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A Happy Medium: Why Moderation is Key to a Healthy Lifestyle

"Everything in moderation" is standard advice for how much to eat, drink, and even worry. But how much is really too much (or too little), when it comes right down to it? We went in search of healthy zones for everything from alcohol to sleep to screen time.

sugar cubes alcohol phone cord
Photography by: Will Anderson

Goldilocks was onto something -- it’s smart to avoid extremes. But when you apply that to your habits, and not the temperature of porridge, the just-right option isn’t always obvious. Luckily, scientists are gaining insight into what’s optimal in your daily life and best for your well-being. These are the latest middle-of-the road guidelines.

 

Alcohol

Generally speaking, if you drink, the less, the better for your health, says Tim Naimi, M.D., an alcohol epidemiologist at Boston Medical Center. But the research can send mixed messages. For every study that links alcohol to accidents and serious health concerns like breast cancer and liver disease, there seems to be another indicating that moderate use may help lower your stress level and reduce your risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.

 

Your best bet? Stick to one drink (a 12-ounce beer, 5-ounce glass of wine, or cocktail with 1.5 ounces of liquor) a day, per the federal dietary guidelines. That way, you’ll lower your risk and reap some mild stress reduction. A few drinks in one night are fine every once in a while -- just reserve those extra glasses for special occasions.

 

Sleep

Seven to eight hours of shuteye is sufficient for most adults. Get too little, and you hazard more than just a mid-meeting yawn. Staying up for 19 hours, according to a study published in Occupational & Environmental Medicine, can leave you as cognitively impaired as someone who is legally drunk; over time, lack of sleep can contribute to obesity and increase cardiovascular risk. (Oversleeping can have similar negative effects.)

 

(TRY: These 10 easy things before bed for a better sleep) 

 

That said, skimping one night to bingewatch This Is Us isn’t the end of the world. You might be less focused the next day, but your body will compensate for the debt by sleeping more deeply the next night or two, says Daniel Kay, Ph.D., a sleep researcher and assistant professor of psychology at Brigham Young University, in Provo, Utah. If late nights become routine, he suggests getting back on a normal schedule by setting your alarm for the same time each day, including weekends. The regular wake-ups will eventually reset your bedtime to an earlier hour, too.

 

Exercise

If your idea of cardio is a brisk walk or an easygoing bike ride, try to log at least 30 minutes five days a week, says the American College of Sports Medicine. But if your happy place is a sweaty Spinning class or steep hiking trail, you can aim a little lower: 20 minutes three days a week meets the minimum. Research shows that hitting those marks can help protect you from heart disease, stroke, and type-2 diabetes, among other perks. And for once, being an overachiever isn’t necessarily a good thing, says N. Travis Triplett, Ph.D., a professor of exercise science at Appalachian State University, in Boone, North Carolina. Doubling up on cardio may benefit some people, but too much of any single type of exercise can lead to overuse injuries, such as pain and inflammation in joints and connective tissues. (In other words, don’t be surprised if your new run-everyday habit leaves you with shin splints.)

 

(GRAB: These healthy, on-the-go snacks perfect before or after your next workout)

 

Instead, mix in weight training, stretching, or balanceimproving exercises like yoga on noncardio days, to multiply the payoff in a way that’s kinder to your body. Log two and a half hours of moderate cardio a week and you’ll snooze more soundly, too. A 2011 study published in Mental Health and Physical Activity found that the risk of feeling overly sleepy during the day fell by 65 percent for men and women ages 18 to 85 who exercised at least that much.

hand weights and sleep masks
Photography by: Will Anderson

Caffeine

If this is your crutch, congratulations: You probably don’t need to pull back. On average, each of us downs 165 milligrams of “liquid caffeine” -- slightly less than the amount in a tall Starbucks dark-roast coffee— each day, according to a study in Food and Chemical Toxicology. That’s less than half of the 400 milligrams the FDA deems reasonable. (If you’re pregnant, cut that amount in half.) Some more points of reference: An eight-ounce cup of joe contains between 95 and 200 milligrams, compared with just 14 to 70 milligrams in the same amount of black tea; a 12-ounce soda has up to 55. If you ever feel jittery, dial down your intake; otherwise, bottoms up.

