By Ella Brooks
Make over your health. Sounds daunting, right? It doesn't have to be. "The key is to break it down into smaller goals that you can find success with, and build upon them," says Beth Reardon, a registered dietitian and the director of integrative nutrition at Duke Integrative Medicine in Durham, N.C. With our easy plan, you'll incorporate one new healthy habit each week -- so you'll look and feel healthier in just seven weeks.
WEEK 1: Healthy Habit: Get more z's.
Here's a wake-up call: A recent study of over 30,000 people published in the journal Sleep found that people who got less than five hours of sleep nightly had more than twice the risk of heart disease compared to those who slept seven hours every night.
Action Plan: Create a snooze zone -- you'll sleep more soundly and find it easier to get the z's you need. "Your bed should only be for sleep and sex. Don't pay bills, work or do other things you associate with daytime or stress," says sleep expert Dr. Colette Haward, a clinical psychiatrist in New York City.
WEEK 2: Healthy Habit: Step it up.
It's no secret that exercise keeps you slim: Ninety percent of people in the National Weight Control Registry, a database of those who have lost at least 30 pounds and kept it off for at least a year, exercise regularly (on average, about an hour a day). But an active lifestyle isn't just about your waistline. In a recent study in the journal Circulation, each hour in front of the TV per day was associated with a 9 percent increased risk of death from cancer and an 18 percent increased risk of death from heart disease.
Action Plan: Put on a pedometer and challenge yourself to up your steps every day. Going shopping? Instead of parking as close as possible to the mall, park far away to squeeze in some extra steps.
WEEK 3: Healthy Habit: Start with breakfast.
Mom was right that you should always eat an a.m. meal: Nearly 80 percent of the people in the National Weight Control Registry do. And the right breakfast goes a long way. In one study published in Diabetes Care, researchers discovered that cereal fiber improved insulin sensitivity and reduced type-2 diabetes risk in people who were overweight or obese.
Action Plan: Eat a bowl of oatmeal topped with walnuts and fresh fruit in the morning. The combination of protein, whole grains and healthy fat will keep blood sugar on an even keel and prevent hunger pangs. Bonus: You'll do your immune system a favor. "Oatmeal contains compounds called beta glucans, which are a special kind of fiber that have immune-boosting properties," says Reardon.
WEEK 4: Healthy Habit: Slather on sunscreen.
We know you've heard it before, but it's worth repeating. According to a recent study in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology, about one in five Americans will develop skin cancer.
Action Plan: Wear a broad-spectrum (that means it protects against UVA and UVB, both types of dangerous ultraviolet rays) sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher every day, suggests Dr. Sandra Read, a dermatologist in private practice in Washington, D.C., and a spokesperson for the American Academy of Dermatology. Even when it's cloudy, the sun still emits dangerous radiation. "There are so many choices in sunscreen," says Read. "It's important to choose what's right for you, because if it's inconvenient you won't use it." If you're an athlete, look for waterproof so you don't sweat it off. If you have eczema or sensitive skin, seek out a product that is hypoallergenic and fragrance-free.
WEEK 5: Healthy Habit: Floss regularly.
This daily task doesn't just give you a sparkling smile; it may also protect you from cancer and heart disease. According to one study in The Lancet Oncology, men with a history of gum disease were 14 percent more likely than those with healthy gums to develop cancer. In another study published in the Journal of Periodontology, researchers found that people who had suffered from a heart attack had more bacteria in their gums.
Action Plan: You know you should floss once in the morning and once at night, but how do you make yourself stick with it? Set up a reward system: Complete one month of diligent flossing, and you get that new pair of shoes you've been eying or the novel you've been dying to read.
WEEK 6: Healthy Habit: Eat your greens (and reds and purples … ).
A colorful diet is one of your best weapons against chronic diseases like heart disease, cancer and diabetes. But according to data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, only 9 percent of Americans eat enough fruits and veggies. Don't rely on shortcuts, such as a glass of orange juice. "Juicing depletes phytochemicals by up to 40 percent," says Reardon. "You'll get more vitamin C from a cup of strawberries than from a glass of sugary OJ."
Action Plan: Up your produce intake by going vegetarian one night a week; have a veggie stir-fry with tofu or grilled portabella burgers. Or sneak grated carrots or zucchini into the batter next time you make muffins or bread.
WEEK 7: Healthy Habit: Flex your muscles.
Whether you're afraid of bulking up or think you'll look silly in the weight room, it's time get over your fear of strength training. Building muscle revs up your metabolism and keeps bone loss at bay. Brazilian researchers found that women who strength trained three times per week lost more weight and fat -- and less bone mineral -- than those who didn't.
Action Plan: Save time by doing moves that work multiple muscles at once. Pushups and planks are two exercises that you can do anywhere -- no dumbbells required.
Keep It up
According to a recent study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, it took 96 volunteers an average of 66 days to form a new habit. That's two full months of daily practice. So stay committed to as many healthy habits as you can stand; healthy challenges will soon become daily routines.
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