Five Small Steps to a Healthier You

To be successful at any big undertaking - starting a new career, salvaging a shaky marriage, mastering a foreign language - you have to "give it 110 percent," as the saying goes. But when it comes to what may be the most important change of all - revitalizing your health - you may be better off giving only 10 percent and not worrying too much about the other proverbial 100.

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Micro-improvements do more than chip away at a larger objective - they accomplish plenty on their own. Some of these are cumulative; do several and you'll see an even bigger benefit. Here are five small shifts that can reward you with a big health payoff.

1. Take Your Dog for a Walk
The small change: Up your exercise 10 percent. Even if you're completely sedentary, your body burns at least 1,000 calories a day (depending on your weight and age). Boosting that by 10 percent translates to a mere 100 calories - an amount you could expend by taking a 28-minute walk.
The big gains: A burn of 100 extra calories a day could help you drop up to 10 pounds in a year, provided you don't eat more (though you don't have to eat less, either). Even if you're already active - you meet current guidelines of at least two and a half hours of moderate activity a week - heart health improves progressively (more exercise is better), so you'll still benefit.

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2. Snack on Six Strawberries
The small change: Eat 10 percent more fruits and veggies. Federal guidelines say we should be eating nine half-cup servings of produce a day. Snack on an additional six strawberries or half a large carrot, and you'll boost your intake about 10 percent above the recommendation.
The big gains: Each added daily portion of fruit lowers stroke risk by 11 percent and heart disease odds by 7 percent, reviews of international studies have found. Pumping up produce (both fruit and veggies) also halves your chances of getting oral cancer, another review reported.

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3. Make Your Own Marinara
The small change: Cut sodium 10 percent. Stir up your own pasta sauce, choose low-sodium varieties of soup, or swap out canned vegetables for fresh or frozen. Any of these steps reduces your sodium intake by at least 400 milligrams a day.
The big gains: Drop sodium 400 mg and you'll whittle your odds of having heart disease - the American Heart Association calculated that if we all cut back sodium that small amount, there would be 250,000 fewer heart disease cases and 200,000-plus fewer deaths over the next 10 years.

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4. Eat the Right Fats
The small change: Get 10 percent of your calories from omega-6s. You probably already take in some of these healthy fats, but you may well need more - 5 to 10 percent of your daily calories should come from omega-6 fatty acids, advises the American Heart Association. One easy way to ramp up: Replace saturated fats like butter with corn, sunflower, or safflower oil. But keep in mind that oil is high in calories; two tablespoons will do the trick.
The big gains: This daily quota of omega-6s lowers LDL cholesterol and cuts your chances of heart disease 24 percent, an AHA Science Advisory reported. These fats may also improve blood pressure and help the body process sugar, lowering diabetes risk. (Don't forget other heart-healthy fats, like olive oil.)

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5. Say Si to a Siesta
The small change: Take a 10-minute nap. Find a quiet place to lie down during the day, especially if you don't get enough zzz's at night.
The big gains: Daytime snoozing is good for your heart: When Greek researchers measured deaths from heart disease, they found there were 37 percent fewer among people who napped regularly, compared with non-nappers. But to feel sharp when you wake up, limit dozing to 10 minutes: In an Australian study, people who napped for 20 to 30 minutes were slower to get back in gear.


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Reprinted with permission of Hearst Communications, Inc.