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10 ways to improve your health in 2006

by Julie Deardorff, Tribune health and fitness reporterChicago Tribune
January 8th, 2006

Robert McKeague's top tip for better health is simple: Get some exercise. We're not surprised. The sprightly 80-year-old from Villa Park became the oldest man to complete the Hawaii Ironman triathlon last year, a grueling odyssey that involves a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike and a 26.2-mile run.

McKeague, a retired accountant with enviable calves and stamina, has one other familiar piece of advice: Watch what you eat. His own strategy is to limit red meat and junk food and push away from the table at the appropriate time. "I don't particularly focus on health," he said. "It comes with the package" of training for an endurance event.

Although an Ironman is extreme, preparing for a race or event is one way to embrace a healthy lifestyle. We've listed 10 other ideas to guide you down the right path in 2006. Just try one of our Q tips. We bet you'll have a healthier year.

1. Go fishing
Take omega-3 fatty acids. They're not just for your heart anymore.

2. Eat your medicine
Six superfoods can reduce heart disease as effectively as a pill.

3. Get in bed
You're more likely to be stupid, fat, moody and susceptible to disease when sleep-deprived.

4. Chill out
Breathe, meditate, calm your brain.

5. Do the write thing
Save thousands of dollars in therapy by keeping a journal.

6. Stop smoking
Cigarettes are a drag on your physical and financial health.

7. Stop blushing
Cosmetics contain chemicals not tested for safety.

8. Avoid the hospital
Medical errors and infections can leave you in worse shape than when you went in.

9. Practice yoga
Yoga's benefits stretch well beyond stress reduction.

10. Exercise
Misery loves company. Find a partner, a group or a gym that fits your personality.

The details on our 10 health tips

Good health is not a singular event. It's a lifestyle. But most people don't know how to begin taking care of themselves. Here, in no order of importance, are our 10 favorite ways to live a healthier life.

1. Go fishing

Oily fish are one of the best sources of omega-3 fatty acids, which the body desperately needs to fight disease but can't produce on its own. Omega-3s work together with omega-6 fatty acids (found in seeds, nuts and vegetable oils) to promote health. But most Americans have an imbalance--too much omega-6 and too little omega-3--that leads to disease.

Scientists know omega-3s reduce inflammation, decrease the risk of heart disease, lower triglycerides, inhibit the development of plaque and blood clots, and reduce cardiac arrhythmia. But newer research has shown omega-3s can help with diabetes, arthritis, depression, attention-deficit disorder and breast cancer.

To avoid eating fish contaminated with mercury (pregnant women should be especially vigilant), look for wild Alaskan sockeye salmon, which is still relatively pure. The white fish tilapia also is extremely low in mercury, according to neurologist David Perlmutter, author of "The Better Brain Book" (Riverhead, $24.95). Avoid farm-raised fish because they typically are fed hormones, antibiotics and other substances your body doesn't need, Perlmutter said.

If you can't get your omega-3s through salmon, sardines, herring, tuna or mackerel, try ground flaxseed and walnuts.

2. Eat your medicine

Modern medicine likes to promote pharmaceutical drugs as the answer to everything, but we like Hippocrates' belief that food is medicine. In particular, we're fans of the polymeal, a feast of fish, fruits and vegetables, garlic, almonds, dark chocolate and wine.

This nutritious food combination was devised partially as a tongue-in-cheek response to the "polypill," a cocktail of aspirin, folic acid and cholesterol-lowering and blood-pressure drugs. The polypill, created in 2003, was to be a preventive wonder drug and was touted as a way to cut the risk of heart attack or stroke in people over 55 by as much as 80 percent.

But Dutch researchers found that eating a polymeal would achieve roughly the same effect. The scientists discovered that heart disease could be cut by 76 percent and men could expect to live more than six years longer (and women 4.8 years longer) simply by eating a polymeal a day.

Two handfuls of almonds alone can reduce low-density lipoproteins (LDL), the notorious "bad" cholesterol, by nearly 5 percent, according to a University of Toronto study. A daily dose of garlic can reduce total cholesterol levels by 17 points, for a 25 percent decrease in heart-disease risk.

3. Get in bed

The dalai lama was right on when he said, "Sleep is the best meditation . . . not for Nirvana but for survival."

Sleep heals both the mind and the body, but at least three of every four people have trouble getting enough z's a few nights a week. Recent studies show more people are sleeping less than six hours a night. Occasional insomnia is nothing to worry about, but chronic sleep loss can result in weight gain, increased risk of hypertension, increased stress-hormone levels, irregular heartbeat and problems with learning, memory and the immune system.

