The coronavirus crisis has made this clearer than ever: Your health is in your hands. That’s why Eat This, Not That! Health rounded up what health experts consider the absolute worst things you can do for your health, along with quick and easy recommendations for what you should do instead, based on the latest science. “Start with just one healthy habit and then build on that by adding one more, and then one more after that until you’ve created a strong foundation,” advises Ilana Muhlstein, M.S., R.D. Read them all, then choose 5, 10 or 20 to give up, and take back control of your health. And to ensure your health and the health of others, don’t miss these Sure Signs You’ve Already Had Coronavirus.
You’re frustrated by the restrictions due to the coronavirus, and maybe even mad that the economy hasn’t restarted quickly enough. And yet it’s important that you continue to listen to the authorities when it comes to your health and safety, and the health and safety of others. At this writing, the CDC recommends: “The best way to prevent illness is to avoid being exposed to this virus” and advises you to “wash your hands often; avoid close contact; cover your mouth and nose with a cloth face cover when around others; cover coughs and sneezes; clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces; and monitor your health.”
This is a top gripe of many doctors and health experts, who say you might be second-guessing yourself out of good care. “Letting the Internet guide your decisions may delay a correct diagnosis and appropriate treatment,” says cardiologist Robert Rosenson, MD, director of the cardiometabolics unit at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. “Engaging your physician is essential to an accurate diagnosis that may be life saving.”
The Rx: Do your research, but leave the diagnosing to the experts, and call your doctor if you think you might have the coronavirus.
“It’s a misconception that as we get older, our sleep needs decline,” says the National Sleep Foundation. It might be harder to get to sleep and stay asleep as we age—some people experience a shift in natural circadian rhythms—but that doesn’t mean it’s healthy. Without adequate sleep, your body can’t adequately repair and recharge. That increases your risk of cancer, heart disease and dementia.
The Rx: If you’re having chronic trouble getting seven to nine hours of sleep a night, talk to your doctor. He or she might advise cutting back on caffeine, limiting naps, getting more exercise or addressing anxiety or depression. In some cases, a sleep medicine specialist can be helpful.
Skin cancer is the most commonly diagnosed malignancy—according to the Skin Cancer Foundation, more people are diagnosed with skin cancer in the U.S. each year than all other cancers combined. One in five of us will get such a diagnosis by the time we’re 70. The easiest ways to prevent it? Avoid tanning beds, stay covered up in the sun, and apply sunscreen daily.
The Rx: The Skin Care Foundation recommends applying sunscreen that’s at least 15 SPF, which will protect you against potentially cancer-causing UVB rays.
Heartburn, or acid reflux—in which stomach acid backs up into the esophagus, causing burning or pain the chest or throat—has a starring role in a number of commercials for over-the-counter medications. But if you experience heartburn regularly, it’s not a good idea to keep popping antacids. It could be a medical condition that needs a doctor’s attention. Over time, stomach acid can damage the sensitive tissue of the esophagus, leading to a precancerous condition called Barrett’s esophagus. That could develop into esophageal cancer, a particularly deadly form of the disease.
The Rx: If you suffer from regular heartburn, talk to your doctor about it. He or she might recommend a prescription, lifestyle changes or further testing.
If—knock wood—your vision is good, or you already have an eyeglass prescription, it might not occur to you to get an annual eye exam. You still should. Your eyes can harbor signs of various chronic diseases, which a trained eye doctor can spot, enabling you to get early treatment. “There are certain eye conditions like glaucoma which are considered to be ‘silent killers’ of vision,” says Dr. Mesheca C. Bunyon, an optometrist in Camp Springs, Maryland. “Additionally, an eye care provider can detect bleeding and swelling of the retina, the lining inside of the eye, as it relates to diabetes, hypertension and other systemic diseases.”
The Rx: Book an annual eye exam with a licensed optometrist once a year.
Melanoma, the deadliest skin cancer, is relatively rare—it amounts to only about 1 percent of all cancers—but the number of cases has been rising for the last 30 years. When melanoma is caught early, the five-year survival rate is high, but that drops off dramatically once it spreads. Additionally, melanoma can form on parts of the body that are out of your line of sight, like on your back or scalp. That’s why it’s important to get a periodic skin cancer exam.
The Rx: Talk to your primary-care doctor, who may provide a referral to a dermatologist for an all-over check. You should get one annually.
Keeping your blood pressure in a healthy range is one of the most important things you can do to stay in good health. Blood pressure that’s too high (a.k.a. hypertension) can weaken the walls of blood vessels, increasing your risk of stroke, heart attack and dementia. In 2018, the American Heart Association lowered the guidelines for healthy blood pressure from 140/90 (and 150/80 for those older than 65) to 130/80 for all adults. According to Harvard Medical School, that means 70 to 79 percent of men over 55 technically have hypertension.
The Rx: Experts say you should get your blood pressure checked annually. Follow a heart-healthy diet (including these foods), lose weight and stay active.
It’s an easy habit to make fun of—we’re thinking about that joke in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt about people who bring a bottle of water so they can hydrate on the way to the water store‚ but these are the facts: Our bodies need water so our organs and body processes can function optimally. And as we get older, it gets easier to slip into dehydration.
