Week 5: Improve Your Overall Health

Getting healthy is something that’s on nearly everyone’s radar these days. Every day there is a new internet article or news report about what to eat, how to exercise, ways to lose weight for good, etc. that it can be overwhelming. Taking care of your body, however, really boils down to making simple choices every day that lead up to big benefits over time. So what can you do? Easy - make day by day choices that will provide major benefits for your heart, brain, digestion, weight, and longevity.

Heart Health:

Your heart works hard for you 24/7, 365 days  your whole life. So show it some TLC. Making small changes in your habits can make a real difference in your heart health. People who follow these steps not only live longer, but they also spend a lot more time  living without cardiovascular disease.

Even better? You don't have to work on all 10 steps at once. Even if you improve just one or two of these areas, you can make yourself less prone  to  heart disease. Of course, the more tips on this list you follow, the better!

Aim for lucky number seven.
The next time you're tempted to stay up later than you should, just think about how good that pillow will feel -- and how good a full night's sleep is for your heart. In one study, young and middle-age adults who slept 7 hours a night had less calcium in their arteries (an early sign of heart disease) than those who slept 5 hours or less or those who slept 9 hours or more.

The type of shut-eye they got was important too; adults who reported good-quality sleep also had healthier arteries than those who didn't sleep soundly. If you have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep at night, or if you don't feel refreshed after a full night in bed, talk to your doctor about how healthier sleep habits might improve your slumber.

Keep the pressure off.
That cuff squeezing your arm at every doctor's visit is important. It measures the amount of pressure flowing through your arteries with every heartbeat.

If your blood pressure gets too high, the extra force can damage artery walls and create scar tissue, making it more difficult for blood and oxygen to get to and from the heart. The heart has to pump harder and gets worn out faster. If it can't get enough oxygen, parts can start to die. Get your blood pressure checked at least once every 2 years, or more often if it is already high.

Cut back on salt, limit alcohol to no more than one to two drinks a day (or less), manage your stress, and get regular exercise, too. If these changes alone don't help, your doctor might recommend you also take medication.

Slash saturated fats.
Too much “bad” cholesterol can clog the heart and arteries with dangerous plaque. It mostly comes from saturated and trans fats, found in red meat, full-fat dairy products, and fried or processed foods. So cut back on these products and cut out trans fats completely (check ingredients lists for anything that says “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” ingredients -- those are trans fats).

Make a shift to avoid diabetes.
Over time, high blood sugar damages arteries and puts you at risk for heart disease. Your doctor should test your blood sugar if you are 45 or older, if you are pregnant, or if you're overweight and have other risk factors for diabetes.

If you have diabetes, work with your doctor on your lifestyle (diet and exercise) and any medicine that you may need. If you have borderline high blood sugar, also called pre-diabetes, take action now to turn things around. One simple swap is to trade processed carbs (like white rice) for fiber-rich whole grains (like brown rice). In one study, that simple swap slashed diabetes risk by 36%.

Sit less and sweat more.
You should get at least 150 minutes a week (30 minutes a day, 5 days a week) of moderate exercise, meaning any activity that gets you moving around and breaking a slight sweat. But really, every little bit counts. Also, pay attention to how much time you spend sitting, whether it's at work, in your car, or on your couch at home. Even if you exercise for 30 minutes a day, being sedentary for the other 23 and a half hours is really bad for your heart.

That doesn't mean you have to quit your desk job or throw away your favorite recliner. Break up long periods of sitting, and choose to stand or walk while doing things like talking on the phone or watching TV.

Have more fruit and less fruit juice.
Your heart works best when it runs on clean fuel. That means lots of whole, plant-based foods (like fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds) and fewer refined or processed foods (like white bread, pasta, crackers, and cookies). One of the fastest ways to clean up your diet is to cut out sugary beverages like soda and fruit juice, which lacks the fiber that’s in actual fruit.

Ditch the cigarettes, real and electronic.
Smoking and secondhand smoke are bad for your heart. If you smoke, quit and avoid spending time around others who smoke.

