habits, it’s no secret most of us could be doing a lot better. The fact is, we
have to do better.
According to a new survey of more than 77,000 Americans by the Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention, six in 10 adults are overweight or obese, 20
percent of Americans smoke, and a full third don’t engage in even one
leisure-time physical activity.
If you see yourself in these statistics, know that even small changes can
make a big difference in your health and how you feel. SUCCESS spoke to
Hilary Tindle, M.D., author of the new book Up: How Positive Outlook Can Transform Our Health and
Aging, to find out the simplest, biggest-bang-for-your-buck
ways to improve health, celebrate more birthdays and feel great year after
Why not get started on these healthy tips right away?
1. Believe you can.
It may sound like a simplistic mantra fit for a bumper sticker, but it’s the
perfect place to start and maybe the most important piece of the get-healthy
puzzle. After all, optimism is just the expectation that good things will happen
in the future—and they will.
“Staying motivated and working toward a health goal entails believing on some
level that it’s possible,” says Tindle, an assistant professor at the University
of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. “In a study I published in the journal
Circulation, optimists were healthier on a number of important metrics
such as body mass index (BMI) and blood pressure, and after eight years of
follow-up, they also had a 16 percent lower risk of having a first heart attack
and a 30 percent lower risk of death from heart disease.”
What’s so special about optimism? “Our outlook affects our brain activity,
our decisions and our daily habits,” Tindle says. Optimists are more likely to
approach a new diet or exercise program with the assumption that they have a
good shot at achieving their goals, and they follow through accordingly.
One research study showed that optimists were also less likely than
pessimists to feel stressed out during the day, and chronic, daily stress is
health-harming: A pessimist’s reaction to, say, a minor traffic jam—anger,
dejection, strong irritation—triggers the “fight or flight” stress response of
inflammatory chemicals. They cause a whole host of negative effects, everything
from raised blood pressure to constricted breathing (and it happens pretty much
every time you have a negative thought!). Those less-than-pleasant situations we
find ourselves in throughout the day—like when that jerk cut you off on the
highway—may not be as jarring to the mind and body of an optimist: Hey,
everybody’s got somewhere to be.
Not a born optimist? Even small adjustments in attitude make a difference.
“One of the best ways to build hopefulness and confidence is to simply
remember past successes,” Tindle says. “Your own history is
concrete proof that you’ve met goals before and you can do so again.”
One tactic that works well for people who don’t go for “blind” optimism: Go
ahead and indulge your inclination to focus on what could go wrong, but don’t
stop there--plan to avoid those very pitfalls so you will succeed.
Once you train your brain to look on the bright side,
you can reshape neural pathways to help keep you thinking along those lines.
2. Sleep your way slimmer.
Believe it or not, lying in bed for eight hours can help
you lose weight. When your body catches zzz’s and recharges, so does your
pancreas, the organ that calibrates insulin output, which affects weight.
“In one recent study where healthy people slept an average of only four hours
a night for six days, their metabolic profiles changed to look like older people
with pre-diabetes,” Tindle says. “They couldn’t clear blood sugar as quickly and
had one-third less insulin in their blood than normal.”
In that study, a “tired” pancreas couldn’t do its job well without adequate
rest, ultimately resulting in an 8 percent drop in metabolism, a dip that could
translate into 10 pounds of weight gain a year. The pancreas—along with the
stomach—also makes ghrelin, our hunger hormone, and studies show that sleep
deprivation spikes levels of ghrelin.
The feeling that you’re always hungry after a bad night’s sleep? It’s
3. Wake up to a leaner diet.
Even if you clock eight hours of sleep a night, you might still feel drowsy
if your daily diet looks like the Burger King drive-through menu. A new study
published by the journal Sleep found that people who ate a high-fat
diet—fried foods, full-fat dairy, meats and pastries—felt sleepier during the
day than those who didn’t indulge. Researchers aren’t sure why, but it may be
related to fat’s ability to increase inflammatory substances that signal your
body it’s time to go night-night.
A bonus benefit of eating lighter fare: Fat has more calories per gram than
either protein or carbs, so you’ll lower your calorie intake and slim down as
well. To increase alertness, nosh on carbs instead, which the
study found boosted alertness. Just make sure your carbs are whole–grain
picks such as whole-wheat crackers, air-popped popcorn (no butter!), veggies and
in these foods fills you on fewer calories and keeps blood sugar levels and
Refined carbs such as white-flour crackers, white pasta, white bread and
anything sugary will spike blood sugar levels and then cause you to crash and
4. Stop the train of runaway thoughts.
Stress is part of life,
but if it’s not managed, it can wreak havoc on your body and mental state.
Target the kind of stress that’s unproductive. Don’t worry about things
that may not even be true or might never come to pass—these figments of
our imagination are called “cognitive distortions,” and they can pop up anytime,
“Let’s say you’re at a work party. You wave to your boss across the room, and
he glances at you but doesn’t respond,” Tindle says. “Your first reaction might
be, He’s mad at me, which is a cognitive distortion—it’s jumping to a
conclusion. Then you might go one step further and think, He doesn’t like
me…. Lots of people don’t like me—that’s a cognitive distortion, too,
If you’re really on a roll, you may think you’re going to get fired. The
reality is, your boss may not have seen you, or was in mid-conversation and
couldn’t respond. And, yes, there is a chance he is mad at you, but you don’t
know that. Meanwhile, your body has geared up for fight or flight: You’re
anxious, your breathing is shallow, your blood vessels are constricted, and
you’re probably not having a very good time at the party.
