Here are 20 habits that require only a few minutes each, and will keep you on the road to good health when you've got more desire than time.
Sprouts are the richest source of sulforaphane, a highly potent antioxidant. In a Johns Hopkins University study, sulforaphane reduced by 60 percent the number of rats who developed mammary cancer after being exposed to carcinogens.
A one-ounce serving, or about a half cup, of freshly harvested broccoli contains at least 73 milligrams of sulforaphane -- the amount found in 1-1/4 pounds of cooked mature broccoli.
Want to lower your cholesterol by 11 percent in six weeks? Try adding soy to your diet. You might even reduce your diastolic blood pressure by six points in the same six weeks (diastolic refers to the lowest pressure in the arteries just before the next heart contraction). Those results came from a study at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, in which 43 women ages 45 to 60 ate just two tablespoons of soy powder sprinkled into milk or orange juice or over cereal daily. Otherwise, all it takes is a cup of soy milk, a half-cup of tofu, a scoop of soy protein powder, or a handful of roasted soybeans to make a difference. The secret ingredient is plant estrogen, which may also be of benefit to those fighting arteriolosclerosis or cancer, says study leader Gregory Burke, M.D., of Wake Forest's Department of Public Health Sciences.
We've all heard about folic acid and its benefits against birth defects and even against homocysteine, a major cause of heart disease. But there's a surprising and lesser-known plus: In the famed Harvard Nurses' Health Study, women who consumed more than 400 micrograms of folic acid daily for 15 years saw their colon cancer risk drop by 75 percent. Women who took the supplement for five to 10 years saw a 20 percent drop, as reported in the Annals of Internal Medicine. Currently, colon cancer has a death rate that surpasses breast cancer and is second only to lung cancer.
Two-thirds of a cup of blueberries yields the antioxidant capacity of 1,773 IU of vitamin E (60 times the recommended daily allowance) and 1,270 mg of vitamin C (that's 21 times the recommended daily allowance). "The antioxidant anthocyanin not only gives blueberries their color, but also discourages blood clots from forming, thus warding off heart attacks," says Mary Ann Lila Smith, Ph.D., professor of in-vitro technology at University of Illinois. Her studies indicate blueberries may improve night vision and slow macular degeneration by strengthening tiny blood vessels in the back of the eye. In a trial at Boston's Tufts University, aged rats fed blueberries for two months were faster, more coordinated, and better able to run mazes, according to a recent Journal of Neuroscience.
You might devour fewer calories if you start your meal with soup, according to a study at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. Hot soup helped fill the stomach so dieters tended to eat less later in the meal, said John Foreyt, Ph.D., director of the college's nutrition research program. Soup sippers lost more (about 1.3 pounds) than the non-soupers after one year.
"Take three minutes to write in your journal, craft a love letter, or drop a note to a friend," says Pamela Peeke, M.D., assistant clinical professor of medicine at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, and author of Fight Fat After 40 (Viking, 2000). "Especially when you're in a stressful situation, writing your emotions out is a catharsis." Indeed, researchers at State University of New York at Stony Brook found that 47 of the more than 100 asthma and rheumatoid arthritis sufferers in a study had a reduction in frequency and severity of their symptoms four months after writing about the most stressful event of their lives. They wrote for at least 20 minutes each day on three consecutive days.
None of those who wrote about nonemotional topics saw significant improvement, reported researchers in the Journal of the American Medical Association last year. So dig deep for inspiration, and better health.
Take in an art show, watch a movie, or attend a concert this weekend. You might live longer. A nine-year study of 12,000 people in Sweden found that those who attended such cultural events were about 36 percent more likely to live longer than those who rarely did so. Why? As reported in a recent British Medical Journal, such pleasures arouse the immune system, helping to fend off ills.
Listening to a half-hour of soft jazz music caused levels of immunoglobulin A -- our body's first defense against respiratory and other infections -- to rise 14 percent in a study involving 66 students at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Although the antibody (referred to as IgA) rose, the frequency of colds was not measured. The study was published in the Journal of Perceptual and Motor Skills. Nonetheless, "music calms, and just being in a relaxed state helps you heal," theorizes Michael G. McGuire, professor and director of Music Therapy at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti.
Exercising your brain may slow the development of Alzheimer's disease. A recent study of 193 Alzheimer's patients and 358 healthy people, mostly in their early 70s, showed that those who were mentally active from ages 40 to 60 were three times less likely to have Alzheimer's disease. The study was done by researchers at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.
"It makes sense," says James Mortimer, Ph.D., director of University of South Florida's Institute on Aging. "If you go to the gym and lift weights, your muscles grow bigger and you're able to lift more. We'd be surprised if you weren't in fact nourishing the brain by exercising it intellectually."
The theory is that, much like trees branching out, brain cells grow branches as new connections are made through riddles, puzzles, board games, and other intellectual challenges. "Lack of use causes our mental trees to drop branches," Mortimer says.
Just leaning back, closing your eyes, and relaxing for a few minutes will help you make clearer decisions and be able to attend to detail. If you're really dragging, nap. "Anything you do to reduce stress makes a difference," says James B. Maas, Ph.D., a Cornell University psychology professor in Ithaca, New York, and author of Power Sleep (HarperCollins, 1999). "Even better: Take a 15-minute power nap. People say they don't have enough time, but they'll take a coffee break. Rather than ruin your sleep with caffeinated beverages, why not pay back the debt in your sleep bank and recharge your batteries? It's amazing how you'll be revived for the rest of the day -- and you'll be in a better mood."