E-cigarettes, which have become a popular alternative to tobacco products, seem like they would be a better option than traditional cigarettes, but they still have negative side effects. While  they don't contain the harmful chemicals in cigarette smoke, and they can help some people wean themselves off of smoking, they still contain nicotine. Your goal should be to quit completely, not just switch to a less toxic version.

Get a stress-busting hobby.
You can't avoid stress entirely. It’s part of a normal life. But you can choose how you deal with it. Managing stress in a healthy way, whether it's meditation, yoga, or exercise, is really important. Having friends, a partner, or someone else you can lean on and talk to can also protect both your emotional health and your heart.

Throw your heart a birthday party!
Following all of these tips can help you keep a low "heart age," a tool created by the CDC to help people understand their true risk for heart disease. Heart age is based on risk factors you can change (like those above) and those you can't (like your age, gender, and family history). A 2015 CDC study found that 70% of Americans have heart ages older than their actual age: men by 7.8 years and women by 5.4 years, on average.

It’s never too late to turn back the clock on your heart health, the CDC says. And knowing your heart age, and watching it come down over time, may be the motivation you need to make some of these important changes.

Mental Health:

Mental or emotional health refers to your overall psychological well-being. It includes the way you feel about yourself, the quality of your relationships, and your ability to manage your feelings and deal with difficulties.

Being mentally or emotionally healthy is much more than being free of depression, anxiety, or other psychological issues. Rather than the absence of mental illness, mental and emotional health refers to the presence of positive characteristics. Similarly, not feeling bad is not the same as feeling good. While some people may not have negative feelings, they still need to do things that make them feel positive in order to achieve mental and emotional health.

People who are mentally and emotionally healthy have:

  • A sense of contentment
  • A zest for living and the ability to laugh and have fun
  • The ability to deal with stress and bounce back from adversity
  • A sense of meaning and purpose, in both their activities and their relationships
  • The flexibility to learn new things and adapt to change
  • A balance between work and play, rest and activity, etc.
  • The ability to build and maintain fulfilling relationships
  • Self-confidence and high self-esteem

These positive characteristics of mental and emotional health allow you to participate in life to the fullest extent possible through productive, meaningful activities and strong relationships. These positive characteristics also help you cope when faced with life's challenges and stresses.

Physical health is connected to mental and emotional health
Taking care of your body is a powerful first step towards mental and emotional health. The mind and the body are linked. When you improve your physical health, you’ll automatically experience greater mental and emotional well-being. For example, exercise not only strengthens our heart and lungs, but also releases endorphins, powerful chemicals that energize us and lift our mood.

The activities you engage in, and the daily choices you make, affect the way you feel physically and emotionally.

Get enough rest. To have good mental and emotional health, it’s important to take care of your body. That includes getting enough sleep. Most people need seven to eight hours of sleep each night in order to function optimally.

Learn about good nutrition and practice it. The subject of nutrition is complicated and not always easy to put into practice. But the more you learn about what you eat and how it affects your energy and mood, the better you can feel.

Exercise to relieve stress and lift your mood. Exercise is a powerful antidote to stress, anxiety, and depression. Look for small ways to add activity to your day, like taking the stairs instead of the elevator or going on a short walk. To get the most mental health benefits, aim for 30 minutes or more of exercise per day.

Get a dose of sunlight every day. Sunlight lifts your mood, so try to get at least 10 to 15 minutes of sun per day. This can be done while exercising, gardening, or socializing.

Limit alcohol and avoid cigarettes and other drugs. These are stimulants that may unnaturally make you feel good in the short term, but have long-term negative consequences for mood and emotional health.

Improve mental and emotional health by taking care of yourself
In order to maintain and strengthen your mental and emotional health, it’s important to pay attention to your own needs and feelings. Don’t let stress and negative emotions build up. Try to maintain a balance between your daily responsibilities and the things you enjoy. If you take care of yourself, you’ll be better prepared to deal with challenges if, and when, they arise.

