Timing Is Everything

When it comes to landing a great job, buying your dream house or delivering a punch line, timing is everything. And the same may be true for staying healthy. Experts say that by watching the clock and the calendar, we can make the most of self-care routines, medical appointments, and even diet and exercise. Here, their tips on the best times to make crucial health moves.

The best time to schedule surgery: 9 or 10 a.m. on a Tuesday or Wednesday

Conventional wisdom says it's best to be first in the operating room so the surgeon's fresh -- but a recent study in General Surgery News shows that surgeons who've warmed up may perform better. The first operation of the day -- usually at 7:30 or 8 a.m. -- serves as the warm-up, so strive to get the second or third spot. "If you can get in there midmorning, you'll still have most of the day to recover and have a better chance of going home that night," says Jerry Simons, PA-C, president of the American Association of Surgical Physician Assistants. Plus, levels of adrenaline (the hormone that quickens breathing and heart rate) are naturally lower in the morning than in the afternoon. "More adrenaline further stresses a body that's already stressed by surgery," Simons explains.

There's also a rhythm to the week, says Simons, who suggests scheduling surgery on a Tuesday or Wednesday, when surgeons may be in top form and nurses most attentive. "By this time, the surgeon has had at least a day to get in the swing, and also should be available for the rest of the workweek if you have questions or problems during recovery," he says. "On Fridays, nurses often tend to be busier taking care of administrative tasks before the weekend."

The best time to do a breast self-exam: the day after your period ends

Get in the habit of checking your breasts right after menstrual bleeding stops, when breasts are softest and least tender. A day or two later is still OK, but the closer you get to your next period, the more swollen and painful breasts become (what are called fibrocystic breast changes), making it harder to do an adequate self-exam, says Mack Barnes, M.D., a gynecologic oncologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Doing self-exams at the same time each month also helps you learn to tell the difference between natural changes and worrisome ones; comparing early-in-your-cycle, softer breasts to later, bumpier ones is like comparing apples to oranges. Fibrocystic breast changes, which also include lumps and cysts that are usually harmless, peak seven to 10 days before menstruation.

The best time to slather on sunscreen: 20 minutes before you head outdoors

"This gives the product time to soak in and even out so you get the best protection," says Audrey Kunin, M.D., a Kansas City, Mo., dermatologist and founder of dermadoctor.com. "Sunscreen that's had time to penetrate won't wash off as easily if you jump in the water or sweat heavily."

The best time to see a doctor: the first appointment of the day

Every appointment carries the chance of running over the allotted time, putting a doctor further and further behind schedule as the day goes on. "If you can't get in first thing, try right after the doctor's lunch hour," suggests Amy Rosenberg, M.D., a family physician in Westfield, N.J. Avoid the after-work crowd if at all possible; that's rush hour in waiting rooms.

The best time to cheat on your diet: within two hours of an all-out workout

If you're going to splurge, do it after heavy or sustained exercise, and the sweet treat may go straight to your muscles instead of your thighs. "Your body stores sugar in the form of glycogen in muscle, and when you exercise hard or for about an hour, those sugar reserves get used up," explains Althea Zanecosky, R.D., a professor of sports nutrition at Drexel University in Philadelphia. "For a couple of hours afterward, your muscle cells are most receptive to replenishment from carbohydrates. However, any calories not burned will be converted to fat, so don't eat more than you've expended."

The best time to take the pill: at night "Taking the pill at night so they sleep through any nausea [a common side effect] works for many women," says Sara Grimsley Augustin, PharmD, an assistant professor at the Mercer University Southern School of Pharmacy in Atlanta. (Don't down it on an empty stomach, though.) She adds: "Take the pill at the same time every day, especially if you're on mini pills, which contain less estrogen. The contraceptive might be less effective against pregnancy if there's more than 24 hours between doses."

The best time for a catnap: 1–3 p.m.

Body temperature falls to a daytime low in the early afternoon, making you feel sluggish -- prime time for a power nap. "This is a naturally sleepy period, so it might be the most efficient time to catch up on a little lost sleep," says Mark Dyken, M.D., director of the Sleep Disorders Center at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. Limit nap breaks to 15–30 minutes, enough to restore energy, but not so much that they'll disrupt nighttime sleep. But if you're seriously sleep-deprived, a short nap won't cut it; get a good night's sleep as soon as you're able.

The best time to take a home pregnancy test: one week after you expected your period

About 25 percent of women who are pregnant won't test positive on the first day they miss their period. "You can't perfectly predict the day your period will start, so you might test before the fertilized egg is implanted in the uterus, and the test won't yet be able to detect the pregnancy," says Donna Day Baird, Ph.D., an epidemiologist with the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. If you just can't stand the suspense, take the test -- but realize that a "no" may not be final. Repeat in a week if your period's still a no-show.

The best time to meet your tennis partner: 4–6 p.m.

Body temperature peaks in the late afternoon, and so does performance in sports that require strength and agility, such as basketball and weight lifting, says Cedric X. Bryant, Ph.D., chief exercise physiologist for the American Council on Exercise. That late-in-the-day rise in temperature means warmer, more flexible muscles, greater strength and stamina, and faster reaction time.

The best time to get a Pap smear: during days 10–20 of your cycle

If a bit of menstrual blood is mixed with tissue scraped from your cervix for a Pap test, the blood can hide abnormalities when the lab technician checks for precancerous cells. That increases the chance of inaccurate results or a need for a repeat test, so try to see your gynecologist about a week after one period ends and a week before the next begins (give or take a few days). "At that time you're as removed from your period as you're going to be," says gynecologic oncologist Mack Barnes.

For the purest possible Pap, avoid sex for at least 24 hours before the exam; semen can hide or wash away cervical cells, plus irritation can trigger inflammation the test picks up as abnormalities.

The best time to get a root canal: 1–3 p.m.

Local anesthetic lasts three times longer when administered in the early afternoon than when given from 7–9 a.m. or 5–7 p.m., according to studies done in Europe, where dentists open shop earlier and stay open later. "If you need a procedure that's prolonged, try to get it done in the early afternoon so you're best protected from the pain of the procedure by the anesthetic," suggests Michael Smolensky, Ph.D., a professor of environmental physiology at the University of Texas School of Public Health in Houston, and co-author of The Body Clock Guide to Better Health (Henry Holt and Co., 2001). For a simple filling, however, a midmorning appointment might be better, especially if you have plans for that evening: You'll get a decent dose of painkillers but your lips won't stay numb as long -- avoiding a crooked smile or drool on your chin at dinner.

The best time to prevent or battle a UTI: bedtime

Cranberry juice helps stop urinary-tract infections, thanks to compounds that keep bacteria from sticking to bladder walls. Have a glass as a nightcap, and you could make the most of a medicinal dose. "The cranberry compounds sit in the bladder overnight, so they may work longer fighting bacteria that cause UTIs," says Amy Howell, Ph.D., a scientist at the Blueberry Cranberry Research Center at Rutgers University in Chatsworth, N.J. A glass after sex also may give you some protection, since intercourse increases the risk of UTIs by pushing bacteria farther up the urethra.

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