If you're suffering from a tense neck or back, take a tennis ball and place it in a tube sock. Then stand with your back against a wall, place the ball between it and you, and move your back to lower the ball over the areas that hurt but are otherwise difficult to reach. "It can work as a self-massage," says Baylor College of Medicine's Dr. Cianca.
Just three minutes of assuming a yoga posture known as the Cobra, or Sphinx, can relieve some lower-back problems. Lay on your stomach on the floor, holding in your tummy. Keeping your hips on the floor, raise your upper body with your arms until you're on your elbows. "If back pain is muscular in origin this will be a helpful exercise," says Dr. John Cianca, an assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Houston's Baylor College of Medicine. "But if you've got a herniated disk or arthritis, it won't help. If it hurts, you should stop."
Wearing sunglasses will reduce your risk of cataracts by two-thirds, as demonstrated in more than a decade of studies of 3,000 Chesapeake Bay fishermen, as reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association two years ago. "The eye's lens is a living thing, and ultraviolet rays age them just as they age your skin. That leads to cataracts, macular degeneration, and other eyesight problems," says Anne Sumers, M.D., a Ridgewood, New Jersey, ophthalmologist and spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology.
Just a few minutes walking at a brisk pace burns calories -- lots more than if you sit around watching TV. Walking as few as 10 minutes daily lets the average 130-pound woman burn off almost five pounds a year if her diet doesn't change.
You can get a quick overall workout by doing only three exercises: crunches, push-ups, and squats.
If floor push-ups are too difficult, do them against a wall instead -- you'll still tone your shoulders, chest, and upper back. Stand about a foot away from the wall, and place your hands palms down and shoulder width apart on the wall. Lean in and then push your body out without allowing your elbows to splay to the sides.
For abdominal-flattening crunches, lie faceup on the floor with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Fold your hands across your chest and curl your shoulders toward your knees. You'll be less likely to pull with your neck if you imagine you're cradling an egg between your chest and chin. Exhale through the mouth on the effort, or as your body rises, and inhale through your nose as you lower yourself.
Do squats to whittle your rear and thighs. Stand with feet shoulder-width apart and feet facing forward. Lower your body with your weight in your heels. "You'll look as if you're about to sit in a chair, not like you're searching for a contact lens," says Susan Magee, personal trainer and operations manager at Memorial Athletic Club in Houston. Take care that you don't bend much at the waist, and watch that your knees do not extend forward of your toes. Perform each exercise two to three times weekly, building up from 10 to 20 repetitions. Eventually, add sets, taking a 15-second rest or stretch in between.
Make yourself feel more than six years younger simply by brushing and flossing every day, says Michael Roizen, M.D., an anesthesiologist and internist at the University of Illinois, Chicago. Roizen, author of Real Age: Are You as Young as You Can Be? (Cliff Street Books, 1999), says that the latest research shows a link between the bacteria pervasive in tooth decay and the bacteria found in artery clogging. "Flossing your teeth every day can make your arteries younger," says Roizen. "Men under 50 with advanced periodontal disease are 2.6 times more likely to die prematurely and three times more likely to die of heart disease than those with healthy teeth and gums."
Kids who wash their hands thoroughly with soap at least four times daily missed 75 percent fewer school days, had 25 percent fewer colds, and suffered 50 percent fewer stomach flus over a seven-week period than children who washed less. That was found in a study of 305 elementary school children in Grosse Pointe Park, Michigan, as published in the Journal of Family Practice.
Pasteurizing apple juice kills bacteria. Also, just one teaspoon of cinnamon mixed into a 64-ounce bottle of unpasteurized apple juice kills 99 percent of the E. coli bacteria that may be present, found microbiology researchers at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas. They also discovered that adding 3 teaspoons of cloves to every quarter pound of hamburger had the same effect. That's much more clove than most of us want, but adding cinnamon, garlic, and oregano helps too. Left unchecked, E.coli can lead to severe food poisoning, damaged kidneys, and even death. "You still have to heat the meat, but spices provide an added safety valve," says Erdogan Ceylan, a research assistant in microbiology.
Take the time to tell your pharmacist about all the over-the-counter -- and herbal -- remedies you're taking. That's the advice from David Witmer, Pharm. D., director of the Professional Practice and Scientific Affairs Division at the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists in Bethesda, Maryland. "For some reason, people never think to include cold medicine, antihistamines, or birth control pills -- and, most important, herbal products and dietary supplements -- all of which can react significantly with prescriptions," says Witmer. The interactions of the foods, drugs, and supplements we take can prove to be deadly, killing more than 7,000 people each year and leading to almost 7 percent of all hospital admissions, according to the Journal of the Geriatric Society.
You may be in danger of having serious liver disease that sometimes shows no apparent symptoms if you use cholesterol medications or blood-pressure-lowering drugs, combine alcohol with painkillers, or have multiple sexual partners or tattoos. When healthy, the liver -- our body's largest single internal organ -- filters waste, manufactures nutrients from food, and regulates our blood. A panel of liver tests costing about $200 can reveal if your liver is damaged from an excess of iron, inflammation, or such diseases as hepatitis C, which caused singers Naomi Judd and ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons to put their careers on hold.
You should be tested -- and then rechecked periodically, if your doctor advises -- if you have a family history of liver disease or face a high risk for viral hepatitis. Also at risk are patients who take the medications or participate in any of the activities previously mentioned. "It's a simple blood test, and you need to know," says David Brandhagen, M.D., hepatologist at Mayo Clinic. "If you're having a drug reaction, you can stop the drug, and your liver usually gets better on its own. And if you have viral hepatitis, you need to know because it can cause progressive liver damage and treatment may be necessary."