The Rx: Experts recommend drinking 1.7 liters (or 7 cups) of water every 24 hours.
Research has found that engaging in regular sexual activity has a ton of physical and mental health benefits. Chief among them: It’s good for your heart. “Studies suggest that men who have sex at least twice a week and women who report having satisfying sex lives are less likely to have a heart attack,” says the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. “Sex is a form of exercise and helps strengthen your heart, lower your blood pressure, reduce stress and improve sleep. In addition, intimacy in a relationship can increase bonding.”
The Rx: Consider sexual activity as important to your health as exercise or diet.
This is a different kind of workout you should be getting in regularly. “Kegels strengthen the pelvic floor muscles, especially for women,” says Jennifer Lane, a registered nurse and aromatherapist in California. “These muscles support the uterus, bladder, small intestine, and rectum. The pelvic floor muscles can be weakened from pregnancy, childbirth, being overweight, aging, or even straining from constipation.”
When these muscles are weak, incontinence and erectile difficulties can occur. “Both men and women can benefit from doing pelvic floor exercises daily,” says Lane. “They will help improve bladder control and possibly improve sexual performance. Kegels can also help you avoid embarrassing accidents.”
The Rx: Do at least one set of 10 Kegels per day. Here’s information about how to perform them.
Studies show that sedentary lifestyles have become a major health risk: Only about 5 percent of American adults get 30 minutes of exercise each day. You might have heard the expression “sitting is the new smoking”? The jury is still out on that, but the science is clear that sitting is not a health regimen: A 2017 study at the University of Warwick found that workers with desk jobs had bigger waists and a higher risk of heart disease than those with more active jobs. What’s more, workers’ bad (LDL) cholesterol increased and good (HDL) cholesterol decreased with each hour beyond five hours of sitting a day.
The Rx: If you don’t have a physically active job, stand and move around as much as possible during the day.
One key to good health is to eat more whole foods and less processed junk. But experts have pinpointed a new enemy: “Ultra-processed food.” Two new studies published in the journal BMJ link highly processed food consumption with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and an increased risk of early death. It’s been correlated to higher rates of obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol—all risk factors for a heart attack and other health problems.
What counts as “ultra-processed”? The researchers listed “sausages, mayonnaise, potato chips, pizza, cookies, chocolates and candies, artificially sweetened beverages and whisky, gin and rum,” among other things.
The Rx: Limit the proportion of processed food in your diet. Ground your diet in fruits and vegetables, lean protein and good fats.
You probably consider fat and sugar Public Health Enemies No. 1 and 2, but are you keeping an eye on salt? Chances are, probably not: Studies show that most Americans consume about 3,400mg of sodium daily — way over the recommended 2,300mg (which amounts to about one teaspoon of salt). High sodium intake is a major risk factor for high blood pressure, which raises your chance of having a heart attack.
The Rx: Don’t add salt to your meals. Limit your consumption of fast food and processed foods, which tend to come loaded with sodium. Look at nutrition facts labels: One can of a popular tomato juice brand packs almost 1,000 mg! Opt for lower-sodium version when possible.
There’s a lot of dialogue and confusion about preventative testing and self-examinations, particularly when it comes to breast health. The facts: The risk of developing breast cancer increases as women age. By age 40, that risk is 3.5 times higher than it was at age 30.
The Rx: The American Cancer Society recommends that women age 40 to 44 get annual breast cancer screening if they choose. From age 45 to 54, women should get an annual mammogram. After age 55, women can switch to mammograms every two years or can continue with annual screening if they wish.
Ovarian cancer is known as a silent killer: A reliable routine screening test doesn’t exist, so the disease is harder to catch in its early stages, when it’s most curable. Initial symptoms might be mild and vague, so it’s important to stay attuned to what they might be. According to the American Cancer Society, most ovarian cancers develop after menopause, more than half in women over age 63.
The Rx: If you experience bloating, pelvic or abdominal pain, or feel full quickly when eating, consult your doctor. If you have a family history of ovarian cancer, tell your doctor about it. He or she might recommend additional regular testing.
If your parents had a particular illness, there’s no guarantee you’ll get it too. But there is a genetic component to certain conditions like heart disease, particular cancers and conditions like diabetes. In some cases, predisposition can be quite high: According to research published in the journal Circulation, men with a family history of heart disease had nearly a 50 percent increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease.
The Rx: Make sure your doctor knows about your family history of serious illness, and ask if any screening tests are warranted.
No doubt about it, a stroke can be a cataclysmic event. But according to the National Stroke Association, up to 80 percent of them are preventable. That’s because the processes that lead to stroke—in which a blood vessel in the brain is blocked or bursts, leading to neurological damage or paralysis—are heavily influenced by lifestyle choices like diet and smoking.
The Rx: Keep your blood pressure and weight in a healthy range. If you have high cholesterol, diabetes or AFib, get them treated—all are risk factors for stroke. Don’t smoke, and limit your alcohol intake to less than two drinks a day.