Your sleep deprivation also can affect others; it contributes to medical errors and road accidents.

The use of sleep medication is on the rise, but drugs can be physically or mentally addictive. Instead, lay the foundation for a good night's sleep during the day; don't caffeinate, exercise or stimulate the brain by watching television or reading a thriller too close to bedtime.

Create a before-bed ritual as you would for a newborn, suggests Ann Dyer in the companion guide for "Z Yoga, the Yoga Sleep Ritual" (www.sleepgarden.com).

To soothe the senses, Dyer recommends "taking a hot, fragrant bath, giving yourself a foot massage with scented oil, turning down the lights and lighting a candle, changing into soft sleepwear, having a cup of herbal tea or hot milk, turning off the TV and turning on some quiet music or just enjoying silence."

If all else fails, Dyer says, "have confidence in the power of rest." If you let go of the goal to sleep, you'll very likely drift off.

4. Chill out

The telltale signs of stress--stomachaches, headaches, insomnia, memory loss, exhaustion and eating too much or not enough--are hazardous to your health. Virtually every major disease, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, arthritis, obesity and even cancer, has been linked to stress through mainstream medical research, says Dr. Vern Cherewatenko, author of "The Stress Cure" (HarperResource, $13.95). Cherewatenko offers seven steps to de-stress, including eating right, exercising, getting enough sleep, building strong relationships and practicing mindful living.

Breathing exercises are another handy tool. For those with the time and the means, The Art of Living Foundation (www.artofliving.org) offers a six-day, 18-hour workshop that teaches how to use the breath as a way to deal with daily stress. Breathing and meditation techniques also can be learned in yoga (though some types of yoga--like Kundalini--focus on it more than others).

One of the more advanced yoga poses, the supported headstand, also can be used to calm the brain and relieve stress. The headstand is also said to stimulate the pituitary and pineal glands, strengthen the arms, legs, spine and lungs, improve digestion and tone the abs. It's considered therapeutic for asthma, infertility, insomnia and sinusitis.

For a guide and a list of contraindications and cautions, go to www.yogajournal.com and search under "poses."

5. Do the write thing

Deepak Chopra, medical doctor and proponent of alternative medicine, calls journaling "one of the most powerful tools we have to transform our lives," but don't just take his word for it. Start one. Journaling helps release and process emotions, it provides clarity and can help you find your inner voice.

"Your writings, musings and doodles are a way to talk to your soul," writes Sandy Grason in "Journalution" (New World Library, $14.95).

There is no best or right way to journal. Pick a medium--a spiral notebook, a blank book labeled "diary," drawing paper, a computer--then write whatever you want whenever the mood hits. An obsessive journaler since 4th grade (I have more than 70 notebooks), I favor a portable, lined desk journal by Raika that is small enough to carry at all times.

Don't know where to start? Write what you eat every day. (It could help you lose weight.) Write what you do. Write what you feel. Eventually, journaling will become a natural habit, a conversation with yourself. And although you might not want to go back and re-read some of the darker moments you've chronicled (feel free to rip these pages up), your journal inevitably will preserve precious snapshots of your life.

6. Stop smoking

If the threat of lung and throat cancer isn't terrifying enough, consider the health of your bank account. The average smoker spends $46 a week and $2,394 annually, a tidy sum that Northwestern graduates Jeff Schell and Ethan Lipkind felt shouldn't be burned away. So after a miserable road trip to New Orleans with several nicotine-addicted friends, the two non-smokers founded Smokers' Brokers (www.smokersbrokers.com), an online savings plan that allows smokers to invest the money that they would have spent on cigarettes into an interest-bearing mutual fund.

Members are encouraged to make deposits with the same frequency as in buying cigarettes. They can make any size deposit at any time using PayPal payments. The only condition is that funds are not withdrawn for a year in order to benefit from a potentially higher-payout mutual fund.

Since the two launched the site in October, more than 100 members have signed up, including Courtney Montgomery of Arkansas, whose non-smoking boyfriend sent her a link to the program. "So far, so good," said Montgomery, who likes that she can contribute one pack at a time. "It's better than trying to do it on my own, where I would feel the need to save and make one larger deposit."

The stakes are increasing: In March, a pack of cigarettes could cost $4.05 in Chicago, the highest in price in America. Meanwhile, the Chicago restaurant smoking ban takes effect Jan. 16.

(For tips on how to stop smoking, see Page 7.)

