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31 Days to a Healthier You

No doctors' visits. No drugstores. No gimmicks. Just a daily easy DIY tip for looking and feeling great all year round.

By Liz Plosser

31 Days to a Healthier You

Day 1: Weigh Your Handbag
If your tote is a dumping ground for everything from junk mail to extra makeup, it's time to lighten your load. The American Chiropractic Association recommends that a bag should not be more than 10% of your body weight. Put yours on your bathroom scale to see how it measures up. "Carrying too much can lead to debilitating back and shoulder pain, overall muscle soreness, and even dangerous nerve compression," says Samuel N. Forjuoh, M.D., director of the division of research at Texas A&M College of Medicine in College Station.

Day 2: Hold Your Husband's Hand
Thirty minutes of skin-to-skin contact promotes the release of the feel-good hormone oxytocin, resulting in lower blood pressure and a slower heart rate.

Day 3: Go Fish, Twice a Week
A three-ounce serving (the size of a deck of cards) of fatty fish—such as tuna or salmon—every three to four days will help prevent breast cancer, Alzheimer's disease, hypertension, and diabetes, according to research published in the journal Biomedicine & Pharmacotherapy. The benefit comes from omega-3 fatty acids, which can also be found in walnuts, tofu, squash, and soybeans.

Day 4: Take a Few Deep Breaths Before Bed
Tossing and turning all night not only leaves you feeling sluggish the next day, it also elevates the risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes—especially in women, say researchers at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. "Improve your sleep by focusing on your breathing when you lie down," says lead study author Edward Suarez, Ph.D., an associate professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences. "Concentrate on exhaling and inhaling. Try to stop your mind from wandering to worrisome thoughts about what you need to do tomorrow, or rehashing any problems you faced during the day."

Day 5: Check the Bottom of Your Water Bottle
The jury is still out on whether bisphenol A—an ingredient in many plastic bottles—poses a serious threat to humans, but animal studies have indicated that the compound accelerates the growth of cancerous cells. To be safe, toss bottles that don't have "BPA free" on the bottom.

Day 6: Watch a Sitcom
A TV comedy may be mindless entertainment, but it could give your heart a boost. In a University of Maryland study, people who watched 15 to 30 minutes of a funny show increased their blood flow by about 22% (similar to the benefit from low-intensity exercise). When we laugh, blood vessels dilate due to the release of the protective chemical nitric oxide, which also reduces cholesterol buildup.

Days 7-12

Day 7: Visit Your Local Library
Pick up a book on a topic that's totally new to you. Challenging your brain on a regular basis will improve your memory and reaction time and may prevent disease, according to a recent study.

Day 8: Turn Off That Cell Phone
Motorists who talk on a cell phone while they are driving are 9% slower to hit the brakes, 19% slower to resume normal speed after braking, and four times more likely to crash.

Day 9: Do a Spot Check
A smart way to nip skin cancer in the bud—besides wearing SPF every day—is to examine your skin for potentially cancerous moles once a month, says Amy Wechsler, M.D., a dermatologist in New York City and spokesperson for the Skin Cancer Foundation. After you shower, scan your entire body, starting at your feet and working your way up to your face. Use a handheld mirror to view tough-to-see spots, like the back of your thighs, which many women miss. If you see any moles that have morphed in shape, color, or texture or are asymmetrical, book an appointment with a dermatologist.

Day 10: Nosh on Nuts
Give yourself an instant energy boost by nibbling on a handful of almonds or cashews, which are high in magnesium. In a recent study, women with below-average magnesium levels had to work harder when performing basic tasks like lifting, and as a result felt more fatigued afterward than those with adequate levels. Low magnesium has also been linked with type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Day 11: Turn On Some Tunes
Plug into your iPod and you may also lower your blood pressure, say researchers from Seattle University. The rhythms in music relax blood vessels and moderate the production of stress hormones.

Day 12: Upgrade Your Shower
Chlorine is used in water treatment plants all over the country to make water safe for drinking. But the downside is that it dries out the skin, kills healthy bacteria, and exacerbates conditions like eczema and psoriasis. Screw in a shower filter to protect your body from the damaging effects. You can find one at showerfilterstore.com ($60 and up).

Days 13-18

Day 13: Log Off at 9 P.M.
Using your computer close to bedtime upsets your circadian rhythm, making it harder to fall asleep. The monitor's bright display inhibits production of melatonin, the hormone responsible for telling the body it's time for bed.

Day 14: Take a Vitamin D Supplement
Unless you live in Yuma, Arizona—the sunniest city in America—you're probably not getting enough vitamin D (which the body absorbs from ultraviolet rays) during the winter. And it's hard to load up on D through diet alone—a cup of milk only has about 100 IU and most experts now recommend 800 IU. A vitamin D supplement helps defend against Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases, keeps bones healthy, and may prevent autoimmune diseases.

Day 15: Floss Twice a Day
Even on mornings when you're rushing to get out of the house—and nights when you're ready to collapse into bed—don't neglect your brush-and-floss routine. (You can now find floss made with super strong GORE-TEX, infused with mouthwash, and more.) "Your mouth harbors 400 to 800 kinds of bacteria, which have harmful effects on overall health because they allow unwanted germs to enter the bloodstream," says Violet I. Haraszthy, Ph.D., an associate professor at the University of Buffalo in New York. "This can predispose people to diabetes, respiratory diseases, rheumatoid arthritis, obesity, osteoporosis, cardiovascular diseases, and cancer."

