Stockbyte/VeerBy K. Aleisha Fetters
Scrounging for a resolution that will stick? Take a tip from our list of healthy (and totally doable) changes to make this year.
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Cut Refined Carbs
Carbs aren't the enemy. But consider refined carbs your frenemy. They seem harmless, until they're not. Refined carbs (like white bread, white sugar, and candy) have been stripped of their macronutrient content and reduced to a simple sugar that your body quickly digests. The result? You blood sugar spikes, your body pumps out tons of insulin to get the sugar into your cells, your blood sugar plummets, you get très sleepy, and any sugar the insulin didn't deal with gets converted into fat -- typically around your belly. And that abdominal fat can do more than make your skinny jeans look like a poor fashion choice. It can lead to polycystic ovary syndrome, diabetes, and heart disease, says David Grotto, RD, author of The Best Things You Can Eat. On the flip side, well-controlled blood sugar levels keep you energized, slim, and healthy. And complex carbohydrates like whole grains can get the job done. They are your body's main source of fiber, keep you energized, and can actually keep you perky during the gray days of winter. The mood-boosting neurotransmitter serotonin comes from an amino acid called tryptophan, which is only able to enter the brain after digesting a healthy serving of carbs. "Low carb equals high crab," Grotto says. So for your waist's (and your mood's) sake, don't swear off all carbs!
The Plan: Since loving whole grains is easier said than done, start off by mixing some white rice or pasta in with your whole-grain varieties. As your taste buds adjust to the taste, you'll be able to wean yourself off of the unhealthy stuff for good. But don't go overboard even with healthy grains: We are eating about 50 percent more grains than we should, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Grains -- even whole ones -- should only take up about a fourth of the real estate on your plate. The rest of your carbs should come from fruits and veggies and take up half of your plate, according to Grotto.
Start Strength Training
If you think the weight room is for boys and will give you 20-inch biceps, think again. It's for results. Lifting weights gives you an edge over belly fat, heart disease, and even cancer. And no, you won't bulk up, says Pete McCall, exercise physiologist with the American Council on Exercise. You'll actually slim down: We ladies simply don't have the testosterone to build boyish muscles. Not to mention that strength training burns 40 percent more fat than cardio -- building muscles will rev your metabolism and keep you burning more calories all day long, even when you aren't in the gym. As if that weren't enough reason to pick up a dumbbell, it turns out pumping iron will help fight that stress. (Talk about a two-for-one deal!) People with the greatest muscle mass maintain better blood pressure levels during stressful situations.
The Plan: Three to four times a week, hit the weights, McCall advises. Start things off with light weights (5 to 10 pounds) to get your form down, and once you do, start adding on more weight to push the intensity. When you can eke out your last rep with proper form, it's time to add more weight. That pace will keep you burning fat and toning up without sacrificing form or putting you at risk for injury.
Stop Sitting So Much
In case you haven't heard, sitting is bad for you. Really bad. It can contribute to weight gain, diabetes, cancer, and early death, says Madelyn Fernstrom, PhD, professor of psychiatry, epidemiology, and surgery at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Adults who sit 11 or more hours per day have a 40 percent increased risk of dying in the next three years compared with those who sat for fewer than four hours a day, according to a study of more than 200,000 people published in Archives of Internal Medicine. And regular sweat sessions don't even seem to help that much. Women who regularly exercise sit just as much as couch potatoes, according to Northwestern Medicine researchers.
The Plan: Since we don't recommend storming out of your office in protest, it's time you become an "active sitter." Try swapping your swivel chair for an exercise ball. It will force you to sit up straight to maintain balance, the whole time strengthening your core. When you take calls, stand up and walk around if you can, and make indoor meetings walking ones (if your colleagues are up for it). And when you get home from work, don't just sit on the couch!
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Dump Your Diet Soda Addiction
Think you aren't addicted? Think again. When French researchers hooked rats on cocaine and then gave the critters a choice between a cocaine fix or a nibble of saccharine (a popular diet drink sweetener), most went for the saccharine. And the drug of choice comes with its own set of side effects: In a 2011 study from the School of Medicine at the University of Texas Health Science Center San Antonio, participants who averaged two diet sodas a day over about nine years experienced an increase in waist circumference five times greater than those who didn't drink diet sodas. Why? To your body, consuming artificial sweeteners is like hitting the accelerator with no gas. Your brain gets let down when the sweet stuff has zero energy to offer, and makes you crave -- and eat -- more food (especially sweets) throughout the day, says Grotto.
The Plan: "If you are going to give up diet soda, have something to turn to," Grotto advises. Find another drink you like, like seltzer or flavored water. Tea can also be a great option. It packs antioxidants to help keep your weight -- and health -- in check, while also offering up some of that caffeine you might be craving. And if you absolutely have to have soda every now and then, you might consider going calorie-filled route. If it satisfies you and you are able to lick your lips and walk away from the soda fountain, it might not be as bad as gulping down a six-pack of diet soda.