Close those screens well before bedtime to ensure you get enough shut-eye. The blue light emitted by computers, smartphones and TVs disturbs your natural circadian rhythm, which can lead to insomnia. Poor sleep has been correlated with serious illnesses like cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer.
The Rx: Turn off TV, phones, computers and tablets at least 60 minutes before lights-out. “For the best night’s sleep, consider pretending that you live in an earlier time,” advises the National Sleep Foundation. “Wind down by reading a (paper) book, writing in a journal, or chatting with your partner.”
Good habits like a healthy diet and regular exercise are crucial for keeping your blood-cholesterol level low. But some of the process may be beyond your control. Genetics can play a role in cholesterol level, and so does aging: Our bodies produce more of the artery-clogging stuff as we mature. Your total cholesterol level should be less than 200 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL), with an LDL level of less than 100 mg/dL and an HDL level of 60 mg/dL or higher.
The Rx: Experts recommend getting a cholesterol check every five years; older adults may need it done more frequently. To keep your “bad” cholesterol level down, eat a diet low in saturated fat, avoid trans fats, exercise regularly and maintain a healthy weight.
Americans love social drinking, but these are pretty scary morning-after statistics: About 88,000 people die of alcohol-related causes each year, making booze the third most preventable cause of death in the U.S. How much is too much? It may be more than you think: Experts say women should have no more than one alcoholic beverage per day, and men should limit themselves to two. Any more than that, and you’re putting yourself at risk for cardiovascular disease, stroke, diabetes and more than a dozen forms of cancer.
The Rx: If you’re drinking more than that on a regular basis, talk to your doctor.
For generations, Americans viewed mental health as somewhat of a bonus—something to be concerned about only after all other aspects of your life were attended to. Today, we know that’s wrongheaded: Many studies have shown that mental health has a direct correlation to serious physical illness. If you find yourself with a persistent low mood, frequent feelings of hopelessness, or a lack of interest in things you used to enjoy, you could be suffering from depression. Untreated, it could raise your risk of heart disease and other chronic conditions.
The Rx: Talk to your doctor. Many treatments are available.
Sexually transmitted infections are skyrocketing among people over 50, particularly among seniors. If you’re sexually active and nonmonogamous, routine screening should be part of your health care strategy. “Many STIs are silent, and without screening you may be causing permanent damage to your body,” says Shannon Brown Dowler, MD, a family medicine physician in Asheville, North Carolina. “Even if you get checked every now and then, are you getting all the right parts checked? Screening is recommended for extra-genital sites where exposure has occurred, because the infections can be very subtle in these places.”
The Rx: Talk to your doctor about your sexual health, safer-sex practices, and STI testing.
What’s the primary risk factor for colon cancer? It’s not diet or exercise, although those play a serious role. It’s simply age: Your risk of the disease rises significantly after age 50. When detected early (as localized polyps), colon cancer is one of the easiest forms of cancer to cure. How to do that? The American Cancer Society recommends that you get your first colonoscopy at age 45, and repeat it every 10 years. Your doctor may have different recommendations based on your family background and personal medical history.
The Rx: Get that first colonoscopy, if you haven’t already, and follow your doctor’s advice for follow-up procedures.
You know it’s a major contributor to lung cancer—so much so, it’s responsible for up to 80 percent of deaths from that disease. Additionally, smoking raises your risk for strokes and heart attacks—the toxins in cigarette smoke damage and weaken blood vessels, which can cause them to burst or accumulate sticky plaque that can lead to a heart attack. That’s why cigarette smoking is the No. 1 preventable cause of death.
The Rx: Quit smoking ASAP. See your doctor for help. It’s never too late: Even people who quit smoking between the ages of 65 to 69 can add one to four years to their lives.
The American Diabetes Association recommends regular diabetes screening for all adults over 45. Why? Type 2 diabetes can strike at any age, but your risk increases significantly after age 40. Left untreated, the condition—in which sugars aren’t adequately cleared from the blood, damaging blood vessels throughout the body—can lead to severe complications, including heart disease and blindness.
The Rx: Book an annual physical with your primary care doctor, who will run basic blood tests to detect signs of diabetes. He or she will also check your blood pressure; the American Heart Association recommends you do that annually
Chances are, as kids, we dreaded a visit to the dentist. After age 40, it’s time to stop worrying and learn to love him or her. Why? Regular dental visits can prevent the huge costs — both physical and financial—that accompany tooth loss. As we age, regular wear-and-tear can lead to cracking, cavities, plaque buildup and receding gums, which can set us on the path to dentures or implants. That’s what your dentist is there to prevent.
The Rx: Get twice-annual dental checkups, and practice good oral hygiene daily. Use a fluoride rinse twice a day, to help reinforce teeth and keep gums healthy.
This is probably not a news flash: Most of us need to do a better job at getting regular exercise. In fact, only about 20 percent of American adults get enough. The American Heart Association recommends that adults get 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise—or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise—each week.
The Rx: Some examples of moderate-intensity exercise are brisk walking, dancing or gardening; vigorous exercise includes running, hiking or swimming. If the time commitment seems daunting, start by walking around the block. Any amount of physical activity is better for you than none.