Day 16: Snack on Some Cherries
Cherries have been found to fight inflammation that may lead to heart disease, arthritis, and cancer.

Day 17: Do a Breast Check
Monthly self-administered breast exams up the odds of detecting a tumor early, when it's more apt to be successfully treated. "Start by raising your arms over your head in front of the mirror before showering so you can spot any discoloration, redness, discharge, dimpling, or unusual markings," says Marisa Weiss, M.D., president and founder of Breastcancer.org. "Then place your hands on your hips, which engages your chest muscles and may reveal any abnormalities." Follow up by palpating your breasts with soapy hands while you're bathing—it's easier to feel subtle changes when your skin is wet and slippery.

Day 18: Call a Pal
Just one day of feeling down can cause an increase in the amount of the stress hormone cortisol circulating in your body, which over time can contribute to a host of diseases, says Louise Hawkley, Ph.D., a senior research scientist at the University of Chicago. So beat the blues by making plans to get together with friends.

Days 19-24

Day 19: Wear Flats More Often
You'll take an average of 491 more steps a day than your high-heeled colleagues. While this might not sound like much, 500 additional steps can help you drop a few pounds by the end of the year.

Day 20: Drive the Scenic Route
It may be a little slower, but traveling on suburban streets instead of jam-packed freeways will expose you to fewer cancer-causing toxins, according to a new study from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Day 21: Protect Your Peepers
Even on partly cloudy days in the dead of winter, exposing your eyes to sunlight without protection increases your risk of developing macular degeneration—a condition that results in loss of vision in the center of the visual field, due to damage to the retina. So treat yourself to a new pair of sunglasses to filter out harmful rays.

Day 22: Reach for the Sky
Every two to three hours throughout the day, stop and stretch. You'll reduce pain and prevent headaches, reports a new study out of the University of Turin in Italy. Try this move from the researchers: Cup your hands behind your neck. Stretch your head backward so you're looking up at the ceiling. Relax after two to three seconds.

Day 23: Fill Up at Lunch
You've seen the headlines about how important it is to eat breakfast, but that doesn't mean you should be skimping at lunch. A recent study from Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, finds that we often make dinner our most caloric meal and then follow it up with dessert and late-night snacking—behavior that increases your risk for obesity and type 2 diabetes. "Eat more in the morning and afternoon and you'll consume less at night," says lead study author John M. de Castro, Ph.D.

Day 24: Prevent Sneezes and Sniffles with a Walk
In a new study researchers found that women who never exercised had triple the number of colds and respiratory infections compared to those who worked out at moderate intensity for 45 minutes, five days a week. A brisk walk raises white blood cell counts, boosting your immune system.

Days 25-31

Day 25: Clear Your Airways
To reduce symptoms—such as asthma, sneezing, itchy eyes, and headaches—triggered by indoor allergens, dust furniture and vacuum the floor regularly, change bed linens weekly, and replace mattresses that are more than 10 years old.

Day 26: Sport a Milk Mustache
A new study suggests that eating a calcium-rich diet is more effective than taking calcium supplements in building bone density to prevent osteoporosis (which affects an estimated eight million American women). Only about 35% of the calcium in most supplements ends up being absorbed by the body, says lead researcher Reina Armamento-Villareal, M.D., of the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, while 45% of the calcium in food is absorbed. Aim for 1,200 milligrams a day, which you can get from a cup of yogurt, a cup of milk, a cup of orange juice, and one ounce of cheese.

Day 27: Look out the Window
A quick glimpse of a tree, some falling rain, or snow flurries helps tame tension, say researchers at the University of Washington in Seattle. When study participants viewed the outdoors, their heart rates decreased by up to nine beats per minute—and their pulses fell twice as fast after a stressful situation—compared to those who looked at blank walls or digital images of nature scenes.

Day 28: Shun Secondhand Smoke
A recent study from China found that women who were exposed to cigarette smoke for just 15 minutes two or more days a week increased their risk of stroke by 56% and increased their risk of developing coronary heart disease by 69%. Encourage your loved ones not to smoke (especially if you live together) and avoid bars and restaurants that allow cigarettes. And always request a nonsmoking hotel room when you're traveling.

Day 29: Sanitize Your Purse
Your handbag goes everywhere with you—including restaurants, doctors' offices, and the bathroom stalls in public restrooms (where you've probably placed it on the floor). Then you plop that bag on your kitchen counter or the living room couch, giving those germs a new home. To avoid passing along bacteria and viruses to your family, clean the bottom of your purse daily with a disinfectant wipe, says Charles Gerba, Ph.D., professor of environmental microbiology at the University of Arizona.

Day 30: Take Your Pulse
A racing heart—one that beats more than 80 times per minute—may put you at risk for cardiovascular disease. Find your pulse by pressing your forefinger and middle finger on the inside of your opposite wrist at a time when you feel relaxed, such as first thing in the morning or before going to sleep at night. Count the number of beats in 10 seconds, then multiply by six. Sixty to 80 beats per minute is ideal—anything higher means you should talk to your doctor.

Day 31: Change Your Toothbrush
Don't wait until the bristles are frayed to purchase another one. A new brush removes up to 30% more plaque than a three-month-old one, according to a study in the Journal of Dental Research. So change yours at least every season. The heads of electronic toothbrushes should be changed as often.

Originally published in the January 2009 issue of Family Circle magazine.

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