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Six Healthy Habits

Is taking care of yourself a top priority? Unfortunately, for most women, this task falls last in line, after the demands of children, marriage, job and home. A life-threatening illness is often the only thing that makes us snap to attention, forcing us toward healthy behavior.

That's why Virginia Pressler, M.D., vice president of Hawai'i Pacific Health service-line development and an expert in women's health, reminds us that the six most important habits to good health are also the most basic-and the ones we are most likely to ignore until it is too late.

1Exercise is NOT a luxury. "A woman's body needs physical activity every day," says Pressler. It's not a luxury, it's a necessity. Get a minimum of 30 minutes per day of exercise that is hard enough to break a sweat. "Inactivity is not good for our bodies," she explains. "But you don't have to get in your car and drive to the gym to work out." Take frequent breaks from your computer at work and move around. Use the stairs instead of the elevator. Instead of driving everywhere, walk when you can. Jog around the field while the kids practice soccer. Take a family walk after dinner. Hike a trail with your children on the weekend. Trot along next to the kids while they ride bikes. Exchange babysitting favors with friends so you can take turns exercising while the little ones play. Those little segments may not qualify as workouts, but they help, says Pressler. It's all part of an attitude shift. People with demanding jobs and young kids, she says, just have to be a little creative. There are few true excuses not to exercise: even those with arthritis are much better off with physical activity.

2 You don't get a 1,500 calorie snack for 150 calories' worth of exercise. Pressler advocates a balanced lifestyle, common sense and good eating habits rather than the latest gimmicks or diets, which always become impossible to maintain. An especially damaging side effect of dieting in general is the rise and fall in your weight, which strains vital organs and can lead to other health problems.

"It has to be a lifestyle," stresses Pressler. "If you have healthy eating habits, you don't need to go on a diet."

Start by incorporating plenty of fresh vegetables, fruit and whole grains into snacks and meals. Calcium is also important; in addition to dairy products, you can find it in almonds, broccoli, greens (for example, mustard and turnip greens, or kale), soybeans and tofu.

Women also need to remember that their choices become the family's selections, as moms still make most of the nutrition decisions and set the example for children. At soccer and baseball games (and at the office, for that matter), the drink of choice should always be water. Juices and sport drinks loaded with sugar contribute to obesity among children. Post-sporting-event snacks should be limited to healthful options, such as water, fruit, sandwich quarters or yogurt. Players burn only a couple of hundred calories in games, says Pressler, then dig into 1,000 calories of hot dogs, hamburgers, doughnuts, spam musubi, brownies and cookies afterward. "We're setting them up with poor habits for life; we have to stop the cycle somewhere."

The bottom line is that you have to know what you're putting into your body and into your family members' bodies. Reading nutrition labels really does lead to better food choices. A balanced rather than an obsessive approach-guided by common sense rather than the latest bestseller-will take care of this automatically. Weight maintenance is "not about having a beautiful body," says Pressler. "It's about having a healthy body."

3 Take as good care of yourself as you do your car. Get an annual physical with a primary care physician who evaluates your blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar, and can monitor these levels over time. Pressler points out that we are diligent about taking in our cars for six-month checkups, yet allow years to slip by without scrutinizing ourselves.

Many people have higher blood pressure than they realize. With unchecked, uncontrolled high blood pressure, your blood vessels will become damaged over time, leading to a risk of heart disease and stroke. The same is true for cholesterol levels: Have them checked every three to five years, especially after age 40.

4 Your family can be dangerous to your health. If blood relatives have suffered from chronic heart disease or cancer, ask your primary care physician if you are a candidate for risk evaluation. This helps determine if you might need genetic testing-a comprehensive, expensive technique not meant for general screening. Pay special attention to family history of breast cancer and ovarian cancer, which have high rates of genetic occurrence.

5 Hang on to your looks. If heart disease and cancer don't kill smokers while they are young, they will be able to look forward to an accelerated aging process. Smoking causes wrinkles and makes you look much older than you would if you were a nonsmoker. If you smoke to stay thin, this appearance-based concern may offer more motivation than the image of blackened lungs.

6 And then there's the good stuff. Health isn't just about vitamins and the gym. You also need laughter, friends, seven to eight hours of sleep each night and dark chocolate.

Don't underrate sleep. "There's more and more data showing that people who get less than six hours of sleep are at higher risk for diabetes and other chronic disease," says Pressler. It's best to rise and retire at the same time each day, so the body gets into a rhythm. Routine aids sleep patterns. On the other hand, too much sleep-12 hours or more at a stretch-isn't healthy either.

Medical literature also documents the benefits associated with laughter. An easy path to good humor is through friends. "We're social beings and we're meant to be connected to others," Pressler notes. Isolation contributes to depression, which spawns any number of health problems. With time so precious for most women, Pressler recommends socializing while exercising. Rather than always meeting for lunch, consider walking with a friend-or taking your spouse or an adolescent daughter on a stroll. It's a wonderful way to connect and communicate.

Except for chocolate (medical research also documents the health benefits of high-quality, dark varieties), most of these healthful habits are easily ignored in the face of duty. But they're all essential to maintaining a balanced lifestyle and reducing stress. In addition to the recommendations listed above, make sure to incorporate regular mammograms, Pap smears and check-ups with your primary care physician into your efforts to extend the length and quality of your life. And feel good about putting yourself first once in a while.

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,October

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