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Make Over Your Health

Getting and staying healthy doesn't have to be completely overwhelming -- or take huge chunks of time out of your already hectic schedule. In fact, changing just a few little things can have a big impact on your overall health and well-being. To get started, try taking one of these steps every day, and by the end of the month you'll have more energy, less stress -- and you may have even dropped a few pounds in the process!

1. Eat a more satisfying breakfast. Instead of running out of the house with a cup of coffee, take 10 minutes to eat breakfast. Your best bet? Jazz up ordinary oatmeal by topping it with antioxidant-rich raspberries or blueberries (use frozen if you can't find fresh) and 2 tablespoons of ground flaxseed, which contains mood-boosting omega-3 fatty acids, possible safeguards against hypertension and heart disease. Not only will you feel full until lunchtime, but you'll get almost half the fiber you need each day in a single meal.

2. Just say no. Resist the people-pleasing urge that plagues most women (and often leaves us angry and resentful) and politely turn down someone's request today. Whether you decline to take on the lion's share of a group project at work or to watch your neighbor's kids, "adding one no a day reduces the anxiety and stress that come from being overcommitted, overscheduled and overwhelmed," explains Rutgers University social psychologist Susan Newman, Ph.D., author of The Book of No: 250 Ways to Say It -- and Mean It (McGraw-Hill, 2006).

3. Snack at the vending machine. Sounds surprising, right? It turns out that you're better off getting treats -- healthy or not -- out of the vending machine than out of a stash in your desk. According to research from Cornell University, people who kept a dish of chocolates on their desks ate almost twice as many as they did when they had to walk to reach the candy. Keep tempting sweets out of sight and you'll be more likely to hit the vending machine (or refrigerator) only when you're truly craving something.

4. Switch your salt for a healthy heart. Trading in your regular salt for a low-sodium, potassium-enriched substitute -- also called "light salt" -- may decrease your risk of heart disease by up to 40 percent, according to a study of nearly 2,000 people published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Adding more potassium to your diet (present in bananas, orange juice, beans and potatoes) and trimming sodium can help regulate blood pressure, says study co-author Wen-Harn Pan, M.D. Another way to slash sodium intake: Swap herbs and spices for salt when seasoning dishes.

5. Prevent period pain without over-the-counter drugs. Skip the ibuprofen, and relax. Take a walk, do some yoga or indulge in a juicy novel during the first two weeks of your cycle to keep monthly cramps at bay. Research in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine found that high stress levels can double your period pain.

6. Turn envy into inspiration. Do you find yourself turning green when you see women who are in great shape or who seem to be able to juggle a thousand tasks with a smile? Jealousy is a self-defeating behavior that can make you seek solace in something potentially destructive, such as alcohol or junk food, says Ellen Langer, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Harvard University. "Rather than envy her, find out how she did it, and try her tips."

7. Plan a trip (and be sure to leave your BlackBerry at home). People who take a vacation each year have a lower overall risk of early death by almost 20 percent and a reduced risk of death from heart disease by as much as 30 percent, according to a study from the psychiatry departments at the University of Pittsburgh and the State University of New York at Oswego. When you take time off, don't stay home to catch up on errands. Experts say travel distances you, literally and figuratively, from your burdens and anxieties, so go on that trip to Paris or that hiking adventure you've always dreamed of.

8. Get high on knowledge. A recent report in the journal American Scientist suggests that learning -- those satisfying "aha" moments -- triggers a cascade of biochemicals that gives the brain a hit of what amounts to natural opium. The greatest hit comes when you expose yourself to something new. Read that long article you skipped in the newspaper today, promise to do a crossword puzzle on your computer ( bestcrosswords.com) or get through one round of sudoku. All these activities will help forestall age-related memory loss.

9. Get vaccinated. If you're 26 or younger, talk to your OB-GYN about the new cervical-cancer vaccine, Gardasil. It helps ward off infection from the human papilloma virus (HPV), which could lead to genital warts and cancer.

10. Sneak calcium into your diet. Many women consume less than half the recommended daily dose of calcium (1,000 mg), and 1 in 2 will suffer an osteoporosis-related fracture in her lifetime. Easy ways to up your calcium: Take a supplement or drink a glass of lowfat milk. Also make sure you get 400 to 1,000 IU of vitamin D a day to aid your body's calcium absorption and to strengthen your bones.

