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The Secret Shortcuts of Healthy People

Blueprint, September/October 2007

Life was easier when your mom forced you to eat a balanced meal. She bought the healthy food, cooked it, and served it to you. Nowadays you still know the right thing to do (eat your vegetables!), but it all seems so complicated. (Should I pay more for broccoli that's organic? Will steaming it leach out all the vitamins? Couldn't I just wash down a vitamin with my martini and call it a side dish?) When it comes to being healthy, you have nothing but options. Although that's nice when you're talking TiVo, it can make a simple trip to the supermarket feel like the most gnarled decision tree, as every pro (fish oils!) appears to have a con (mercury poisoning!). The fact is, everyone could use a little advice.

So we canvassed the country's experts, ranging from top physicians and personal trainers to nutritionists and even our own lifestyle guru, Martha Stewart, to find out how they make healthy decisions a painless part of their daily lives. Cultivating these good habits -- studies show that in order to transform a behavior into a routine, you need to do it for 27 consecutive days -- is the easiest possible way to turn something you know you should do into something you actually can do. On the following pages, Blueprint serves up professional tips, tricks, and techniques in bite-size pieces -- just like Mom did.

No. 1: Exercise More (Okay, Exercise)
You've got a job to do, people to see, and, um, TV to watch. But working up a sweat is one of the most effective ways to prevent cardiovascular disease, the number-one killer in America. We could all reduce our risk of heart disease by 50 percent to 80 percent through lifestyle changes alone -- like not smoking, altering our diet, and exercising, says Dr. Donnica Moore, a health expert for Life Fitness, a wellness company in Far Hills, New Jersey. Women who exercise regularly also have a 30 percent to 50 percent reduced risk of breast cancer.

Secrets to success: Schedule your sweat. "I use my PalmPilot to pencil in a workout every single day for a month," says Erika Bloom, owner of Erika Bloom Pilates Plus in New York City. "I never actually exercise seven days a week -- if a friend calls and says, 'Come to this play on Tuesday,' I cancel the workout -- but I end up doing four or five sessions a week." Even if five times a week is a pipe dream, plan as much exercise as you can fit into your calendar. An ideal routine, says Los Angeles fitness consultant Ashley Borden, is 30 to 60 minutes of cardio three to four times a week. To be sure it happens, she makes exercise dates with a friend. "When you have somebody to train with, your accountability is 100 times better," she says. 

Also, set yourself up to be a successful early riser: "I lay out my workout clothes the night before," Bloom says. Even my jacket, keys, and water are there, so when I wake up, I throw everything on and run to the gym instead of sleeping in. If you lose motivation or become bored easily, get out of the gym and start wearing a pedometer, suggests Elizabeth Somer, a registered dietitian in Salem, Oregon, and aim for 10,000 steps a day. (Log on to walkstyles.com to learn about DashTrak, an online pedometer program that charts your daily steps, distance, calories burned, and average heart rate.) "Even just walking will do you good," says New York City cardiologist Dr. Nieca Goldberg. "You don't have to run or jog to get heart-healthy benefits."

No. 2: Strength Train
You can barely find time to do cardio, let alone pump iron. Besides, the machines are intimidating and you don't want to end up looking like a man. But strength training maintains and increases your muscle mass and decreases your percentage of body fat, Goldberg says. And because muscle is more metabolically active than fat, strength training turns your body into a more effective calorie burner. Recent studies show that it also helps prevent osteoporosis.

Secrets to success: Sneak it in, doing a few minutes a day here and there, no matter where you are. This, coupled with some half-hour sessions, will help you meet the three hours of weekly strength training that Borden suggests. If you're weights- or machine-phobic, try practicing some strength-training yoga moves, such as maintaining the plank pose, which is similar to holding yourself up during a full-body pushup. This makes your arms stronger and also works your back, abs, and legs. "I do plank in hotel rooms when I travel," Bloom says.

You can even strength train on the go. If you're standing in line, try her stealth move: Put your weight onto one leg, float the other foot off the floor and hold it until you start to fatigue a little bit in the muscles of the standing leg, then switch. "It's a small enough move that the people around you won't notice," she says, "but you're toning your thighs and abs."

No. 3: Eat Your Fruits and Vegetables
With your hectic schedule, you're lucky to grab three meals a day, much less all the servings of fruits and vegetables that health guidelines recommend. But to fight everything from heart disease to breast cancer to obesity, experts agree that you should eat at least five daily servings of fruits and vegetables -- nine being ideal -- in a variety of colors, which reflect different protective nutrients. One serving equals a piece of medium-size fruit; a half cup of fresh, canned, cooked, or frozen fruit or vegetables; a quarter cup of dried fruit; or a cup of raw, leafy vegetables.

