You know you shouldn't eat too much, drink too much or smoke at all. But the holiday season is a tough time to undertake a major health overhaul. • So why not start small? Just washing your hands for 15 to 20 seconds can reap big rewards, especially during peak party (and flu) season. • Here are 10 ways to start taking charge of your health:
Take a walk.
Humans are designed to be on the move, said Dr. William Meller, an internist and author who specializes in evolutionary medicine. "Walking triggers all of our bodily systems: digestion, stress relief, thinking and preparation for sleep." It's simple, free and easy on the joints. Walk every day and get a pedometer to track your steps, working up to at least 10,000.
Keep a journal.
Writing down everything you eat can double your weight loss, according to a study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. "The more food records people kept, the more weight they lost," said lead author Jack Hollis, a researcher at Kaiser Permanente's Center for Health Research. Scribble on a notepad, use an online food journal or send yourself text messages.
Skip the soda.
Soda and other caloric, sugar-sweetened beverages have contributed to skyrocketing rates of obesity and Type 2 diabetes. But there's also evidence that drinking diet soda leads to weight gain. Researchers suspect that tricking the brain — getting sweetness without the calories — makes you crave more sugar than ever.
Build your muscles.
If you want to keep your muscles from weakening as you age, try strength training. Personal trainer Jim Karas suggests starting with pushups for the upper body and lunges and squats for the lower body. "Move slowly, and think about the muscles you are engaging. One slow set of 10 is all you need, but make sure to fail," which means you can't perform another repetition.
Stressed-out people are more vulnerable to colds and other viruses, they take longer to recover from illness, and they gain more weight than their relaxed counterparts, research has shown. Exercise, deep-breathing, meditation, tai chi and yoga all are proven stress relievers.
Eat out less.
"Nutrition and calories aren't intuitive," obesity specialist Dr. Yoni Freedhoff said. "When restaurant salads can have more calories and fat than a Big Mac, you know you're putting your health at risk. You'll save more than your money by eating meals in. You might even save your life."
Be a social butterfly.
Research has shown that joining a club or sports team, belonging to a church group or keeping in contact with friends creates a sense of social identity that can help significantly reduce your risk of having a stroke, dementia and even the common cold. According to the MacArthur Foundation Study of Aging in America: "Loneliness breeds both illness and early death."
Get your zzzzzzzz.
Sleeping well is the single most overlooked factor critical to good health, especially during the flu season, said sleep specialist Dr. Rubin Naiman of the University of Arizona's Center for Integrative Medicine. His easy tip: Try watching comedy on television before bed. "Laughter is good medicine — and good sleep medicine. I recommend it over sleeping pills."
Eat whole foods.
Fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, eggs and whole grains that are unprocessed and unrefined typically don't have added sugar, salt or fat. They often have a low glycemic index, which means they don't raise blood sugar and insulin levels as quickly as processed foods. Eat whole wheat bread instead of white bread, or start the day with oatmeal, rather than a sugary cereal.
Find your passion.
Do things that bring meaning to your days, said Patricia Boyle, a neuropsychologist in the Alzheimer's Disease Center at the Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, whose research has shown that having a higher purpose can reduce the risk of death among older adults. "Purpose is cognitively stimulating," said Dr. Thomas Perls, director of the New England Centenarian study.