Making health a priority is easier -- and more fun -- than you might think. Eat more chocolate. Attend more concerts. Take more vacations. If you're past 40, it's not too late -- it's prime time to slip key habits into your life. Here's a to-do list for a healthier, happier you!
Take charge of your health -- today. Here's how:
Add some weight. If you've never hefted a hand weight, start today. Most of the loss of strength that we label aging is actually the result of disuse, notes Lawrence Golding, Ph.D., director of the exercise physiology laboratory at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. To stay strong (and maintain bones), schedule training daily, alternating muscle groups.
Eat more, gain less. Start supper by eating a big, Mediterranean-inspired salad. You'll take in fewer calories overall than if you skipped the starter, says David L. Katz, M.D., of Yale University School of Medicine. Mix a variety of greens with a rainbow of vegetables (red grape tomatoes, carrots, yellow bell peppers), top it with a little olive oil and a splash of balsamic vinegar, and you'll be well on your way to meeting the USDA's recommended daily intake of fruits and veggies, now up to nine servings.
Build your bones. You may like milk, but it takes five glasses to hit the 1,500 mg daily calcium target for post-menopausal women (1,200 mg for premenopausal women). Most of us miss the mark. In fact, a report says that in the near future, half of all Americans over 50 will be at risk for fractures. Eating foods rich in calcium is a good start, but you may want to take a 1,000 mg calcium supplement, says Elizabeth Dupuis, M.D., of Boston University School of Medicine. Other options: Chew on Tums or Viactiv calcium squares, or make that latte a double (low-fat milk, not espresso). Don't forget nondairy sources such as spinach and arugula.
Check your posture. Program an hourly reminder on your computer or personal digital assistant to pull your abs in and your shoulders back. Slumping can cause muscle tension, fatigue, and even pain.
Be active. Schedule moderate-intensity aerobic workouts, such as walking or a step class, that last at least one minute for each birthday you've celebrated. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends at least 30 minutes a day for general health, but for weight loss or even maintenance, more time is necessary. Make a half-hour your starting line, not limit. Working up to 60 or 90 minutes lets you incorporate flexibility and strength training into your routine, says Wojtek Chodzko-Zajko, Ph.D., head of kinesiology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
A happier you leads to a healthier you. This week, incorporate these six feel-good strategies into your routine.
Color yourself happy. Break out the watercolors and put away the blues: A 2004 study found that people who do something creative every week make fewer doctor visits, take less medication, and report less depression than those not engaging their artsy side. Sign up for a class, or join a singing club or a theater group. Part of the benefit comes from the social aspect of group activities, and, for solo pursuits, a sense of individual mastery, according to Gene D. Cohen, Ph.D., director of George Washington University's Center on Aging, Health, and Humanities.
Practice peace. A weekly stress-reduction session can calm you and keep your blood pressure low. More than a dozen studies have found that people who attend religious services and/or have private religious rituals reap health benefits.
Exercise your optimism. Flex your happiness muscles: Make a list of all you're grateful for or look over vacation photographs. Researchers find that heart patients -- and remember, cardiovascular disease is the No. 1 killer of women -- who feel positive are 20 percent more likely to be alive more than a decade later than those who are morose.
Fit in fish. Eat fish at least twice a week to boost your heart health and stave off depression. Fatty fish such as mackerel, salmon, and sardines -- all high in omega-3 fatty acids -- can reduce risk of heart disease.
Talk it out. Frequent heart-to-hearts with someone give your brain a boost and improve your sleep.
Treat yourself. A three-times-a-week treat may help your heart. The flavanols in chocolate protect against cardiovascular disease in the same way as aspirin, but with less potency (and, granted, more calories). "Darker chocolates have more flavanols than milk chocolate," says Debra Pearson, Ph.D., associate professor of nutrition at University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.
From enjoying an art exhibit to taking an evening to volunteer, taking care of yourself after 40 can be fun. Here are good-for-you things to try this month:
Be a culture vulture. For the ticket to a longer life, head to a museum, art gallery, or concert. In a nine-year study of more than 12,000 people, those who took frequent cultural outings lived longer than those who rarely patronized the arts. Why? Cultural pursuits may produce hormones that boost immune function, finds study author Lars Olov Bygren, M.D., Ph.D., of Umea University in Sweden.
Take stock. Don't wait for January to make resolutions. "At the start of each month, look back on what you've been doing and see what needs improving," Elizabeth Dupuis, M.D., says. For example, if your gym bag rarely makes it to the gym, perhaps you need to adjust your plans--get a weekly tennis game going or join a walking group.
Ink yourself in. When is the last time you had a real day off--a whole day? At least once a month, schedule a block of time that's just for you. Consider that appointment unbreakable. "Women are quick to give up their personal time, while men will protect that racquetball night with the guys no matter what," says Pamela Peeke, M.D., assistant professor of medicine at the University of Maryland.
Check on your checkups. Women, you probably make an annual pilgrimage to the gynecologist and schedule a yearly mammogram, but do you neglect other important health checks, such as blood pressure, thyroid function, eyesight, and dental health? Also, everyone needs to add screenings for cholesterol (start at 45), diabetes (especially if you have high cholesterol or high blood pressure), and colorectal cancer (start at 50). Don't plan all your tests for January (good intentions fill waiting rooms) or December (to deplete your health spending account). Make one each month so you can complete the list by year-end.
Volunteer. Every month, do at least one charitable act, such as volunteering at a soup kitchen or taking part in a 10K for breast-cancer awareness and fund-raising. Not only does helping others feel good, people who volunteer live longer than those who don't.
This year, why not plan a vacation? It's good for your heart!
Take a real vacation. Scientists at the State University of New York at Oswego found that people who take a real vacation (and not just a few days off to clean out the garage or visit the in-laws) at least once a year are almost 30 percent less likely to die of cardiovascular disease during the next decade than those who are chained to their desks.
Host a big bash or a small gathering of friends. Social support is good for the brain. "Having a social network is the best predictor of cognitive health in aging," Lawrence Katz says. "Unpredictability challenges the brain, and nothing is more unpredictable than other people."
Enjoy your victories. Celebrate your healthy future. Once a year, reflect on what's working in your life and what isn't. Banish the thought that some future event (a new job, home, or love interest) will be the key to happiness. Now, make a wish and blow out that candle.