When you recognize your mind is driving these thoughts, stop,
breathe and ask yourself what you know to be true. Then formulate a
plan of action: Set up a meeting with your boss on Monday to touch base about
Until then, raise your glass and enjoy yourself.
5. Hang out with a buddy.
Research finds that when you have a friend by your side during a stressful
time, there’s a drop in cardiovascular reactivity, a term referring to the heart
and blood pressure effects of stress (high cardio reactivity is linked to an
increased risk of heart disease).
“It’s something we intuitively know to be true, but, yes, the
stress-buffering and heart-healthy effects of
friends have been verified in the laboratory,” Tindle says. And while the size
of your social network matters somewhat—those with more friends tend to be
healthier—what’s most important is the quality of those friendships. Do you
trust your friends and feel they have your back? If so, then they’re
If you’re not a very social person, consider adopting a
pet, which can confer the same healthy benefits as a human sidekick. A
new study from the American Heart Association finds that owning a pet, particularly a dog, is
linked to a lower risk of heart disease, in part because of the
calming effect of having a furry friend around (as well as the fact that you
move more because you have to walk and care for the pet).
6. Exercise for good vibes.
There are loads of health reasons to get exercise—it lowers cholesterol levels, keeps
weight in check and sharpens your thinking—but did you know that it’s also an
instant fix for feeling blue?
“Exercise likely increases the brain’s neurotransmitters that make us feel
good, and that can help control negative emotions,” Tindle says. The biggest
benefits come from moderate and vigorous workouts—like fast-walking,
jogging or cycling at a steady clip.
Not sure you’re pushing it hard enough? You want to work yourself to
the point that having a conversation is doable but a bit difficult,
when your heart rate is in the 60 to 70 percent zone of your maximum heart rate.
(To calculate maximum heart rate, subtract your age from 220.) Those who are
already fit and have checked with a doctor about a tailored exercise plan can
push toward even higher levels of exertion.
7. Go fish.
A quick science lesson: Researchers have discovered that one sign—and
possibly a cause—of aging is shortened telomeres. Telomeres are the specialized
ends on our chromosomes, like the plastic ends of a shoelace, and they are
critical to DNA replication. Our telomeres naturally shorten as we age, and when
they get really short, cells stop replicating, turn “old” and can even become
The great thing is there are actions we can take to keep telomeres from
shortening, including boosting our consumption of omega-3 fatty acids DHA and
EPA. These anti-aging fats are most plentiful in fatty fish such as salmon (wild
salmon has more omega-3s than farmed), sardines, tuna and anchovies.
Shoot for eating fish two to three times each week. (To keep
telomeres from shortening more, see tip Nos. 1 and 6—a positive outlook and
exercise are linked to longer telomeres.)
8. Quit smoking to overhaul your health.
If there’s one thing that will catapult you from poor health to
living the dream, it’s snuffing out the cigarettes. Smokers, you’ve probably
heard these stats before, but they bear repeating: Smoking is the No. 1 cause of
preventable death in the United States and the world; it’s a major risk factor
for heart disease, stroke and cancer. That’s the bad news. The good news: Within
just one year of quitting smoking, you’ve cut your risk of heart
disease in half. And by five years after putting out that last cigarette, your
risk of heart disease returns to that of a nonsmoker.
9. Go to the park.Or just get out in your own backyard. A landmark study
published in The Lancet found that access to green spaces negated some
of the known detrimental health effects of poverty. Between rich and poor
people, the poor who had the most access to green spaces also showed the
smallest difference in death risk from heart disease. In other words, people in
poor communities who don’t often get the best health care and face myriad other
barriers to health (such as being unable to afford nutritious food) have closed
some of that gap simply by spending time with nature.
What gives? It’s all about physical activity and stress management, both of
which are linked to heart disease. “There’s something about Mother Nature that lowers stress
levels,” Tindle says. “And when you’re in nature, you just want
to move more.”
10. Keep the glass only half full.
Cheers probably erupted around the world when scientists discovered alcohol
can cut the risk of a heart attack significantly—25 to 40 percent. But that’s
only if you drink in moderation, which is one drink a day for
women (5 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer or 1.5 ounces of hard liquor) and
two drinks a day for men.
The magic ingredient in these beverages, ethanol, raises your good (HDL)
cholesterol. Anything beyond those amounts is considered heavy drinking and can
lead to liver problems, sleep issues (alcohol makes it harder to stay in a deep,
restorative sleep), and raises your risk for stroke and certain types of cancer
(breast, colon, liver). Not to mention, it makes you sluggish and adds
non-nutritive calories to your daily total—beer belly alert! Add the fact some
people are genetically predisposed to alcoholism, and it becomes easy to see why
you want to dial down your dose.