Secrets to success: Goldberg throws a cup of blueberries in her cereal every morning to get two servings right off the bat. Somer includes at least two fruits or vegetables in every meal, like a salad with mandarin oranges, and then eats another as a snack -- say, an apple with peanut butter. "So no matter what, I get at least seven servings a day," she says. You can also sneak produce power into yogurt, soups, and smoothies by adding a powdered vegetable supplement. Borden spoons Udos Choice Beyond Greens (available at health-food stores) into her morning shake. "It's a great source of nutrients and fiber," she says. 

And remember: Fruits and vegetables needn't always be fresh. Somer stocks up on frozen berries and lines her cupboards with stewed tomatoes and tomato sauce. Nor do veggies have to be in a bowl, she says. You can layer almost a cup of lettuce or spinach in a sandwich or tortilla." Cooking or steaming vegetables makes them easier to digest and, therefore, helps you absorb more nutrients. Just be careful not to overcook them: If vegetables lose their vibrant color, they've also lost many of their vitamins.

No. 4: Include Omega-3s
A regular haul of omega-3 fatty acids, the magic ingredient found largely in fatty fish, can benefit brainpower and vision and promote heart health. Omega-3s are also essential to fetal development, making them a must for women who are pregnant or planning to be. But sometimes netting the catch of the day feels like the chore of the month. For one thing, fish is slimy, so you may not like to cook it at home. Besides, it might have mercury in it, right?

Secrets to success: Experts suggest two servings of fish per week, so order it every time you eat at a restaurant, says Moore. "It's the only New Year's resolution I've made and kept," she says. To avoid mercury-infused or endangered fish, do as Martha Stewart does and carry a guide in your wallet. (Log on to oceansalive.org to download the Pocket Seafood Selector, which lists nonendangered fish that are high in omega-3 fatty acids and low in contaminants.) Fish like chunk light tuna and wild salmon are smart choices because they contain eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), two potent fatty acids.

If you simply can't or won't eat fish, reap its benefits from walnuts, flaxseed, or omega-3-fortified eggs and milk. All contain alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which your body converts to EPA and DHA. Enriched soy milks and algae-derived DHA dietary supplements and spreads are also good vegetarian sources. Boston-area nutritionist Candace Combe, R.D., likes Earth Balance, a vegan spread that's low in saturated fat and packed with omega-3s. I cook with it, spread it on bread, and use it just like butter, she says.

No. 5: Eat More Organic Food
Processed food is so easy; it comes in colorful bite-size packages that you can take anywhere (mmm, Cheez-Its). And buying organic, whole foods can take your whole paycheck. The downside of convenience foods, however, is that they are often loaded with salt, sugar, and preservatives that allow them to sit on store shelves for millennia.

As for nonorganic produce, Dr. Christine Horner, an expert in natural health and breast cancer in Taos, New Mexico, says, "It's much better for you and the earth if you eat organic as often as you can -- pesticides get into our water supply, lakes, and oceans, and kill wildlife, coral, and even us."

Secrets to success: "Choose foods that are as close to their original form as possible," Somer says. She eats broccoli and even frozen broccoli, but not the frozen broccoli in cheese sauce. She goes for plain oats, but not the maple-flavored instant oatmeal. And if she is going to have a potato, it's a baked potato, not french fries, hash browns, or chips. Another tip: Always shop the perimeter of the grocery store; processed foods tend to be stored in the center aisles. "I'll make a detour into the middle for protein-rich canned beans or if I need vanilla for baking," Combe says. "Otherwise, I shop the outskirts in the produce and refrigerated sections."

And although buying everything organic is great in theory, if you can't afford it in practice, do so when it matters most. "Broccoli, bananas, corn, pineapple, and kiwi are pretty low in pesticides, so I don't buy them organic," Combe says. "But I buy only organic strawberries or apples because they often have high pesticide levels." And don't think a surgical strike is the answer -- peeling apples and other fruit cuts down on the pesticides, but doesn't eliminate them, Horner says. (Log on to foodnews.org for a list of the pesticide levels in produce. )

No. 6: Get Enough Sleep
You'll sleep when you're dead, right? Or at least when you're dead tired. Sounds like a plan, except that a lack of zzzs impairs your body's ability to heal itself and lowers brain function. Studies show that people who get only five hours of sleep can exhibit the motor skills of someone who drank two alcoholic beverages. Staying up late also screws up cortisol levels, putting you more at risk for diabetes and obesity, and research also indicates that a good night's shut-eye can reduce your risk for breast cancer.