The days when coffee was considered a vice are long gone. In fact, drinking coffee is one of the most virtuous things you can do for your health. Java is packed with antioxidants, which protect your heart and liver and guard against diabetes and cancer. “Moderate coffee consumption (three to four cups per day) has been linked with longer lifespan,” says Robert H. Shmerling, MD, faculty editor of Harvard Health Publishing. “In fact, a November 2015 study in Circulation found that coffee consumption was associated with an 8% to 15% reduction in the risk of death, with larger reductions among those with higher coffee consumption.”
The Rx: Enjoy coffee in moderation without guilt. (But if you don’t care for it, or you’ve been advised to avoid caffeine, don’t force yourself; you can get antioxidants by eating plenty of fruits and vegetables.)
In recent years, science has learned more and more about how essential sleep is to good health and a longer life. Poor sleep has been connected to an increased risk of weight gain, diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular disease, depression—even dementia. That’s because the body repairs itself during sleep, everything from repairing cellular damage to sweeping toxins out of the brain to ensuring our metabolism stays on track. When you don’t get enough, all kinds of processes suffer.
The Rx: Experts including the National Sleep Foundation say that adults of every age need seven to nine hours of sleep a night—no more, no less.
Snoring isn’t just an efficient way to get kicked out of bed in the middle of the night; it could be sending you down the path to heart disease. Frequent snoring could be the sign of a dangerous condition called sleep apnea, in which the airway behind the tongue collapses when you breathe in, reducing or even stopping your airflow for up to a minute. Sleep apnea has been associated with high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease, according to the National Sleep Foundation. Researchers think that’s because the condition causes repeated oxygen deprivation that stresses the blood vessels and heart.
The Rx: If your partner has told you that you snore, ask your doctor about it. They may refer you to a sleep medicine specialist.
You know that a high blood cholesterol level can contribute to heart disease, but what’s a prime driver of blood cholesterol? Consuming too much saturated fat—the “bad” fat found in red meat, cheese, baked goods and fried foods—boosts the amount of cholesterol in your blood, which puts you at increased risk of heart attack and stroke.
The Rx: Eat no more than three moderate servings of red meat each week. The American Heart Association recommends that you get no more than 13 grams of saturated fat per day.
When it comes to sleep, as with everything else, moderation is crucial. Studies show that getting more than nine hours per night may increase your risk of heart disease and dementia.
The Rx: The latest recommendation from sleep experts, including the National Sleep Foundation, is that adults should get seven to nine hours of sleep a night.
Loneliness and social isolation can increase a person’s risk of having a heart attack, according to a study published in the journal Heart. People who reported poor social relationships had a 29 percent higher risk of coronary disease, and a 32 percent higher risk of stroke, than those with robust friendships. Why? Researchers believe loneliness increases chronic stress, a risk factor for heart disease.
The Rx: Develop hobbies. Take time to call or text with friends or family. If you’re feeling socially isolated or depressed, talk to your doctor about the best course of action.
Empty calories are very bad for your waistline and heart, and sugar-sweetened beverages like soda contain some of the emptiest calories of all. A March 2019 study published in the journal Circulation found that people who drank the most sugary drinks had the highest risk of death. Each additional daily 12-ounce serving of sugary drinks was associated with a 7 percent increased risk for death from any cause, a 5 percent increased risk for cancer death, and a 10 percent higher risk for death from cardiovascular disease. “The optimal intake of these drinks is zero,” said the study’s lead author, Vasanti S. Malik, a research scientist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “They have no health benefits.”
The Rx: Hydrate with classic H20, seltzers — without artificial sweeteners or flavorings — or homemade spa water.
Diet soda is no healthy alternative to sugar-sweetened drinks. Multiple studies show that people who drink diet sodas and artificially sweetened beverages have a higher risk of metabolic syndrome — in which the body can’t process insulin, leading to diabetes — weight gain, osteoporosis and a decline in kidney function.
The Rx: Switch out that soda for water or seltzer without artificial sweeteners.
Consuming too much added sugar—the sugar that manufacturers add to foods to sweeten them or extend their shelf life—is a major risk factor for heart disease. According to the National Cancer Institute, adult men consume 24 teaspoons of sugar a day, the equivalent of 384 calories! “The effects of added sugar intake—higher blood pressure, inflammation, weight gain, diabetes, and fatty liver disease—are all linked to an increased risk for heart attack and stroke,” says Dr. Frank Hu, professor of nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
The Rx: The American Heart Association advises that adults consume no more than 150 calories (about 9 teaspoons, or 36 grams) of added sugar daily. That’s about the amount in one 12-ounce can of soda.
Slimming down can really beef up your lifespan. Carrying extra pounds contributes to a variety of health problems, including heart disease, diabetes and stroke. Studies show that overweight people who lose even a little weight (such as 5 to 10 percent of their total body weight) reduce their risk of cardiovascular disease.
The Rx: Know your healthy weight range. Eat a plant-heavy diet, reduce your consumption of empty calories and processed foods and get regular exercise.
Excessive fretting and fuming can cause serious wear and tear on your body and put your health in jeopardy. “Stress that’s left unchecked can contribute to many health problems, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity and diabetes,” says the Mayo Clinic.
