunscreen on your face offers about as much protection as an umbrella in a hurricane. Even when we're applying it to the rest of our bodies, most of us use only 25% to 50% of the correct amount (about 1 ounce, or a full shot glass). Choose a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15 that protects against UVA and UVB rays. Put it on about 15 to 30 minutes before you go outside, then reapply every two hours or after swimming or sweating heavily.
Don't Keep Bedroom Troubles to Yourself
Haven't been in the mood lately? Tell your doc, and don't be embarrassed, because low libido is often treatable. "Having a healthy sex life figures into your overall well-being, both physically and emotionally," says Lisa Masterson, MD, an obstetrician and gynecologist in Santa Monica, California, and a staff member at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Having sex once or twice a week has been linked to higher levels of the immune-boosting antibody immunoglobulin, and one Scottish study found that people who had sex regularly (at least once every two weeks) responded better to stressful situations--their blood pressure didn't go up too high-than those who didn't. Even simple snuggle time can count: Another study found that frequently hugging your partner can help reduce blood pressure and heart rate.
Think of Your Home as Your Gym
Everyday activities, from gardening to housework, can add up to substantial exercise-and health benefits. In fact, you'll burn as many calories doing basic household tasks like vacuuming and carrying groceries as you would going for a brisk walk. And every little bit counts. "As long as you're doing some form of activity for a total of 30 minutes a day, you'll improve your health," says Dr. McMillin.
Know Your Family Health History
The genes you inherited play a large role in your risk of disease, so gathering the details of your family's medical history and sharing them with your doctor can help her figure out which lifestyle habits and screening tests are key to your good health, says Sandra Adamson Fryhofer, MD, an internist and clinical associate professor of medicine at Emory University in Atlanta. Take some time to map your family tree--at least a couple of generations back--noting any significant diseases among your siblings, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, great-aunts and greatuncles, at what age they got sick and how long they lived with the condition. You can easily do this online at FamilyHistory.HHS.gov.
Keep a list of your allergies and medications (both prescription and OTC) in your wallet in case of emergency. At home, start a health folder and keep a record of the dates and results of your most recent medical exams so you know when it's time to schedule new ones. Also keep notes of when your prescriptions are up for renewal and whether you've had any adverse reactions.
Get Your Flu Shot
Swine flu scares aside, an annual dose of the influenza vaccine will go a long way toward keeping you healthy all year long. "Research shows getting a flu shot decreases hospitalization from so many conditions that can arise as a result of the flu, including asthma, pneumonia and even cardiovascular disease, by 25%," says Dr. Roizen.
Stretch It Out
A few minutes of stretching a day can greatly improve your overall range of motion, which not only makes everyday tasks like reaching for the top shelf in the pantry easier but also reduces back or knee pain. "We spend so much time today hunched over computers, on the phone or in our cars that we forget to give our muscles a chance to lengthen and relax," says Dr. Fryhofer. The perfect time to stretch? When your muscles are already warm, like when you've finished doing some basic household tasks (vacuuming, carrying laundry or scrubbing the kitchen). Do some simple stretches for your hamstrings, glutes, quads, calves, shoulders, chest and back. Go to WomansDay.com/Stretch for a few.
Don't Discount Hormone Therapy
If you're early in menopause (in your 50s), Hormone Therapy (HT) may not be the demon you think, says Dr. Fryhofer. "It's not for everyone, but for the right person and the right reason, hormones may be the right answer." In 2002, the Women's Health Initiative study reported that there were more drawbacks to HT than benefits. Today, while some doctors don't advise using HT long-term, there may be a role for using it short-term to relieve uncomfortable symptoms and boost bone health.
Make Friends with Bacteria
Your digestive system needs "good" bacteria to keep the "bad" kind at bay. Some studies have shown that these positive bacteria (also known as probiotics) can help lower the risk of conditions like irritable bowel syndrome and vaginal yeast infections. But you may need more than just a few spoonfuls of yogurt to get the benefits. "Supplements--especially the live version, available in spore form--have a better chance of getting into your gut," notes Dr. Roizen, who recommends brands like Align or Sustenex.
Go Low-Tech-At Least Sometimes
The constant buzz of your cell, PDA or other seemingly indispensable device can be doing you more harm than good. "It's a disruption that can add significant stress to your life," says Alice Domar, PhD, executive director of the Domar Center for Mind/Body Health in Waltham, Massachusetts, and author of Be Happy Without Being Perfect. If you find yourself paying more attention to your phone than to your family, or your heart speeds up whenever you see that flashing message light, take a BlackBerry break for a few hours (or even days).