Six Healthy Habits

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.

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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.