The Rx: Relieve stress by getting regular physical activity, keeping a sense of humor and engaging in relaxation techniques such as mindfulness. If your stress has become unmanageable, talk to your doctor.
The low-fat craze of the 1980s has yet to fully abate, even after “low-fat” processed foods were revealed to the ultimate dietary Trojan horse: When manufacturers took out the fat, they often replaced it with added sugar and carbs that fail to fill you up, making you ultimately consume more calories.
The Rx: Fat, consumed in proper amounts, doesn’t make you fat. Too many calories make you fat, and low-fat foods may just leave you hungry. Come home from your next shopping trip with satiating “good” fats, fatty fish, olive oil, nuts and avocados.
The flu carries serious risks as we get older. Adults over 65 are more likely to experience fatal flu complications, including heart attacks. “Many individuals are unaware that their risk of a heart attack increases by up to 10 times in the days and weeks after an acute flu infection,” says Allen J. Taylor, MD, Chair of Cardiology at the MedStar Heart and Vascular Institute. “The flu shot reduces heart attack risk.” One 2018 study found a flu shot can cut that risk by up to 20 percent, and offer similar protection against a stroke.
The Rx: Get a flu shot each year at the very beginning of flu season. The vaccine can take a few weeks after injection to become effective against the virus.
If you’re not eating foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, you’re depriving your body of one of nature’s most potent nutritional bodyguards. Multiple studies show that omega-3s—which are found in fish like salmon, leafy green vegetables, nuts and flaxseeds—have been shown to decrease the risk of heart attack and stroke, support eye and brain health, improve mood and ease arthritis. Researchers believe omega-3s work to quell inflammation throughout the body.
The Rx: Eat fish like salmon once or twice a week, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health advises. Choose wild-caught fish, not farmed. Grill, pan-roast or steam it; don’t fry or sauté. Pile on the leafy green vegetables, and snack on nuts. (Just don’t take a shortcut by popping a supplement; research suggests they may not be effective.)
Left untreated, diabetes causes sugars to build up in the blood. Over time, that damages arteries, greatly raising your risk of heart disease, stroke, vision loss and circulation problems that could lead to amputation.
The Rx: If you’re on medication for your diabetes, stay compliant. Follow any recommendations for diet and exercise
You shouldn’t need to rely on meds to get to sleep, even over-the-counter drugs. Some studies have linked the use of hypnotic (sleep-inducing) drugs with an increased risk of cancer and death. Researchers aren’t sure why that may be, but why risk it?
The Rx: There are many strategies you can follow before requesting a prescription, including meditation, relaxation and avoiding screens. Talk to your doctor.
A whole lot of us gloss over symptoms or fib about our lifestyle habits in the doctor’s office: According to a survey conducted by ZocDoc, almost one-quarter of people lie to their doctors. The most common reasons? Embarrassment and fear of being judged.
The Rx: Always be candid. “Sugar-coating bad habits or nagging symptoms does not help,” advises David Longworth, MD, of the Cleveland Clinic. “Your doctors are confidential partners in your care. They need all the information available to help you make smart decisions. That includes everything from your habits to every medication you take, including over-the-counter drugs, herbal products, vitamins and supplements. If you aren’t consistently taking medication, talk to your doctor about why — including if you can’t afford them.”
Sports drinks are not health food. Brands like Gatorade and Powerade contain the equivalent of 8 teaspoons of added sugar, along with sodium. Too much of either in your diet can cause high blood pressure, says Morton Tavel, MD, clinical professor emeritus at the Indiana University School of Medicine and author of Health Tips, Myths and Tricks: A Physician’s Advice. “Unless someone is exercising or competing in a sporting event for longer than 90 minutes, there is no reason to drink something with excess sugar and electrolytes,” he adds.
The Rx: “Even if you are an athlete and regularly exercise, I would not recommend sports drinks at any time other than when you are actually in the middle of exercising,” says Tavel. “Go for just water and maybe a quick, bite-sized snack like fruit or nuts.”
It might seem daunting to talk with your doctor about erectile dysfunction, but ordering ED drugs like Viagra from sketchy online overseas pharmacies is never a good idea. “The risk that these imported drugs are counterfeit, contaminated, or subpotent is high; and quality assurance is a major concern,” says the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy.
The Rx: Substitute shame for your health and happiness. Talk openly to your doctor. (And know that some online pharmacies and ED-med services are legit; the database at safe.pharmacy can tell you which.)
The latest trendy diet won’t trump time-honored principles for good nutrition and health. “Trying a new health fad every time one comes out leads to inconsistent self-care,” says Rachel Franklin, MD, a family medicine physician at OU Medicine in Oklahoma City.
The Rx: “You need good sleep, good food (but not too much), and regular exercise, in that order,” adds Franklin. “Repeat daily.”
Why does restaurant food taste so great? It’s not just because you didn’t have to make it: To add flavor, restaurant chefs often pile on the fat, butter, oil and salt. According to a study at the University of Illinois, the offerings at sit-down restaurants frequently have worse nutrition profiles than fast food.
