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When Healthy Habits Backfire

Some Healthy Habits Can Cause Trouble; Find Out What to Do
By David Freeman
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

When it comes to healthy habits, can there be too much of a good thing? Absolutely. Eating wholesome foods helps keep you healthy, but overeating will make you fat and prone to illness. Exercise helps keep you fit, but working out too hard or too often can cause injury and fatigue.

Of course, these are only two of the most obvious examples of how healthy habits can backfire. Here are seven more:

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1. Cleaning your kitchen. No doubt about it -- a dirty kitchen can raise the risk of contracting a food-borne illness. But the way many people clean sinks, countertops, and other surfaces in the kitchen -- wiping with a damp sponge or dishcloth and then leaving it around for next time -- can increase rather than reduce exposure to E. coli, salmonella, and other disease-causing microbes. “The sponge or cloth you’re using can actually spread virulent bacteria around the kitchen,” says Margaret Lewin, MD, clinical assistant professor of medicine at Weil Medical College in New York City and chief medical director of Cinergy Health, a Florida-based insurance company. To keep that from happening, she recommends giving the sponge or cloth a daily 60-second blast in the microwave. “Imagine all the bacteria dividing and happily munching on spoiled food since the sponge’s last use, and then decide if it’s time,” she says. Because of fire risk, don't put a dry cloth or sponge in the microwave; wet it first. 

2. Using ergonomic products. These days all sorts of products are being marketed as “ergonomic,” from chairs and computer mice and keyboards to tools and sporting goods. But just because a product is labeled ergonomic doesn’t mean it will prevent or relieve aches and pains. Experts say that many so-called ergonomic products (including the biggest-selling office chair) actually cause pain. “People often assume that if they buy an ergonomic device, it will magically solve their problem,” says Alan Hedge, PhD, professor of design and environmental analysis at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. “But many of these products don’t put you in a safer position. It’s a crazy situation.” Before buying any ergonomic product, it’s wise to examine it carefully and, if possible, try it out. “You have to use a modicum of common sense,” Hedge says. “If it looks weird and feels awful, for goodness sake, don’t buy it.”

3. Getting a “base tan.” Despite all the negative publicity they’ve gotten in recent years, tanning salons remain popular -- especially with young people. Some people schedule a few sessions of indoor tanning prior to leaving for a sun-filled vacation, believing that a base tan will enable them to avoid sunburn and to tan deeply with less damage to their skin. Not so. “The pigmentation in tanned skin amounts only to an SPF of about 4, so getting a base tan provides almost no additional protection from the sun,” says June Robinson, MD, professor of clinical dermatology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago. More to the point, she says, any degree of tanning damages the skin, causing premature aging and raising the risk for skin cancer. So forget about tanning salons, and heed the familiar advice when venturing outdoors in sunny climes: avoid the sun between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., when solar radiation is strongest; at other times, wear sun-protective clothing, including a broad-brimmed hat, pants, and a long-sleeved shirt, and make liberal use of sunscreen (SPF 30 or higher). 

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