7. Stop blushing

If you wouldn't eat it, don't smear it on your body, which absorbs chemicals like a sponge. Most people don't realize the Food and Drug Administration doesn't evaluate cosmetic products for safety before they're sold. Yet many nail polishes, perfumes and moisturizers contain phthalates (pronounced THAL- ates), which can increase circulating levels of estrogen and testosterone in humans, according to the National Academy of Sciences. In June, a study linked phthalate exposure in pregnant women to abnormal genital development in boys, and the research is mounting.

The European Union recently banned more than 1,200 chemicals from personal-care products, but most still are used here. (Though L'Oreal, Revlon and Estee Lauder have promised to reformulate their products using the European standards for the U.S. market.)

A single exposure might not be cause for alarm, but the average woman uses 12 personal-care products each day, exposing herself to a total of 168 chemicals, according to a report called "Skin Deep" by the Environmental Working Group.

You can look up your favorite products on the Skin Deep database at www.ewg.org/reports/skindeep/ by the Environmental Working Group (www.ewg.org). For more information, check out The Breast Cancer Fund (breastcancerfund.org), which researches environmental links to the disease, and The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics (www.safecosmetics.com).

8. Avoid the hospital

The hospital isn't the healthiest place to hang out and not just because some serve fast food in the lobby. Medical errors kill as many as 98,000 Americans each year, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association, more deaths than from AIDS, breast cancer or motor-vehicle accidents combined.

Meanwhile, 2 million patients contract an infection from U.S. hospitals or medical centers each year, resulting in 90,000 more deaths, according to estimates by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

We know it's awkward, but unless you're unconscious, ask your doctor this simple question: "Have you washed your hands?" Even if he's wearing gloves, be vigilant; they can be contaminated if caregivers have pulled them on without cleaning their hands. If the doctor comes at you with his cold stethoscope, ask him to wipe its flat surface with alcohol. Studies have shown they're often contaminated with Staphylococcus aureus.

For answers to important questions such as, "Why do you need an advocate?" and "How do you make sure the surgeon operates on the right body part?' the Chicago Patient Safety Forum recommends watching a short film titled "Things You Should Know Before Entering the Hospital." It's available on DVD and videotape (www.patientsafetyvideo.com) for $29.95.

"Human error is a fact in health care just as in the rest of life," said Martin J. Hatlie, president of Partnership for Patient Safety. For more information, in addition to the safety forum Web site, visit www.stophospitalinfections.org and www.hospitalinfectionrates.org.

9. Practice yoga

If you still think the 5,000-year-old practice of yoga is about leotards and pretzel poses, you're not stretching your imagination. During the last year alone, studies have shown that yoga is an effective stress-reduction therapy for cardiac patients and more beneficial than conventional exercise for low back pain. A mind-body discipline that improves self-awareness, yoga can help with both weight loss and eating disorders. And because it promotes relaxation, it aids sleep and digestion.

Increasingly, yoga also is used to assist children. The Cove School in Northbrook, which serves children with learning disabilities, introduced yoga as part of its occupational-therapy services. In addition to sensory-based benefits, school officials believe the techniques and poses can enhance learning. And students can learn to calm themselves.

Yoga classes have different personalities, depending on the style or instructor, but all types can improve strength, flexibility, coordination and range of motion. Try different ones until you find the one that fits.

For more info: www.yogachi cago.com.

10. Exercise

Don't go down this path alone. While men join pickup basketball games or assemble a foursome for a round of golf, women tend to have more trouble finding a partner on their fitness journey. This prompted Kim Murphy and Kris Carpenter, two formerly out-of-shape women, to write the "The Best Friends Guide to Getting Fit" (Capital, $18.95), a guide to using friendships as the foundation for establishing a consistent exercise routine.

But really, it's not that complicated. If you're a swimmer, join a master's group. These take swimmers of all levels, help break up the monotony of lap swimming and provide camaraderie (www.usms.org to find a local group).

Runners can join group workouts (find a list of running groups at www.cararuns.org) and cyclists can check with local bike shops to find group rides.

Or find some company at the gym--the McGaw YMCA in Evanston pairs up like-minded exercisers--but make sure it's the right kind of gym for you.

The all-female Curves caters to the exercise-inhibited, while the swanky, high-priced East Bank Club has classes, spa services and a scene.

Planet Fitness in Naperville proclaims a "No Judgment Zone" philosophy and targets occasional exercisers; about 80 percent of its members have never joined a gym. Pulse Fitness and Weight Loss Centers in Mundelein eliminated monthly memberships and offers a pay-by-the-minute option.