The Rx: Eat out as an occasional treat, but cook at home the rest of the time: That way, you know exactly how much fat and salt is going into your meal.
Food or drink stored in certain containers can have a nasty stowaway: BPA. The chemical used in aluminum linings has been shown to disrupt thyroid function, says Dr. Leonardo Trasande, a professor at the NYU School of Medicine.
The Rx: Make sure your water bottle or storage container is called “BPA-free.”
We take special steps to protect our hearts and lungs. The ears, not so much. They’re worth some attention. Experts say one of the unhealthiest habits for people over 50 is to go to loud concerts or noisy events without earplugs, which can hasten hearing loss.
The Rx: Limit your use of headphones, and lower the volume when using them. Bring a pair of earplugs to noisy events, and use ear protection when using loud tools.
Chronic low-grade inflammation throughout the body is linked to a host of chronic illnesses, including heart disease, cancer and dementia.
The Rx: A good way to protect yourself is to eat a Mediterranean diet, which emphasizes colorful fruits and vegetables, healthy fats like olive oil and omega-3 fatty acids — all of which are anti-inflammatory. Research shows it has true full-body benefits: “The results of a study recently published by the American Academy of Neurology indicates that following a Mediterranean diet can have positive effects on the health of our brains, especially as we age,” says Vernon Williams, MD, sports neurologist and founding director of the Center for Sports Neurology and Pain Medicine at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles. “Brain volume loss can affect learning and memory, especially as we get older. But the components of the Mediterranean diet are shown to have protective benefits for the brain.”
Overshadowed by trendier nutrients like omega-3s and Vitamin D, fiber is easily overlooked in today’s diet. But it shouldn’t be. Consuming adequate fiber reduces your risk for colon cancer and heart disease and can help you maintain a stable blood sugar level and healthy weight.
The Rx: Aim for five to seven servings of fruits and vegetables daily, and add plenty of other high-fiber foods like whole grains, nuts and oatmeal.
Vaping has developed a reputation as a healthier option than smoking. It’s unwarranted. If the recent outbreak of vaping-related illnesses and deaths aren’t enough to dissuade you that vaping is a bad idea, consider that vaping can produce formaldehyde and other carcinogenic substances, and flavorings contain chemicals that can damage lung tissue.
The Rx: Don’t smoke and don’t vape. Several strategies exist for helping you kick the nicotine habit. Talk with your healthcare provider about the ones that might be right for you.
When’s the last time you disinfected your cell phone? That’s what we thought. Doctors suggest you make it a habit. Why? Cell phones are constantly being touched and being set down on public surfaces, which make them a hotbed of germs. Researchers have found that a dirty cell phone can literally contain more bacteria than a toilet seat.
The Rx: Disinfect your cell phone daily, given that experts believe it may carry the coronavirus. Make a solution of 50% water and 50% isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol in a small spray bottle, spray it on a microfiber cloth or cotton pad, then wipe the germs away.
Grocery shopping can be a pain, but it can literally make you sick—with COVID-19 or something else. Common germy surfaces are the culprit. One study found that more than 50 percent of shopping carts at your grocery store contain disease-causing bacteria, including E. coli. A separate study found that the handles on freezer cases can harbor more bacteria than a toilet seat!
The Rx: If your grocery store has antibacterial wipes you can use to wipe down cart handles, take advantage. If not, bring a travel-sized pack of them along with you. Wipe the handle and let it dry for 20 seconds before latching on. And wash your hands as soon as you get home.
Shopping carts aren’t the only hotbeds of germs in the grocery store. In a study at Michigan State University, researchers randomly tested several supermarket checkout conveyor belts for bacteria—100 percent tested positive. The belts are made from PVC, a porous plastic that is hospitable to germs, yeast and mold. If you’re putting unwrapped produce on the belt, you could bring some of that illness-causing funk home with you.
The Rx: Put all your produce in plastic bags as you select it. When you get home, thoroughly wash anything you’ll consume.
The No. 1 tip doctors gave us for staying healthy during cold and flu season, and during this coronavirus crisis? Wash your hands often and well. Unfortunately, not enough of us do — even after using a public restroom. A CDC study found that only 31% of men and 65% of women wash their hands after using a public toilet.
The Rx: Always wash your hands with soap and water for the recommended length of time (read on for what that is). Carry alcohol-based hand sanitizer as backup.
It’s not just remembering to wash your hands that’s important—it’s key to wash them long enough to properly remove bacteria. A recent USDA study found that 97 percent of us — 97 percent! — don’t wash our hands correctly. The most common mistake? Not washing them long enough.
The Rx: Wash your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds, about long enough to sing “Happy Birthday” twice. Dry them thoroughly.
Do you have an aching back? Poor posture could be responsible. But there are easy things you can do to prevent the chronic aggravation. “Back pain, specifically low back pain, can be caused by poor posture and weak abdominal muscles,” says Neel Anand, MD, professor of orthopedic surgery and director of spine trauma at Cedars-Sinai Spine Center in Los Angeles. “Those areas need to be targeted and strengthened to relieve the pain and prevent future flare-ups.”
