Sticking to a healthy lifestyle can be tough. After all, what sounds more fun: walking around the block or going to a sports bar for some wings and beer?
We’re all human, and sometimes we make less-than-healthy choices. But if you eat smart, exercise, manage stress, and quit smoking, you’ll feel better and set the stage for an active and healthy future.
Go for the Greens (Red, Yellow, and Crunchy, Too)
Your genetics don’t have to be your destiny, especially if you watch your diet.
“I always tell [people], what they eat is just as important as the genes they inherited from their parents,” says Roy Buchinsky, MD, director of wellness for University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center.
Eating healthy means balance:
- Go with fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products.
- Choose lean cuts of meat and poultry, and add fish, beans, eggs, and nuts.
- Stay away from saturated and trans fats.
- Ease up on the salt and sugar.
- Watch how many calories you have each day.
That last one can vary depending on your age and how active you are. In general, adult women need about 1,600 to 2,400 calories a day. Adult men need between 2,000 and 3,000.
“When it comes to eating healthy, variety is the spice that will keep you on track,” Buchinsky says.
So try new things. Make your go-to-comfort foods in healthier ways. Here’s what you can get out of that:
- Less salt and bad fats and more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains may lower your chances of Alzheimer’s disease.
- You’re less likely to have heart disease and stroke if you have more fruits, veggies, whole grains, and healthy proteins.
- More fruits and vegetables may help keep you from getting several types of cancer, including lung, mouth, stomach, throat, and colorectal.
- A balanced diet can help keep your weight in check, too. And even if you’re more likely to pick up a doughnut than an apple, you can still lower your odds of diabetes by eating more whole grains, fruits, and veggies, and laying off the bad fats and high-sugar beverages.
- Getting plenty of calcium can help prevent osteoporosis. It’s found in dark, leafy greens, yogurt, milk, and edamame. If dairy doesn’t agree with you, other options, like almond milk, can give you that boost of calcium, too. Some fortified brands may even have more calcium than a cup of traditional milk.
“Usually within a month or so of starting to eat better, [people] will tell me they just feel better, even if they haven’t lost any weight,” Buchinsky says. “Diet is truly powerful.”
To get the most out of it, you should get 150 minutes of moderate physical activity each week. But unlike watching an entire season of your favorite show in one day, you can split it up, like 10 minutes at a time.
Exercise can be “almost magical” in terms of how it can help you feel better physically and emotionally, says Ron DeAngelo, director of sports performance training at the University of Pittsburgh.
“People don’t have to run a marathon or bike 100 miles,” DeAngelo says. “All someone has to do is move and then move a little bit more to get some incredible benefits.”
Exercise can help you:
Keep a healthy weight: Regular physical activity can help you stay the size you should, even if you indulge every now and then. And along with a healthy diet, more activity can help you drop those extra pounds.
Fight off disease: It can help lower your blood pressure and boost your “good” cholesterol, even if you’re a bit heavier than you should be. Lower blood pressure and a healthy cholesterol level lower your odds of heart disease. Exercise can also help make you less likely to have:
- Type 2 diabetes
- A stroke
- Certain cancers
Feel happier: It can help you feel better about yourself and make you more confident because it boosts certain chemicals in your brain that make you feel good.
Have more energy: Moving more helps your cardiovascular system work better. That brings more oxygen and important nutrients to your heart and lungs. It all means more energy and stamina for you.
Get more ZZZs: Get active and you’ll probably get more restful sleep. That’ll help you feel more alert during the day.
Learn to De-Stress
Busy schedules are stressful, and so are financial issues, problems with your boss, a health problem, and trouble with relationships at home. How we manage those kinds of things can affect our long-term health.
“Everyone knows that stress can affect mood, but few people truly understand how stress, especially chronic stress, can also affect nearly every part of your body in a very bad way,” says Melinda R. Ring, MD, executive director of the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.
It can cause problems with your muscles and your heart and lungs. It can also raise your chance of diabetes and affect your digestive system. Your immune system is at risk, too. Stress can even affect your ability to get pregnant.
While we can’t get rid of stress completely, we can learn how to manage it.
“Managing stress doesn’t mean sitting and staring at a candle or doing yoga, although that works for some people,” Ring says. “Stress management is finding out what works for you.”
That can be as simple as taking a walk in the park. Your body responds in great ways when you manage stress well, including:
- A boost to your immune system, which means fewer colds and fewer aches and pains
- More energy
- Better sleep
- A healthier heart
To better manage stress, eat well, exercise, get enough sleep, and spend time with family and friends doing things you enjoy. If you’re still having a tough time, work with your doctor. Together, you can make a plan to get a handle on things.
Quit the Smokes
Nicotine is addictive. The more you have, the more your body craves it. Many former smokers say quitting was among the hardest things they’ve ever done.
But motivation isn’t hard to find.
“No matter how long a person smoked or how much they smoked, there will be some improvement in health [when they quit],” says Deepak Bhatt, MD, of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.
Obviously, there are benefits to quitting. You’ll lower your odds of:
- Certain cancers
- Cardiovascular diseases
You’ll also cough and wheeze less often. If you’re a woman, your chance of infertility will also go down.
Many things can help you quit, including over-the-counter or prescription aids and group or individual counseling.
“Quitting smoking can be very tough for some people, and a lot of times it takes several tries,” Bhatt says. “But with encouragement, no judgment on how many times a person tries, and the right combination of help, people can be successful and they will feel great about their success.”