11. Order in Vietnamese -- tonight. High in nutrients and low in calories, Vietnamese cuisine is typically created around lean meats, fish and vegetables that have been grilled or steamed rather than panfried. Commonly used seasonings include cilantro and red chili pepper, both of which are rich in cancer-fighting antioxidants -- and delicious! Steer clear of popular dishes such as deep-fried fish cakes and stuffed chicken drumettes, which are high in fat, cholesterol and calories.

12. Live in the moment. By practicing mindfulness (concentrating on what you're doing right this second instead of everything on your must-do list), research shows that you'll destress and possibly even improve your immune system. A University of Wisconsin study found that all 25 participants who focused on happy moments produced more antibodies to a flu vaccine than those who focused on negative memories. If you need a refresher course, go tobeliefnet.com/story/3/story_385_1.html.

13. Schedule your annual flu shot. October and November are the best times to get the influenza vaccine and, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it's the single best way to stave off infection, blocking the virus in 70 to 90 percent of healthy people under the age of 65. Afraid of needles? If you're 49 or younger and not pregnant, try the nasal-spray version. Skip the vaccine altogether, however, if you have a severe egg allergy (the vaccine contains a small amount of egg protein) or if you have a fever (wait until your symptoms go away).

14. Put aside your work so you can socialize more. Haven't talked to your best friend or sister in weeks? What about that lunch date with your co-worker you keep postponing? Make it a point to stay in touch with your old friends and add some new ones to your social circle. According to research published in the American Sociological Review, women today have fewer confidantes than they did 20 years ago, which could be why we're more stressed, anxious and depressed.

15. Stressed? Take a probiotic. Labeled "good bacteria," probiotics (in supplement form) seem to help prevent and treat stress-induced gastrointestinal problems (cramping, bloating and gas) and diseases like ulcerative colitis. In a new study, researchers affiliated with the University of Toronto fed probiotics to stressed animals and determined that afterward, they had no harmful bacteria in their gastrointestinal tracts. But stressed animals who did not receive probiotics did. Supplements are available at health-food stores and in some supermarkets (many are in the refrigerated aisle) and should be taken as directed. Yogurt is also a good source of probiotics. Check the label to make sure it contains live active cultures -- not all brands do.

16. Beat stress by holding hands. Sounds a bit hokey, we agree, but a new study from the University of Virginia and the University of Wisconsin-Madison shows that married women under stress were soothed by holding their husbands' hands. What's more, the happier the marriage, the calmer they felt.

17. Add beans to your diet. When eaten regularly, any type of bean can dramatically lower your risk of breast cancer. So put a handful of garbanzo beans into your salad, toss some pinto beans in with your rice, make a pot of minestrone (mix kidney beans in with broccoli, kale or your favorite cruciferous vegetable) -- all contain beneficial compounds that protect against cancer.

18. Assess what's in your medicine cabinet. A recent nationwide survey of more than 2,000 people found that nearly half have unknowingly taken a medication past its expiration date. Make a point to check dates before you take anything; it's easy to lose track. Better yet, when you buy a drug, highlight or circle the expiration date right on the package, so it's instantly visible each time you reach for a pill.

20. Get a massage on your insurance company. Not only are health-insurance providers recognizing the benefits of alternative remedies such as massages, acupuncture, nutritional supplements and yoga, but more of them are actually offering discounts for them. To see what perks your plan might give, go to Navigating Health Benefits on planforyourhealth.com, which also includes tips for understanding and making the most of your medical coverage.

21. Use a straw. "My patients who drink water through straws find it easier to get the recommended 8 cups a day," says Jill Fleming, M.S., R.D., author of Thin People Don't Clean Their Plates: Simple Lifestyle Choices for Permanent Weight Loss (Inspiration Presentation Press, 2005). Sipping with a straw helps you suck down water faster, encouraging you to drink more. Another stay-hydrated hint: Drop a flavor-enhancing slice of lemon or lime into your glass.