The Rx: Anand recommends doing planks and ab crunches to strengthen your core. At other times, “concentrate on sitting up straight and pulling your shoulders back and down when either sitting, standing, or walking,” he says. This practice can be particularly helpful: “Sit up straight in a chair with your hands on your thighs and your shoulders down. Pull your shoulders back and squeeze the shoulder blades together and hold for 5 seconds. Repeat this three or four times daily to strengthen those back muscles used for perfect posture.”
A recent study found that people who commute to work via bus or subway are six-and-a-half times more likely to contract “acute respiratory infections” (read: bad colds) than if people who walk or drive — just because those environments expose you to many more people and their germs. You can catch COVID-19 there, too.
The Rx: No portable plastic bubble necessary here. Most colds and flu are caused by transferring germs from your hands to your eyes, nose or mouth. So wear a face mask, wash your hands or use a generous squirt of hand sanitizer after you exit public transportation.
Antibacterial hand soap was once considered a valuable tool in the fight against illnesses like colds and flu. Now we know it’s a health underminer: The antibacterial chemicals in those soaps are contributing to the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. And they’re no better at removing germs from your hands than regular, old-fashioned soap.
The Rx: Replace antibacterial soaps with regular, and wash your hands frequently to prevent the spread of disease-causing germs.
Although the jury is out on the effectiveness of multivitamins, there’s one vitamin you shouldn’t overlook: Vitamin D. Multiple studies have found that maintaining an adequate Vitamin D level may be protective against several types of cancer — and guard against everyday colds and flu too. But because the body mainly produces D when the skin is exposed to the sun, it’s easy to become deficient. Fully half of us have a low vitamin D level, the National Institutes of Health says.
The Rx: According to the NIH’s Office of Dietary Supplements, adults should get 600 IU of vitamin D daily, and 800 IU after the age of 70. Your doctor can check your vitamin D level with a simple blood test.
The toilet seat isn’t the germiest place in your bathroom. It’s the sink. According to a study by the Public Health and Safety Organization, the bathroom faucet handle is the sixth-germiest site in the average house. (The toilet doesn’t even hit the top 10.) Dampness and frequency of use make it a breeding ground for creepy-crawlies.
The Rx: Wash your hands every time you use the bathroom, and thoroughly clean your bathroom sink once a week.
After a period of overindulgence, you might be tempted to go on a detox diet or juice cleanse. Resist! “I hear the term ‘cleanse’ thrown around a lot these days,” says Jillian Michaels, creator of The Fitness App. “In many cases, people are referring to some type of extremely restrictive low-calorie diet for an extended period of time—days or even weeks. A juice cleanse doesn’t cleanse your body in any way. It can reduce your calories dramatically, but that will simply put your body in starvation mode that will slow your metabolism in response.”
The Rx: “The only way to cleanse your system is not to eat chemicals,” says Michaels. “Eat foods high in fiber to help remove waste from your digestive tract. Drink a lot of water to support your kidneys and liver. Consider foods or supplements made from organic whole foods that help support the kidneys, liver, spleen and lungs, as those are the organs responsible for literally cleansing and detoxing the body. Starving yourself on juice is not the answer.”
Touching public brushes and lipsticks to your eyes, face and mouth — what could go wrong? Well, one woman sued the makeup chain Sephora in 2017, claiming she contracted oral herpes from a lipstick tester. And a 2005 study found between 67 and 100 percent of makeup-counter testers were contaminated with bacteria, including E. coli, staph and strep. All those bugs can cause skin and eye infections.
The Rx: Never use a public makeup tester. Ask for a single-use sample that’s sealed. If those aren’t available, test a new shade on the back of your hand, then wash it off promptly.
In the kitchen, Grandma knew best—except when it came to one old-fashioned ritual. Washing raw chicken before cooking it is a still-common practice that can be a serious hazard to your health. It can splash campylobacter or salmonella bacteria into the surrounding area—the faucet, sponges, dish towels and kitchen tools—which you can then transfer to your hands, mouth or other food.
The Rx: Never wash raw chicken. The USDA and CDC have recently issued advisories against it. “Don’t wash your raw chicken!,” the CDC tweeted in April 2019. “Washing can spread germs from the chicken to other food or utensils in the kitchen.” And always cook chicken to an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
Man’s best friend? No kidding: People who own dogs may live longer. Researchers at the University of Toronto examined 70 years of studies and found that dog ownership was associated with a 24 percent reduced risk of death from any cause. And four-legged friends seem to be particularly good for the heart: People who owned dogs had a 31 percent lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease and a 65 percent lower chance of dying after having a heart attack. Why? Dogs require people to be more active, and may reduce feelings of loneliness, which scientists say can stress the heart.
On the subject of stressing the heart — holding onto old hurts, slights and frustrations can increase chronic stress, which experts agree is bad for the body, including the cardiovascular system and immunity.
The Rx: Make an active decision to release past grudges. If you’re having trouble, it might be time to consult a professional.
“Many people assume that the more protein they ingest, the better,” says Anthony Kouri, MD, an orthopedic surgeon at the University of Toledo Medical Center. “Protein supplements can be an excellent source of protein for athletes looking to gain muscle mass, older adults with chronic illnesses, and vegetarians or vegans. However, for everyone else, excess protein intake can be harmful. Extra protein intake can lead to osteoporosis and subsequent fragility fractures, kidney stones, and liver dysfunction. There is also evidence that excess protein intake can lead to increased risk of coronary artery disease.”