Taking care of you includes pursuing activities that naturally release endorphins and contribute to feeling good. In addition to physical exercise, endorphins are also naturally released when we:

Do things that positively impact others. Being useful to others and being valued for what you do can help build self-esteem.

Practice self-discipline. Self-control naturally leads to a sense of hopefulness and can help you overcome despair, helplessness, and other negative thoughts.

Learn or discover new things. Think of it as “intellectual candy.” Try taking an adult education class, join a book club, visit a museum, learn a new language, or simply travel somewhere new.

Enjoy the beauty of nature or art. Studies show that simply walking through a garden can lower blood pressure and reduce stress. The same goes for strolling through a park or an art gallery, hiking, admiring architecture, or sitting on a beach.

Manage your stress levels. Stress takes a heavy toll on mental and emotional health, so it’s important to keep it under control. While not all stressors can be avoided, stress management strategies can help you bring things back into balance.

Limit unhealthy mental habits like worrying. Try to avoid becoming absorbed by repetitive mental habits—negative thoughts about yourself and the world that suck up time, drain your energy, and trigger feelings of anxiety, fear, and depression.

More tips and strategies for taking care of yourself:

Appeal to your senses. Stay calm and energized by appealing to the five senses: sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste. Listen to music that lifts your mood, place flowers where you will see and smell them, massage your hands and feet, or sip a warm drink.

Engage in meaningful, creative work. Do things that challenge your creativity and make you feel productive, whether or not you get paid for it—things like gardening, drawing, writing, playing an instrument, or building something in your workshop.

Get a pet. Yes, pets are a responsibility, but caring for one makes you feel needed and loved. There is no love quite as unconditional as the love a pet can give. Animals can also get you out of the house for exercise and expose you to new people and places.

Make leisure time a priority. Do things for no other reason than that it feels good to do them. Go to a funny movie, take a walk on the beach, listen to music, read a good book, or talk to a friend. Doing things just because they are fun is no indulgence. Play is an emotional and mental health necessity.

Make time for contemplation and appreciation. Think about the things you’re grateful for. Meditate, pray, enjoy the sunset, or simply take a moment to pay attention to what is good, positive, and beautiful as you go about your day.

Everyone is different; not all things will be equally beneficial to all people. Some people feel better relaxing and slowing down while others need more activity and more excitement or stimulation to feel better. The important thing is to find activities that you enjoy and that give you a boost.

Digestive Health:

Your digestive system breaks down the foods you eat into the nutrients your body needs. If you neglect your digestive health, your body could run into problems digesting foods and absorbing those nutrients.

Your digestive health is directly impacted by the foods you eat and the lifestyle you live. By taking steps to improve your digestive health, your digestive system will function more efficiently, improving your overall health and sense of well-being.

Try these 10 tips for better digestive health:

Eat a high-fiber diet. Consuming a diet that is high in fiber and rich in whole grains, vegetables, legumes, and fruits can improve your digestive health. A high-fiber diet helps to keep food moving through your digestive tract. A high-fiber diet can also help you prevent or treat various digestive conditions, such as diverticulosis, hemorrhoids, and irritable bowel syndrome. In addition, it can help you achieve or maintain a healthy weight.

Get insoluble and soluble fiber. It is important to consume both types of fiber, which each help your digestive system in different ways. Insoluble fiber, also known as roughage, can't be digested by the body and therefore helps add bulk to the stools. Soluble fiber draws in water and can help prevent stools that are too watery. Good sources of insoluble fiber include wheat bran, vegetables, and whole grains; get soluble fiber from oat bran, nuts, seeds, and legumes.

Limit foods that are high in fat. In general, fatty foods tend to slow down the digestive process, making you more prone to constipation. Since it is important to get some fat in your diet, pairing fatty foods with high-fiber foods can make them easier on your digestive system.

Choose lean meats. Protein is an essential part of a healthy diet, but fatty cuts of meat can lead to uncomfortable digestion. When you eat meat, select lean cuts, such as pork loin and skinless poultry.