Secrets to success: Try to hit the sack by 10 p.m. and get eight hours of rest. If you go to bed at 10 and wake up by 6, your body will get its optimal levels of healthy hormone fluctuations, says Horner. But if 10 p.m. is just crazy talk, the next best thing is to go to bed by midnight and get up at 8. "Melatonin, our sleep hormone, spikes between midnight and 1 a.m., so you don't want to be awake then," she says. It's a very powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory; it decreases the amount of estrogen your body produces, and it stimulates your immune system.

If you're a night owl, Horner says, naturally train your body by going to bed 15 minutes earlier each week. And if you toss and turn once you're under the covers, don't self-medicate with over-the-counter remedies, which can leave you with a morning hangover effect (in which case, you shouldn't operate heavy machinery -- like your car). Instead, dim the lights a half-hour before bedtime and turn down the heat. Low light signals your brain that it's time to sleep, and cooler air promotes the small body temperature drop that occurs when you slumber.

If all else fails and you don't get your eight hours, make it up. "I'm a good napper," Stewart says, echoing the well-proven advice of other efficient people who slip in sleep. "I can take a 15-minute nap and feel infinitely better." But anything longer than about 20 minutes can be too much of a good thing. "A nap that's too long or too late in the day can interfere with your nighttime sleep," Moore says.

No. 7: Put Down the Sugar and Carbs, and Trounce Trans Fats
Experts agree that these are the big three -- the axis of evil that leaves us chubby and cranky. Along with spiking insulin levels and packing on pounds, sugar inflames cells and "makes skin more sensitive to sun damage and premature aging," says New York City and Miami dermatologist Dr. Fredric Brandt. Beyond the way we look and feel, there's also our future health to consider. Women who have higher insulin levels from consuming mass amounts of sugar also have a more than 280 percent higher risk of developing breast cancer, Horner warns. And trans fats promote inflammation and the production of free radicals that contribute to chronic disorders like dementia, Alzheimer's, arthritis, heart disease, cancer, premature aging, and the list goes on.

Secrets to success: In the grocery store, read package labels and pass on any food that names sugar as one of its first three ingredients, says Somer. "I don't care if its sucrose, high-fructose corn syrup, brown sugar, or honey -- it's all sugar," she says. She also rejects anything with saturated or trans fats, which may be listed as partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. "If a food has one gram or more of combined saturated and trans fats per 100 calories, I put it back," she states. "I want to get my trans-fat consumption down to zero."

Remember to crunch the numbers on the labels. Legally, a product like crackers can claim to have zero trans fats if it has less than half a gram per serving, which might be listed as three crackers. "But if you eat three servings -- nine crackers -- which people often do, you're getting too many trans fats," Combe says. Also consider a food's color. Breads, rice, and pasta made from whole grains are often tan or brown and are digested more slowly than their refined white counterparts, which the body processes as sugar almost immediately, causing insulin spikes. "Just replace every white food you eat with something brown," Brandt says.

No. 8: Relax and Learn to Manage Stress
Your life is more zoo than zen -- you rarely get the chance to relax -- and just thinking about making time to meditate is stressful. But studies show that 90 percent of all illnesses, both mental and physical, are related to stress, Horner says. Constant tension elevates the stress hormone cortisol. Anything you do to dampen that physiological response can help your health.

Secrets to success: Chill out in chunks, grabbing a bit of focused relaxation when you can. Research shows that people who meditate for just 20 minutes twice a day are half as likely to be admitted to a hospital, says Horner, who practices Transcendental Meditation. But if om is not where your heart is, hit the gym instead of the ashram. Scientifically, exercise has been shown to reduce levels of stress hormones, says Goldberg, who also suggests reading or listening to music as alternative forms of downtime, since any activity that relaxes you counts as a stress reducer.

If all else fails, consider Horner's favorite stress-reducing supplement: holy basil (available at health-food stores). "This herb is a great example of an adaptogen, which help your body cope with stress and manage cortisol levels," says Horner. One caveat: Holy basil is not recommended for women who are pregnant or trying to conceive.

No. 9: Drink More Water
No caffeine, no bubbles, no fun! But staying hydrated is the best way to flush out toxins, ease digestion, maintain energy, and promote good brain function and all-around health.

Secrets to success: Let vanity motivate you, and think of water as a beauty-boosting beverage. "If a client wants to feel less bloated and leaner, I immediately get her off all soda and juice," Borden says. She allows for only one cup of coffee in the morning: Too much caffeine jacks up your body and confuses your hunger signals, she says, and diet sodas with sugar substitutes stimulate a craving for sweetness.