The Rx: “Consider your normal dietary intake of protein prior to consuming protein supplements,” says Kouri. According to Harvard Medical School, to determine your recommended daily protein intake in grams, multiply your weight by 0.36. For a 50-year-old woman who weighs 140 pounds and is sedentary, that is 53 grams of protein a day.
“The biggest thing that people think is healthy, but actually isn’t, is excessive long-distance running,” says Alex Robles, MD, co-founder of The White Coat Trainer. “Evolutionarily speaking, we weren’t designed to run long distances for an indefinite amount of time. Biologically speaking, running is programmed to be a fight-or-flight response to dangerous stimuli in our environment. Instead, humans were designed to walk very long distances, which has a much smaller impact on your joints than running does.”
The Rx: “If you enjoy running, make sure that you have adequate foot support, allow your body to recover appropriately in between sessions and have your technique assessed by a professional to ensure you are moving in an optimal fashion,” advises Robles.
If you use it, you lose it. Research has found that’s true for our minds as we age. Consistently exercising your brain will help it maintain its plasticity, or ability to adapt and remodel itself. Advises Williams: “Any worthwhile brain exercise is going to have the following components: It involves something you haven’t learned before (this could be learning a foreign language, a new sport or even just taking a different route to work in the morning), it’s not easy (challenging exercises, whether physical or mental, increase neural pathways because they demand focused effort), it develops a skill that can be built on, and it pays off — our brains are wired to appreciate rewards. Choose activities that are challenging but enjoyable.”
The Rx: Read regularly, do puzzles, dig into word games like Sudoku or crosswords, or play board games or video games.
“We know that as a society, we aren’t very healthy,” says Ericka Spatz, MD, a Yale Medicine cardiologist. “The Western lifestyle of fatty foods, sedentary lifestyle, and high stress, contributes to obesity and can contribute to diabetes, high blood pressure, and ultimately heart disease.”
The Rx: Get that AHA-recommended amount of weekly exercise. And remember that starting with even a little activity is better than none: Get up every few hours and walk around, or start your day with a walk around the block, and work up from there.
Just because a medication is available over-the-counter doesn’t mean it’s safe, especially with other medications you’re taking. Many OTC medications can worsen high blood pressure, heart issues and stomach problems, and interfere with prescription medications.
The Rx: Talk to your doctor before taking any over-the-counter medications, especially if you have other prescriptions.
Menus are some of the dirtiest items in any restaurant. In fact, they can have 100 times the bacteria of a toilet seat: Researchers at the University of Arizona randomly sampled menus at restaurants in three states and found they contained an average of 185,000 bacteria. That’s because they’re not frequently cleaned, and often may just be wiped down with a dishrag which may itself be dirty.
The Rx: Never take a used menu. Ask the restaurant for a brand new paper one.
The germiest item in your house is in the kitchen, not your bathroom: It’s the sponge. A study by the Public Health and Safety Organization found coliform bacteria (a sign of fecal contamination) on more than 75% of kitchen dish sponges, compared to only 9% of bathroom handles.
The Rx: Replace your sponges often, or sanitize them once a week in the microwave. Saturate them with water and microwave on high for one minute (for scrub sponges) or two (cellulose sponges).
The calories in sugar-sweetened beverages like soda and juices can add up before you know it — research has found the average American drinks more than 150 calories in sugar-sweetened beverages on any given day. The bad news: A March 2019 study published in the journal Circulation found that people who drank the most sugary drinks had the highest risk of death. Those empty calories can raise your risk of heart disease, obesity and diabetes.
The Rx: Skip sugary sodas and fruit juices. Hydrate with plain water, seltzers without artificial sweeteners, unsweetened tea or homemade spa water infused with slices of fruits or vegetables.
In public restrooms, avoid air dryers, which are like T-shirt cannons loaded with bacteria. In one study, petri dishes exposed to hot air from a restroom hand dryer grew up to 254 colonies of bacteria in 30 seconds. Air hand dryers seem to suck in bacteria from washroom air, which can contain E. coli, strep and fecal bacteria.
The Rx: Dry your hands with good, old-fashioned paper towels.
Everybody has to touch elevator buttons. That’s the problem. They’re hotbeds of illness-causing bacteria and viruses, but few of us realize it. (One study at the University of Arizona found that elevator buttons contain 40 times the bacteria of a public toilet seat.)
The Rx: Press elevator buttons with the back of a knuckle to lower your risk of spreading germs from your fingertips to your face.
It’s called the “toilet plume” — when you flush, bacteria can spread more than 10 feet in the air and, one study found, stay airborne for four to six hours. If you keep your toothbrush near the toilet, you increase the risk you’ll be brushing with those germy particles the next time you use it.
The Rx: Always flush the toilet with the lid down, and store your toothbrush on your bathroom counter, in a corner away from the bowl. And replace it regularly: the American Dental Association advises every three to four months.