 

Anger

Letting off a little steam -- in the right way -- is definitely a good thing. Four factors determine whether a person’s bouts of anger are within a healthy range: frequency, duration, intensity, and outcome, says Howard Kassinove, Ph.D., director of the Institute for the Study and Treatment of Anger and Aggression at Hofstra University, in Hempstead, New York. The good kind happens only once in a while and doesn’t linger; it might involve raising your voice or even yelling, but the tone isn’t so threatening that it pummels your relationships (not to mention your nerves and heart).

 

“If you express anger too intensely or frequently, and it lasts weeks or months, or creates distance from friends and family, then you’re going over the edge,” says Kassinove. Should you feel yourself reaching a boiling point, the American Psychological Association suggests this: Breathe deeply, and slowly repeat a soothing word (like tranquil) to yourself; or try to mentally de-escalate the issue (such as thinking It’s just a temporary setback, rather than I’ll never get that chance again). That’ll help you cool down before anyone gets burned.

 

(CHECK OUT: 60 of our favorite ways to relax as the weather gets warmer!)

 

Worry

The goal isn’t to feel zero angst when faced with a challenge; that’s because a degree of anxiety can actually motivate you in productive ways. “Worry can be beneficial when it cues the brain to figure out how to prepare for or improve a stressful situation,” says Kate Sweeny, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside. “It drives you to get the job done.” However, worries that aren’t tied to specific plans, or that interfere with daily routines like sleep, tip into excess territory. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, if you avoid social situations out of fear, or have panic attacks, flashbacks, or nightmares about a past event, you should consider seeing a mental-health professional to help manage your worry level.

 

Screen Time

We check our phones -- for texts, emails, and “likes” -- about 60 times a day, or every 15 minutes while we’re awake, says a recent study by researchers at California State University, Dominguez Hills, of 217 subjects ranging in age from 20 to 65. That adds up to almost four hours of screen time, which may be twice as much as is good for us.

 

(READ: How less screen time during family meals can reduce obesity) 

 

“The amount is troubling, because it means it’s happening when people should be communicating with each other or paying attention,” says the study’s lead researcher, Larry D. Rosen, Ph.D., coauthor of The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World (MIT Press, 2016). “Also, this distraction doesn’t allow us time to sit with our thoughts, which is when our brain comes up with creative ideas.” A more reasonable frequency, says Rosen, is 30 times a day, or every 30 minutes. To unplug, try setting no-phone zones at the dinner table, at the gym (leave it in your locker), and in bed.

 

Sun Exposure

Good luck finding a dermatologist who okays spending any time outdoors sans sunscreen. “Just a few minutes of exposure to ultraviolet sunlight, especially between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., when rays are strongest, can damage skin cells, and if done repeatedly can contribute to increased risk of skin cancer and premature aging,” says Andrew F. Alexis, M.D., chairman of the department of dermatology at Mount Sinai St. Luke’s and Mount Sinai West, in New York City. Alexis suggests applying a minimum of SPF 15 before heading out.

 

(GET: The best skin care advice from our favorite experts!) 

 

When you’re in the sun, reapply it every two hours; try to wear a hat and stay in the shade, too. If you’re concerned about getting enough vitamin D, experts advise taking oral supplements (600 to 800 IUs per day is recommended) or eating at least two 3.5-ounce servings of fatty fish, like salmon or sardines, a week.

 

Sugar

Slow your (Tootsie) roll. Less than 10 percent of your daily calories should come from added sugar, which gets pumped into yogurt, juice, soda, and flavored coffee. That isn’t much at all: A single can of regular soda can blow your budget. Go overboard and you put yourself at risk for obesity, type-2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease (CVD). In fact, a diet high in added sugar triples the risk of death from CVD, says James J. DiNicolantonio, a cardiovascular research scientist at Saint Luke’s Mid America Heart Institute, in Kansas City, Missouri. That doesn’t mean you can’t eat a slice of your own birthday cake. But as a rule, make water your default drink, and budget for splurges by eating less sugar beforehand.

Solid Standards

 

While diets come and go (high-protein, low-fat, zero-carb), these guidelines are based on facts, not fads. And sodium is something we can all cut down on.

Fats

They should make up about a third of your food. Limit the saturated kind (dairy, meat) to 10 percent, replacing it with polyunsaturated fats from nuts, fish, and vegetable oils.

Protein

Try to eat 50 grams a day. That’s about one three-ounce grilled chicken breast, a cup of quinoa, and a small container of Greek yogurt.

Sodium

Most of us eat about 3,400 milligrams per day, versus the ideal 1,500. Cook at home as often as possible to control the salt, and opt for low-sodium prepared foods.

 

 

Additional reporting by Claudia Bloom

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