Harvard Women's Health Watch

7 Easy things you can do today for a healthier tomorrow

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Coffee and camaraderie are two easy and
enjoyable ways to boost your health.

The key to making those extra years enjoyable and productive is finding healthful activities you can stick with.

Today you can reasonably expect to live into your ninth decade, and you want to get there in the best shape you can. If you smoked, you've probably stopped, and you know that eating well and exercising regularly will help extend your productive years. But it may be a challenge to stick with a diet or exercise regimen you don't enjoy.

"No matter how good an activity may be for you, you probably won't sustain it if you hate doing it," Dr. JoAnn Manson says. Dr. Manson is chief of the Division of Preventive Medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital, professor at Harvard Medical School, and the lead investigator on several studies on women's health. She offers seven easy steps to better health.

1 Ease into exercise

Regular exercise helps to ward off nearly every degenerative disease, including cognitive decline. "If there were a pill that could do this, people would be clamoring for it," Dr. Manson says.

Although exercise isn't as easy as taking a pill, it doesn't require an enormous commitment. You can start walking as few as five minutes every day and add five more each week. Within two months you'll be logging the recommended amount: 150 minutes a week, or 30 minutes a day five days a week. If walking is painful, try water exercises or cycling.

2 Sleep until you're rested

"Few people can do well with fewer than six hours of sleep a night, and most of us need seven or eight," Dr. Manson says. If you have trouble falling asleep, try these steps:

Wind down as bedtime approaches. Refrain from caffeine and alcohol. Exercise, but not within three hours of bedtime.

  • Establish soothing bedtime rituals. Take a warm bath or shower, read for pleasure, listen to music, or meditate.

  • Make your bedroom a sanctuary for sleeping and sex. Don't let computers, work projects, or television invade that space. Screen out light, and set the thermostat at a comfortable level.

3 Follow a heart-healthy diet

It once seemed as though you had to choose a diet tailored to the disease you were trying to avoid. However, research in the last two decades has indicated that eating to reduce your heart-disease risk also offers protection against diabetes and many cancers. "You can't go wrong if you follow a primarily plant-based diet and minimize red meat, refined carbohydrates, and trans fats," Dr. Manson says. The tips for reducing your LDL cholesterol levels (page 1) will help you stay on the road to good health.

4 Snack selectively

Snacking can be a source of hundreds of extra calories if you head for the bakery or vending machine between meals. Instead, grab a handful of nuts or a piece of fresh fruit, both of which have far fewer calories and far more nutrition than a cookie or bag of chips. The fat in nuts, the water in fruit, and the fiber in both will make you feel full longer.

5 Go for the joe

A cup of coffee is brimful with antioxidants. Since the health benefits observed in most studies came from drinking at least 16 ounces a day, feel free to get a refill or two. But go easy on the extras: while a cup of black coffee has only two calories, a mocha Frappuccino can pack almost 500.

6 Don't shy away from chocolate

Once synonymous with decadence, chocolate has become a wholesome choice. Some forms are full of cocoa flavonols, powerful antioxidants that may help protect against heart disease and cognitive decline. (Dr. Manson and her colleagues are launching a large randomized trial of cocoa flavonol supplements to assess these potential benefits.)

You can enjoy an ounce of chocolate a couple of times a week without risking a weight gain. Cocoa beverages are another option, but white chocolate isn't. It lacks cocoa solids and thus the flavonols.

7 Stay connected

Connectivity begins at home. Physical affection and sexual intimacy raise levels of oxytocin, a hormone that relieves stress and promotes a sense of well-being.

There is also very strong evidence that expanding your social circle leads to better health. But don't get involved just to be involved. Join organizations with people you really like and who share your interests. Book groups and film clubs are great because they provide both camaraderie and intellectual stimulation. Volunteering for community projects can bring you closer to people in different age groups.