There are 13 ways to boost your chances of living a happy, healthy life. More can be added to this list, but, for simplicity’s sake, we’ll stick with this typically unlucky number.
Instead of bringing misfortune, however, the 13 habits promise a life of vigor and vivacity. There are, of course, no guarantees, but many of the practices mentioned here have been published in scientific journals. Disregard them, and you may well be taking a big gamble with your mental and emotional well-being.
Healthy Habit No. 1: Eat Breakfast Every Morning
Breakfast eaters are champions of good health. Research shows people who have a morning meal tend to take in more vitamins and minerals, and less fat and cholesterol. The result is often a leaner body, lower cholesterol count, and less chance of overeating.
“That one act [of eating breakfast] seems to make a difference in people’s overall weight,” says Melinda Johnson, RD, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association (ADA). She says breakfast can hold off hunger pangs until lunchtime and make high-calorie vending machine options less enticing.
Not only that, researchers at the 2003 American Heart Association conference reported that breakfast eaters are significantly less likely to be obese and get diabetes compared with nonbreakfast eaters.
Another study in the International Journal of Food Science and Nutrition showed that people who consumed breakfast cereal every day reported feeling better both physically and mentally than those who rarely ate cereal in the morning.
For kids, breakfast appears to enhance alertness, attention, and performance on standardized achievement tests, reports the ADA.
To get the full benefits of breakfast, the Mayo Clinic recommends a meal with carbohydrates, protein, and a small amount of fat. They say that because no single food gives you all of the nutrients you need, eating a variety of foods is essential to good health.
Yet, even with so much scientific support that breakfast does the body good; many people still make excuses not to eat in the morning. They include not having enough time and not feeling hungry. For these people, Johnson suggests tailoring breakfast to the day.
“When I’m getting ready in the morning, I don’t really want to take the time to eat breakfast because that would mean sacrificing sleep,” says Johnson. “So I bring my breakfast with me, and I know I have an hour when I’m reading emails in the office when I can eat it. By that time, I’m hungry because I’ve been up for almost a couple of hours.”
Healthy Habit No. 2: Add Fish and Omega-3 Fatty Acids to Your Diet
The AHA recommends a serving of fish two times per week.
Besides being a good source of protein and a food relatively low in the bad type of dietary fat called saturated fat, fish has omega-3 fatty acids — which have been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease.
Fatty fish such as mackerel, lake trout, herring, sardines, albacore tuna, and salmon, are rich in two kinds of omega-3 fatty acids: eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
Foods such as tofu, soybeans, canola, walnuts, flaxseed, and their oils contain alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which convert to omega-3 in the body. Even though the benefits of ALA are controversial, the AHA still recommends foods containing it as part of a healthy diet.
In addition to their heart-health benefits, there is some evidence that omega-3 fatty acids may also soothe an overactive immune system, says Johnson. Even though this benefit is still being studied, she says there appears to be a link between getting more omega-3s in your diet and reducing allergies, asthma, eczema, and autoimmune disorders.
Healthy Habit No. 3: Get Enough Sleep
“Your body has to have enough time to rest,” says Michael Fleming, MD, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP). Otherwise, he says you may find yourself feeling cranky and tired.
This may sound like common sense, but according to the National Sleep Foundation (NSF), more than two-thirds of older adults suffer from sleep problems and many American adults don’t get the minimum amount of shuteye needed to stay alert.
Sleep is vital to good health and to mental and emotional well-being. The NSF reports that people who don’t get enough slumber are more likely than others to develop psychiatric problems and to use health care services. Plus, sleep deprivation can negatively affect memory, learning, and logical reasoning.
Not enough ZZZs can also be hazardous. More than one-half of adult drivers — some 100 million people — say they have driven drowsy in the past year, according to NSF polls. About one out of five of these drivers — 32 million people — say they’ve fallen asleep while driving.
Each year drowsy driving causes more than 100,000 car crashes, 1,500 deaths, and tens of thousands of injuries, reports the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The NSF recommends taking a 15 to 20 minute nap. Because it takes about 30 minutes for the caffeine to work, taking a nap while you wait for the caffeine to kick in can help restore alertness.
To avoid the pitfalls of insufficient sleep, make sure to get at least seven to 10 hours of slumber each night. Kids need more sleep, depending on their age.
Healthy Habit No. 4: Make Social Connections
Volunteer. Go to church. Join a club. Whatever you do, do it with people. Communal activities are good for your physical and mental health, according to a study published in the March/April 2004 issue of the American Journal of Health Behavior.
It makes sense, says C. David Jenkins, PhD, author of Building Better Health: A Handbook of Behavioral Change. He says social ties have many benefits, including:
- Providing information. You may think for instance your frequent nosebleeds, coughing, and sneezing episodes are trivial, but when a close friend or relative hears of it, he or she may encourage you to go to a doctor. If the symptoms turn out to be a serious condition, the social tie could have saved your life.
- Instrumental help. Friends and family can provide physical support in time of need. They may help with cooking, cleaning, running errands, doing grocery shopping, and driving to the doctor’s office.
- Emotional support. Sharing a problem with a trusted person can help alleviate an internal burden. “It’s a load off your chest,” says Jenkins.
- Offering a sense of belonging. This feeling not only helps reinforce a person’s identity, it also assists in preventing and overcoming depression and anxiety.
Community ties also help improve mental functioning, says Fleming. Group activities can help keep the mind active and maintain desirable levels of serotonin — the brain chemical associated with mood. “Lack of social interaction will [decrease] serotonin levels,” says Fleming.
Healthy Habit No. 5: Exercise for Better Health
We already know that physical activity has a bounty of benefits, which makes it so puzzling why so many people just don’t do it. According to the CDC, more than 60% of Americans do not get regular exercise.
In case you needed an incentive, here is a review of the advantages of exercise, per the National Cancer Institute:
- Helps control weight
- Maintains healthy bones, muscles, and joints
- Reduces risk of developing high blood pressure and diabetes
- Promotes psychological well-being
- Reduces risk of death from heart disease
- Reduces risk of premature death
Studies have also shown a link between exercise and a reduced risk of certain cancers.
Besides its long-term effects, moving your body has immediate benefits, says Cedric Bryant, chief exercise physiologist for the American Council on Exercise. The short-term results of exercise include helping people to think and move better, manage stress, improve mood, and get an energy boost.
The excuses that people often give to not exercise are the precise reasons to exercise, says Bryant. People who say they are too tired or don’t have time to workout don’t realize that exercise gives people more energy and allows them to be more productive with the rest of their time.
Healthy Habit No. 6: Practice Good Dental Hygiene
Flossing your teeth every day could add 6.4 years to your life, according to Michael Roizen, MD, author of RealAge. In his book, Roizen lists flossing as one of the most important daily activities — along with exercise and quitting smoking — that could extend life span.
Roizen’s calculation may raise some eyebrows, but the idea that oral health is connected to overall health isn’t far-fetched.
The mouth, after all, is an integral part of the body. “Teeth have a blood supply, and that blood supply comes from the heart,” says Richard Price, DMD, consumer advisor for the American Dental Association (ADA).
Researchers suspect that the bacteria that produce dental plaque enter the bloodstream. They say these bacteria are somehow associated with the inflammation that occurs with plaque that blocks blood vessels and causes heart disease.
Other researchers have found links between oral bacteria and stroke, diabetes, and the birth of preterm babies and those that have low birth weight.
In addition to preventing disease, flossing and brushing can help keep your pearly whites intact for more than just cosmetic reasons. Teeth help you chew food, speak properly, and smile — which, according to Price, can help you keep your dignity.