Don't look now, but your body is conspiring against you.
Every time you've ever stressed over work issues, skipped out on needed exercise or simply pushed your vegetables to the side of the plate, your body has been busy remembering and making you pay for it ever since. Hypertension, adult-onset diabetes, cancer, heart disease and most other major diseases are more the result of how you have treated yourself in the past than genetics, says Pamela M. Peeke, M.D., M.P.H., assistant clinical professor of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and author of Fight Fat After Forty (Viking, 2000).
Neglecting seemingly small things in your lifestyle can have a cumulative effect that usually doesn't show itself until serious damage has been done. "Taking the critical steps that can change your life for the better doesn't have to mean a lot of thinking and tremendous sacrifice," Peeke says. With the help of a few experts, we found seven surprisingly simple changes that you can make right now, and any single one can improve your health significantly without requiring as much effort as you would expect. If you're ready to change your life for the better, these easy-to-follow tips may be your best approach.
1. Get one more hour of sleep.
The average woman needs eight-and-a-half to nine hours of sleep, but typically gets only six to seven. That one- to two-hour loss can have more bad effects than just a set of saggy eyes. "Studies have suggested that sleep deprivation can affect every aspect of how the body functions, from the ability to memorize and logically reason to the repair of neurons and development of muscle," says Paul T. Gross, M.D., director of the sleep disorders center at the Lahey Clinic in Burlington, Mass. Finding time for an extra hour or two of sleep a day can decrease your risk of being affected, but to boost bedtime, aim to:
Go to bed and wake up at a set time every day, even on your days off. "Sleeping in" on weekends can disrupt your sleep cycle later in the week.
Stay away from alcohol for at least two hours before bedtime. Alcohol may make you sleepy, but it also prevents REM sleep, the deepest kind of rest, making whatever sleep you manage to get less restorative.
Take a nap. Snagging a 15- to 20-minute nap between 1 and 4 p.m. can improve your alertness, sharpen your memory and help reduce fatigue. If your schedule doesn't permit a siesta, try reserving this lull in alertness for less mentally demanding activities.
Watch when you work out. Exercising for at least 20-30 minutes a day promotes sleep, but avoid working out for at least four to six hours before bedtime. Revving up your body and releasing adrenaline may keep you too alert to pass out when you need to.
2. Drink three more glasses of water a day.
"By the time you get thirsty, your body is already about 2 percent low on water," says Susan Kleiner, Ph.D., R.D., author of Power Eating (Human Kinetics, 1998). "Losing just 1-2 percent of your body weight in fluid can lower your physical and mental performance by up to 20 percent." This syndrome, known as chronic mild dehydration, can negatively affect every function of the body. "All biochemical connections throughout the body either occur in water or use water as a conduit," Kleiner explains. "If you are not well hydrated, everything from joint lubrication, digestion and reproduction to breathing can be compromised."
The minimum amount of water every woman should be getting is nine glasses a day (roughly 72 ounces). "Yet most women only get around five to six glasses," Kleiner says. Adding just 24 extra ounces each day (three glasses) can correct this. To make drinking more water much easier to swallow:
Switch to a larger glass. Mealtimes are prime opportunities to get more water; so to use them to easily get more H2O, simply reach for a glass that's slightly larger than the one you typically use.
Add an ounce of fruit juice. Mixing in a very small amount of orange, lemon or lime juice (or even a hint of vanilla extract) can add just enough flavor to make drinking plain old water a bit more palatable.
Compensate when having caffeine. Can't kick your coffee or diet-cola habit? For every caffeinated beverage you drink, consume 8 ounces of water alongside it. Not only will that extra water help maintain your fluid levels, it may even prevent you from consuming as much caffeine as you usually would.
3. Eat a few extra vegetables.
"Packed with fiber, vitamins and anti-oxidative phytochemicals, vegetables can make a profound difference in decreasing your risk of obesity, certain types of cancer, gastrointestinal problems and a host of other diseases," says Joy Bauer, M.S., R.D., author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Eating Smart (Alpha Books, 1997). But most women get only about half as many vegetable servings as they should each day.
If you're like many women, you may tend to eat garden-grown items only at lunch and dinner. So try sneaking veggies into your morning meals. To boost your daily intake as much as 33 percent, add spinach and mushrooms to your breakfast omelet, put a slice of tomato on your toast and drink a glass of carrot juice. And to maximize your daily intake:
Add one new vegetable each week. Instead of always sticking with vegetables you know, make a point of trying one new type (such as bok choy, kale, broccolini or butternut squash) every week. "By making the act of discovering new veggies part of your weekly ritual, you'll eat more vegetables regularly without even realizing it," Bauer says.
Opt for the brightest in the bunch. In general, it doesn't matter what color a vegetable is, so long as that color is bright. The richer the color, the more nutrient-dense the vegetable is, whether it's bright yellow, red, orange or green.
4. Add resistance exercise to your regular routine.
"By the time you're 25, a sedentary life works against you," says Heather Dillinger, national certification specialist for the Aerobic and Fitness Association of America. That's because the average woman's metabolism begins to slow down in her late 20s to early 30s, due to a loss of about 1/2 to 1 pound of muscle (which burns 35-50 calories a day) every year. This translates into a slowed metabolism, which increases body fat.
Compensating for these natural changes just takes incorporating regular resistance training into your week. To keep those unwanted pounds off for good, add a few extra minutes to your usual cardio routine, a small addition that can even extend your life. If squeezing any more exercise into your life seems impossible, aim to:
Choose compound exercises instead of isolation movements. "Women tend to dedicate their workouts to exercises that only work one muscle group at a time," Dillinger says. Using compound moves such as lunges, squats, dumbbell presses and pull-ups, which work several muscle groups together, can make your gym time more productive and multiply your results.