Shun Even the Occasional Smoke
"I'm not a smoker, but I have a cigarette every now and then." If that sounds like you, the jig is up. "You are either a smoker or a non-smoker. The effects of smoking on the respiratory and cardiovascular system are cumulative. The rate of damage will be slower if you rarely smoke, but it will still be a problem," says Fernstrom. In fact, women who smoke occasionally -- even less than every week -- live up to six years less on average than true non-smokers. Just one cigarette increases the stiffness of the arteries by 25 percent, according to research from McGill University Health Centre. And despite popular opinion, hookahs -- which about half of all college women have sucked on by the end of their freshman year -- aren't any safer: One 45-minute session will score your lungs the same amount of smoke as 56 cigarettes, according to a recent study in the Journal of Nicotine and Tobacco Research. In case that isn't enough of an eww factor, consider this: Hookah pipes can play host to herpes, hepatitis, and tuberculosis, according to Danish researchers.
The Plan: First things first: Stop thinking of yourself as a non-smoker, Fernstrom says. The simple mentality switch will light a match under your metaphorical butt. Once you accept that "being able to stop anytime you want to" doesn't bar you from smoking's effects, you are more likely to stop smoking entirely, she says. Also, remember that of the 40.9 million adults who smoked a cigarette last month, only about 60 percent were dependent on nicotine, according to the most recent National Survey on Drug Use. The rest, mostly social smokers, smoke for the feel-good effects of nicotine, not to stave off withdrawal. Chew gum to keep your mouth busy, and if you usually smoke when you drink, consider reducing the size of your drink order until you completely kick the habit. It's no secret that booze can bulldoze restraint.
Shake Your Sodium Habit
When it comes to sodium, the saltshaker is the least of your concerns. According to data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, the top 10 individual food sources of sodium in the American diet are all convenience foods, coming from either restaurants or from handy-dandy boxes. While salt can act as a preservative, most sodium is now used to boost flavor and keep consumers coming back for more, Grotto says. In fact, 75 percent of the average American's sodium intake (which is almost twice what it should be) comes from commercially prepared foods, according to the Harvard School of Public Health. And our daily OD-ing on sodium can result in higher blood pressure, heart disease (the number-one killer of women!), stomach cancer, and weak bones -- not to mention water retention and bloating.
The Plan: Limit how many times you order out a week, and stop stocking your pantry with packaged foods, Grotto says. When you've got to go for something convenient, pick the low-sodium option, he says. When it's cooking, you can still add salt as you like. "Nine times out of ten, your food will still have less sodium," he says. Your taste buds will adjust and over time you'll find yourself needing less salt to make a meal tasty.
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Don't Miss Meals
It's time for some tough love. It doesn't matter if you're not a breakfast person or too busy to sit down: There's no reason to skip meals. When you do, your blood sugar drops, sending your energy and focus packing, according to Grotto. "When our blood sugar drops, we tend to gravitate to sugary or salty foods to get it back up as quickly as possible," he says. The result is a daylong up-and-down roller coaster of fatigue, hunger, and fat traps. In fact, compared with breakfast-eaters, people who skip the first meal of the day tend to consume more sugary drinks or high-calorie snacks throughout the day, contributing to their bigger waists, according to the Institute of Food Technologists. Plus, hitting every meal can keep your metabolism stoked and your body from hanging onto fat for energy reserves.
The Plan: Resolve to eat every three to four hours. Sound like a whole lot of work? Make mealtime easier by having a big-time cooking session once a week where you whip up all of your meals for the week. And if you're always on the go, make your meals and snacks easy to pack. Hard boil some eggs every few days and keep them ready in your refrigerator for a quick-and-easy breakfast, Grotto suggests. Stash fruit, almonds, or breakfast bars in your desk, your car, your purse -- everywhere! No matter where you are, you'll be able to eat when your body needs to.
As if your maniacal boss, jam-packed social schedule, and ever-growing pile of bills weren't stressful enough, here's something else to give you premature wrinkles: Stress can downright pummel your health. It can cause every malady from headaches and weight gain to a sluggish immune system and heart disease. And women are more likely to experience physical symptoms of stress than men, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. (No one is sure why, but it still sucks!) Nearly one in four Americans say they suffer from extreme stress on a consistent basis, according to the American Psychological Association's latest Stress in America survey. If you're one of them, cutting your stress level could be your ticket to better health.
The Plan: "There are stressors that you can control, and those you can't," Fernstrom says. Learn to stave off self-imposed stressors and don't feel guilty about drawing lines to cut off others. That might mean saying "no" every once and a while. For stressors you have little or no control over, like a long commute or an insufferable mother-in-law, learn to manage them better. Simplify your schedule, ask for help when needed, and like your yoga instructor says, don't forget to breathe. Slow deep breaths actually inhibit stress-producing hormones, lower blood pressure, and relax the body. Also, healthy foods can do a lot to manage stress. So put away the ice cream and grab some almonds.
Focus on Your Focus
Like to jog it out on the treadmill while paging through magazines? Don't. You can achieve more progress in a mere 15 minutes of interval training done three times a week than by jogging on the treadmill for an hour, McCall says. What's more, research published in NeuroImage found that when you attempt demanding tasks simultaneously, you end up doing none of them as well as you should, because your brain -- sorry to break it to you -- has limits. So crank up the intensity and focus. You'll have greater fitness results in less time. Plus, when you finish that article, you'll actually have a clue what you've read!
The Plan: Set a workout schedule and don't let other activities split your focus. Even if that means squeezing in a shorter workout, you'll probably still accomplish more. During your workout time, mix in high-intensity interval training, pushing yourself to the max and then quickly recovering before you give it another go. Whatever your favorite exercise -- running, powering through on the elliptical, or biking -- going all out will have big gains.
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Stockbyte/VeerBy K. Aleisha Fetters