22. Grill a spicy burger. Flavor your beef (or chicken or fish) with rosemary. Researchers from Kansas State University found this herb to be rich in antioxidants that help block the cancer-causing compounds that can form when you barbecue meat. And it goes without saying that rosemary makes for a better-tasting burger!

23. Allow yourself to give in to that caffeine craving. According to a study from Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, a moderate dose of caffeine could jump-start your libido. Researchers studied animal behavior and discovered that caffeine likely stimulated the part of the brain regulating arousal, which motivated females to have sex more frequently: A similar effect in humans is probable only in women who don't drink coffee regularly. If that's you, try ordering an espresso after a romantic dinner and see whether sparks fly.

24. Rent Wedding Crashers one more time. We all know that laughter is the best medicine, but it turns out that even anticipating a laugh can boost feel-good hormones (endorphins) by almost 30 percent. What's more, its effects appear to last up to 24 hours, according to researcher Lee S. Berk of California's Loma Linda University. Go see a comedian, or TiVo a funny television show like My Name is Earl and watch it over and over again.

25. Create a mental-health family tree. You'd tell your doctor if your grandmother had breast cancer or heart disease, but what if she suffered from depression or bipolar disorder? You can track your family's history of those diseases in just a few minutes by filling out the questionnaire at a new site called mentalhealthfamilytree.org. If the results concern you, see your doctor and begin to get any treatment you might need.

26. Go nuts with your salad. Sprinkle an ounce and a half of walnuts into your salad or mix them in with your yogurt. Why walnuts? They contain ellagic acid, a cancer-fighting antioxidant. Plus, these nutritional powerhouses, low in artery-clogging saturated fat, are a good source of protein and cholesterol-reducing omega-3 fatty acids, which may decrease the risk of heart disease.

27. Take your iPod to your next dental appointment. Whether you rap along with Mary J. Blige or bliss out to Beethoven, new research in the Journal of Advanced Nursing shows that listening to music eases pain -- be it from a cavity filling, a pulled muscle or even a bikini wax -- by 12 to 21 percent. Another suggestion: Schedule uncomfortable procedures during the second half (the last two weeks) of your menstrual cycle, when estrogen levels are their highest; that's when women produce the most endorphins to offset pain, according to studies conducted at the University of Michigan and the University of Maryland.

28. Make a play date to boost brainpower. We tend to blame "mommy brain" for the fuzzy-minded chaos that comes from life with kids, but new research on animals indicates that caring for children actually makes women smarter. Neuroscientists at the University of Richmond found that pregnancy hormones prime moms' brains -- literally enlarging neurons and dendrites in the hippocampus -- to prepare them for the challenges of motherhood (providing nourishment, protecting against predators, etc.), all of which improve their cognitive functions. And you don't have to get pregnant to enjoy the effect. Lead study author Craig Kinsley, Ph.D., says that stimuli from spending time with children will give any woman's brainpower a lift.

29. Stretch out your fingers. "The prolonged grips, repeated pressing of small buttons and awkward wrist movements used with a BlackBerry or an iPod can lead to repetitive stress injury in your fingers," says Stacey Doyon, president-elect of the American Society of Hand Therapists. To decrease your risk, do the following a few times a day: (1) Interlace fingers and turn palms away from your body as you extend arms outward; feel the stretch from your shoulders to your fingers; hold for 10 seconds. (2) Extend right arm in front of you, palm facing down. Place left hand on top of right hand and gently pull fingers on right hand toward your body. Feel the stretch in your wrist. Hold 10 seconds, then switch sides.

30. Help a greater cause. Whether you write a check to your favorite charity or head up a fund-raiser for your child's school, philanthropy not only gives another person a lift but it also can boost your own health. Studies by Boston College, Vanderbilt University, the University of South Carolina and the University of Texas at Austin show that helping others can alleviate chronic pain and even depression. Go to volunteermatch.org to find the right opportunity for you.

31. Wear sunglasses anytime you're outdoors. Exposure to the sun's ultraviolet (UV) rays, which penetrate clouds even on overcast days, increases your risk of cataracts (the leading cause of vision loss in those over 55). Choose shades that block both UVA and UVB rays. Look for a sticker that says "100% UVA and UVB protection."

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