Incorporate probiotics into your diet. Probiotics are the healthy bacteria naturally present in your digestive tract. They help keep the body healthy by combating the effects of a poor diet, antibiotics, and stress. In addition, probiotics can enhance nutrient absorption, help break down lactose, strengthen your immune system, and possibly even help treat irritable bowel syndrome.

Eat on schedule. Consuming your meals and snacks on a regular schedule can help keep your digestive system in top shape. Aim to sit down for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks around the same time each day.

Stay hydrated. Drinking plenty of water is good for your digestive health. Water in your digestive system helps dissolve fats and soluble fiber, allowing these substances to pass through more easily.

Skip the bad habits. Smoking and avoid excessive caffeine and alcohol. Liquor, coffee, and cigarettes can interfere with the functioning of your digestive system, and lead to problems like stomach ulcers and heartburn.

Exercise regularly. Regular exercise helps keep foods moving through your digestive system. Exercise can also help you maintain a healthy weight, which is good for your digestive health. Make it a point to work regular exercise into your weekly schedule.

Manage stress. Too much stress or anxiety can cause your digestive system to go into overdrive. Find stress-reducing activities that you enjoy and practice them on a regular basis.

What you eat and the quality of your digestive health are intertwined. Following these 10 strategies will help make sure it’s always a happy relationship.

Longevity:

Having the right genes certainly boosts your chances of making it to the century mark, since longevity runs in families. At least 50 percent  of centenarians have first-degree relatives or grandparents who reached a ripe age.

You can't control genetics, but there are plenty of things you can do to increase the probability of living long.  At the end of the day lifestyle, diet, mental attitude and spiritual disposition play the biggest roles in longevity.

Hope to live to 100? Heed the following 20 tips and you just might make it.

Stay trim. Extra weight puts you at risk for heart attack, diabetes, cancer and other diseases that can shave years off your life.

Eat well and prosper. You know the drill – 10 servings of fruits and veggies a day (the more colorful the better), lots of whole grains and cut down on salt, fat and sugar.

Don't smoke. Need we say more?

Have kids later. A woman who bears a child after age 40 has four times of a greater chance of living to 100 than women who give birth earlier in life.

Feed your mind. Do crosswords, learn a new language, take up a hobby, attend a lecture; all these things will keep your mind engaged.

Stay fit. Regular exercise keeps your body strong and is the best insurance against disease and injury.

Be the life of the party. Or at least maintain social connections by having close ties with friends and family. Such connections can help ward off depression, boost your body's immune system and help you live longer.

Develop stress-busting habits. Walk, meditate, talk to a friend or play music. Learn stress management, as it's one of the keys to disease prevention.

Lend a helping hand. Volunteering makes you happier, healthier and live a longer life. There is a strong link between volunteering and longevity.

Get married. Plenty of studies show that married folks live longer than their unmarried counterparts.

Have more sex. An active sex life is closely connected with a longer life.

Laughter really is the best medicine. 15 minutes of laughter a day can improve blood flow to the heart by 50 percent, which helps reduce heart disease.

Keep your cool. Those who frequently express anger are more than twice as likely to have a stroke than those who control their tempers.

Get the right amount of shut-eye. People who sleep between six and a half and seven and a half hours a night live the longest. It also found that people who sleep eight hours or more, or less than six and a half hours, don't live quite as long.

Take a daily multivitamin. A regular dose of supplements, including calcium and vitamin D, can help lengthen life.

Daily flossing can add years to your life. Poor oral health is related to a higher risk of heart disease and stroke. People with gingivitis and periodontitis have a mortality rate that is 23 to 46 percent higher than those who don't.

Play fetch with Fido. People who have pets are less lonely and depressed and also get more exercise, all of which can add years to their lives.

Be part of a spiritual community. Many large-scale studies show that people who regularly attend religious services live longer, happier and healthier lives.

Have a regular medical checkup. Many diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease can be treated or even prevented if caught early enough.

Look for blue skies. One quality most centenarians share is optimism. If you want to live a long life, your attitude counts.