Providing information about women's health is my job, and even I get whiplash from all the conflicting news. That's why it is so easy to fall short on smart health habits, even if you think you're making the best choices. Here are six so-called "good" habits that may actually be derailing your health, the surprising things you're doing wrong-and how to fix them.
1. You Always Order a Salad
Truth is, a lot of take-out and restaurant salads are basically a burger in a bowl, says Brie Turner-McGrievy, RD, clinical research coordinator for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) in Washington, DC. That's because add-ons like fried chicken, croutons, and full-fat dressing pack major calories, fat, sodium, and other unhealthy nutrients. One example: McDonald's Bacon Ranch Salad with Crispy Chicken and Newman's Own Ranch Dressing has 540 calories and 35 g of fat; a Big Mac has 540 calories and 29 g.
The Fix: Don't scratch take-out salad off your menu; just use a few commonsense rules before you order. Avoid high-fat add-ons such as extra cheese, croutons, bacon bits, and creamy dressings like Caesar and ranch. Opt for salads that aren't just a fiber-free mound of iceberg lettuce dotted with a few carrot and red cabbage shavings. And plan ahead: Most fast-food chains supply nutritional info online so you can scout out the best options before you get there.
2. You Rock Out While You Work Out
Check the volume on your iPod or MP3 player, advises Andrew Cheng, MD, an otolaryngologist at New York Medical College. The normal range of an MP3 player is 60 to 120 decibels; persistent exposures above 85 may cause hearing loss. If you're concerned, ask a friend to stand next to you while you listen: If she can hear your music, it's too loud.
The Fix: To protect your ears, try to listen at 10 to 50% of the full volume. Some players let you lock in a range. Or switch to a pair of sound-isolating earphones; they drown out background noise so your music doesn't have to.
3. You Avoid the Scale
Doctors call scalephobia an avoidance behavior. The idea behind it: If I don't know for sure that I gained weight, maybe I didn't. You're most likely to duck the scale after a few days, weeks, or months of eating whatever you want. "For some people, getting back on the scale can be a help," says Kelly Brownell, PhD, director of the Yale Center for Eating and Weight Disorders. "The trick is knowing whether it will motivate you."
The Fix: If you're trying to lose weight, get on the scale weekly. Do it first thing in the morning, naked, after you use the bathroom. If you're trying to maintain a recent weight loss, hop on at least once a week.
4. You Forget to Floss
We spend millions a year on procedures that bleach our teeth whiter than pearls, but many of us don't put in the less than 5 minutes a day it takes to floss. The result: At least 23% of women between ages 30 and 54, and 44% of women over age 55, have severe gum (or periodontal) disease, reports the American Academy of Periodontology. This is a serious bacterial infection that attacks the tissue surrounding one or more teeth and the bone supporting them. It's the number one cause of tooth loss in the United States, but it's far from just a cosmetic issue: When periodontal bacteria enter the bloodstream, they can cause chronic inflammation. Researchers believe that such simmering infections in the body may up your risk of heart disease, stroke, cancer, and even premature birth. Women in particular need to pay close attention to gum health.
The Fix: Floss at least once a day. Treat it like any other part of your routine you'd never skip, like brushing your teeth or showering.
5. You Don't Lift Weights
Some women avoid lifting weights because they think they'll end up looking like a female version of The Rock. They're wrong. "The vast majority of women do not have the genetic capability to develop large, bulky muscles," says Cedric Bryant, PhD, chief science officer for the American Council on Exercise, the organization that certifies personal trainers. To get that look, you need a guy's levels of testosterone, plus many, many, many hours a day spent pumping iron. The average woman simply does not naturally produce enough testosterone to bulk up from weights, Bryant says, and most women are lucky to squeeze in a half-hour a day doing any exercise.
The Fix: You don't have to spend a lot of time pumping iron to reap the benefits-2 or 3 times a week on nonconsecutive days for about 30 minutes per session should do the trick. The American Council on Exercise says that light weights and multiple reps tend to help build endurance and muscle tone, while using heavier weights generally produces stronger muscles.
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