When you're thirsty, the only liquids you should drink are water or herbal tea, she says, because anything caffeinated is a diuretic. Instead, try to drink 100 ounces of water a day. Borden suggests filling a 32-ounce container and keeping track of how often you have to refill it. Once you've drained it three times, you've (almost) hit your target. One caveat: "I tell people to finish before 4 p.m. so they're not up all night peeing," Borden says. Aim to empty the first bottle by 10 a.m., the next by 1 p.m., and the last by late afternoon. If regular water bores you, add a slice of lemon or cucumber to your glass (just like at the spa!), or try a flavored, calorie-free water, such as Dasani Plus.

No. 10: Take Your Vitamins
You try. You really do. But even on your best day, you're not certain you're getting all your essential nutrients. "Ninety-nine out of 100 Americans don't meet the minimum standards," Somer says. But even small vitamin and mineral deficiencies that you have today can lead to big-time health problems, such as osteoporosis, tomorrow. Worrying about what your body lacks is enough to make you want to exchange that spinach for a Snickers.

Secrets to success: Supplement with supplements, your nutritional insurance policy -- they've got you covered in case you don't get everything you need from food. "If you're female, you probably need calcium and vitamin D," Moore says. "If you're menstruating, you need a multivitamin with iron, and if you're vegetarian, you most definitely need iron." A multivitamin alone often won't cut it because "iron and calcium can't be given in the same pill; they bind to each other, decreasing absorption," Moore says.

How you take a supplement also matters. "You've got to have food in your stomach in order to absorb nutrients," Somer says. But it's not necessarily as easy as tossing back your pills right after breakfast, because the compounds in coffee and tea -- whether it's regular or decaf coffee, black or herbal tea -- will block iron absorption. Don't take a supplement when those are in your stomach," Somer says. Citrus and vitamin C, on the other hand, aid the absorption of vitamins, "so it always helps to take your multivitamin with a little orange or grapefruit juice," Moore says. The smartest suggestion: Line your vitamins up next to your toothbrush, and take them with a small glass of juice before brushing your teeth at bedtime. That way you'll have dinner in your stomach, but no coffee in your system.

No. 11: Stop Scarfing the Bread Basket
Downing a caddy of carbs -- or committing other impulsive acts of noshing -- leads to overeating, weight gain, and all the attendant health problems.

Secrets to success: It's better to eat a little now, when you first feel hungry, than a lot more later, when you're truly starving. "Snacking is the best way to maintain your blood sugar and weight," says nutritionist Keri Glassman, author of "The Snack Factor Diet" ($20, Crown). People think snacking is cheating or ruining your appetite, but I'm all for ruining appetite so you eat in a measured way all the time. Glassman finds that healthy noshing keeps her clients from bingeing on a huge dinner after skimping all day. "Following the appetite-ruining theory," Bloom says, "I always carry a baggie of almonds in my purse. I have a couple while walking to the restaurant for dinner, and it prevents me from dipping into the bread and butter."

The key to smart snacking, says Glassman, is choosing food that combines some protein, a few carbs, and a little fat, so your body digests it slowly, keeping your blood sugar fairly level. A nutrient-bankrupt pretzel, for example, is a quickly broken-down carb that will give you a sugar rush, followed by a dip that makes you sleepy (and, shortly afterward, hungry again). Instead, Glassman likes to spread Laughing Cow low-fat cheese on cucumber slices, eat a cup of edamame, or throw together a little snack mix of Wheat Chex, raw almonds, a few shards of dark chocolate, and sunflower seeds.

Along with skimping on snacks, imbibing booze can also lead to overeating by wearing down your resolve to pass on dessert. (By all means, get the tarte tatin if you have room for it. But if you've already eaten your own appetizer, half your friend's, and an entree, do you really want dessert, or is that the shiraz ordering?) If you do drink, think of it as a substitute for dessert; both tend to be filled with sugar and calories, so indulge in one or the other.

Keep in mind that while one glass a day of any kind of alcohol may help reduce your risk of heart disease, there is a direct link between how much you drink and your breast-cancer risk. "Alcohol increases the amount of estrogen our bodies produce, and estrogen is what really fuels breast cancer," Horner says. "One drink a day increases the risk by 11 percent, two drinks by 22 percent to 40 percent, three by 33 percent to 70 percent." If you're going to indulge, red wine has more healthy polyphenols than white, Somer says. Of course, blueberries and red grapes are also antioxidant-rich (not to mention lower in calories), so don't start overdrinking to your health.