Make working out a priority. Trying to leave a meeting or event by using exercise as an excuse never seems justifiable to most people, or to your conscience. "Make each and every workout a standing appointment," Dillinger says. No one at work needs to know where you're going or what you're doing. All anyone needs to hear is that you have a commitment somewhere else.
Crunch in between. Instead of saving your crunches for last, after you've finished working your butt, back and legs, do a set of crunches in between each set of your regular weight workout. You'll not only turn your routine into a circuit that burns more calories, but you'll finish your ab routine without ever feeling like you've started, giving you a few extra minutes for more exercise.
5. Let go of one stressful thing each week.
"Unrelieved stress affects almost every function of the body, causing insomnia, high blood pressure, constipation, depression and an assortment of anxiety-driven aches and pains," says Pamela Peeke. Left untreated, the long-term effects of stress are much more serious, contributing to heart disease, ulcers, immune-system deficiencies and hypertension.
And what's causing your stress may surprise you. "Most women's stress comes from simply not knowing if they're on target with their lives," says Julie Morgenstern, founder and owner of Task Masters in New York City and author of Time Management From the Inside Out (Henry Holt, 2000). Stopping to figure out one or two big-picture goals for the six major areas of life (family, work, finance, self, community and intellectual goals) can help.
Once you have well-defined goals, they become amazing filters to sift what is important from what isn't, bringing into your life a perspective that can lower stress and the amount of disease-inflicting cortisol that comes along with it. To be sure you are investing your time wisely, use these guidelines:
Organize your personal life like your office. "Most people waste an average of three hours each day when they don't plan what to do next," Morgenstern says. Structuring certain parts of your home (such as setting aside a section to pay bills with a bills box, letter opener and your checkbook or keeping a basket for newspapers and magazines next to your favorite reading chair) just like your office (according to your priorities) can help make sure your downtime is just as efficient.
Give yourself five every hour. Getting enough "me" time is something most people never seem to do. Instead of trying to save up time for the end of your busy day, step away from your work for five minutes every hour. "Taking a walk, reading a personal letter or doing something small that makes you happy, but that also won't keep you from your duties and create additional stress, can make a world of difference in your day," Morgenstern says.
Learn to dissipate anger. Staying angry creates competitive situations that make us unnecessarily aggressive, even at "rest." Instead of holding on to negative feelings or viewing yourself as a victim, let feelings go by reconciling, restructuring or, if necessary, even ending relationships. Be clear about how you need to be treated, and teach others how to treat you.
6. Lose a few pounds.
"If you're overweight, dropping just 5-10 percent of your total body weight can have a profound effect on reducing your chances of many cardiovascular and arterial complications, as well as a variety of weight-induced diseases," says Jeff Novick, M.S., R.D., L.D., director of nutrition for the Florida Pritikin Longevity Center & Spa in Aventura. Regular exercise and a proper diet that derives less than 30 percent of its calories from fat can help, but shaving additional calories can take a few tweaks in what you're used to. To lose those last stubborn pounds, aim to:
Eat six to seven smaller meals instead of three large ones. This may feel like a backward step from weight loss, but spreading your daily calorie intake among several small meals can help curb binges.
Eat as if you're broke when dining out. Vegetable and other plant-based meals (such as veggie fajitas or vegetable lo mein, for example) tend to cost a dollar or so less than meat-based entrees. Look for the cheapest items on the menu, and chances are, you'll find meals that contain less fat and more nutrition than the rest of the fare.
Count fiber, not calories. "Research has shown that individuals who eat more fiber tend to gain less weight," Novick says. Foods that are naturally high in fiber tend to have fewer calories and leave you feeling more satisfied. Rule of thumb: Shoot for at least 25-35 grams of fiber each day.
Have a low-energy-density dish before every major meal. A Pennsylvania State University study has shown that eating a low-fat, low-energy-density dish (filled with fruits, vegetables and other foods rich in water and fiber, such as soup) before a main meal can reduce the total amount of calories consumed during the entire meal by 26 percent.
7. Get an annual medical exam.
"Many of the health issues that affect women as they get older actually start showing up in their late teens and early 20s," says Pamela Peeke. "For nine out of 10 women, their obstetrician/gynecologist ends up acting as their primary-care physician, offering an annual exam that typically centers on the reproductive system." However, a family doctor has the means to perform lab tests such as cholesterol screening and checking skin growths that should be monitored regularly.
To get the best of both worlds, pick a physician who's either an internist or family practitioner to perform your annual check-up. Both can perform all of the necessary tests that an OB/GYN and primary-care physician can do. To get the most from your checkup:
Share your sexual history with your doctor. If you're sexually active and nonmonogamous, informing your doctor about your past encounters can give her an indication of which sexually transmitted diseases you may have been exposed to and should be tested for.
Get a complete blood count. Many women are prone to anemia from excessive menstrual bleeding and eating low-calorie diets lacking iron-rich meats. If your total blood count is low, Peeke recommends asking for a ferritin test, an iron-specific examination that can determine if you may be at risk.
Request a urinalysis. A urine test can detect abnormal kidney functioning. Finding unusual things such as red blood cells in the urine can detect early kidney disease, while excess sugar could reveal if you're pre-diabetic. "[Given the recent] 76 percent increase in adult-onset (Type II) diabetes, this simple test can prevent a lifetime of discomfort," Peeke says.