Healthy Living in the Real World

When you can't find time to live by the book, it helps to know a few short cuts

By Sherry Rauh
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario, MD

Exercise, eat well, get enough sleep. You've heard it from your doctor, the surgeon general, your mom, and maybe even your kids, but you just don't have time to live by the book. You can't even keep track of the latest guidelines, let alone follow them. WebMD is here to help.

Guidelines for Healthy Living

WebMD compiled this easy reference guide based on input from leaders in nutrition, dentistry, dermatology, mental health, and physical fitness. The guide outlines positive actions for improving and maintaining overall health. (It goes without saying that smokers should quit.)

  • Eat a variety of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains
  • Choose lean meats and low-fat dairy products
  • Limit saturated fats, trans fats, cholesterol, salt, and added sugars
Oral Hygiene
  • Brush your teeth twice per day with fluoride toothpaste
  • Floss every day
  • Visit your dentist regularly for cleanings
Skin Care
  • Wash your skin daily with a mild cleanser
  • Apply sunscreen with SPF 30 year-round
  • Use a retinoid if appropriate to your goals
Mental Health
  • Keep the mind sharp by reading or learning a new hobby
  • Practice some form of stress management
  • Maintain good relationships with family members, friends, and peers
Physical Fitness
  • Exercise at least 30 minutes on most days
  • Sleep 7-9 hours per night
  • Drink plenty of water

Those are the guidelines. But don't fall into the trap of an all-or-nothing approach. You may have more success if you add one healthy habit at a time. Read on for specific suggestions in each category.

To get the most out of your diet, American Dietetic Association spokesman Dave Grotto, RD, says the key is to focus on the "creme de la creme" of each food group. "I advise a United Nations approach to eating vegetables," Grotto tells WebMD. "You want the greatest variety and intensity of color." For example, sweet potatoes, squash, and deep ruby-red tomatoes. The same goes for fruits. Look for berries, cherries, and pomegranates. Buy them dried or frozen when they're out of season.

As for grains, Grotto says the most nutritious are those "that have the word 'whole' in the first ingredient." See the chart below for more examples of foods that give you the biggest bang for your bite.

  Examples of Optimum Foods in Each Group
Grains Whole grains with 3+ grams of fiber per serving
Vegetables The more intense the color, the better (tomatoes, spinach, sweet potatoes, squash)
Fruits The more intense the color, the better (berries, cherries, pomegranates)
Meats/Proteins Foods rich in omega-3 fats (fish, wild game)
Lean meats
Plant-based proteins (tofu, beans, legumes)
Fats Nuts, seeds, olive oil

Oral Hygiene

Cleaning your teeth by brushing alone is like trying to "vacuum the whole house without attachments," says American Dental Association spokesman Richard Price, DDS. "You need something to get between the crevices."

That means flossing. "What you're doing with the floss is physically removing the plaque that the toothbrush can't reach," Price tells WebMD. "If you find it difficult, try a Teflon type that slips between the teeth easily. If it breaks and shreds, there's something rough between the teeth," a sign that it's time to see your dentist.

If you only have time to do one thing for your skin, what should it be? "Sunscreen, sunscreen, sunscreen," answers dermatologist Robin Ashinoff, MD. "Year-round sunscreen. It is the one thing that will protect your skin. I recommend a minimum of SPF 30."

If you have time for more than sunscreen, try a topical retinoid to reduce acne and the appearance of fine lines, wrinkles, and age spots. Ashinoff, who is the director of Dermatologic Mohs and Laser Surgery at Hackensack University Medical Center, tells WebMD, "Retinoids increase collagen, promote skin turnover, even out skin tone and have anticancer effects." She recommends prescription-strength retinoids but says over-the-counter formulas can also be effective.

"The mind is the original use-it-or-lose-it organ," says Kenneth R. Pelletier, PhD, a clinical professor of medicine at the University of Arizona School of Medicine, and chairman of the American Health Association. "If we challenge ourselves mentally, we do not lose mental functioning as rapidly as we once thought." Mental exercise can include daily reading, learning a second language, or taking up a creative hobby, such as painting or playing a musical instrument. "Anything that is novel and stimulating induces the mind to stay vital, young, and flexible," Pelletier tells WebMD.

"Studies...have shown people who practice basic relaxation techniques are less susceptible to infection."

Learning to manage stress is another vital component to mental health. Pelletier, who is co-author of Stress Free for Good: Ten Scientifically Proven Life Skills for Health and Happiness, recommends learning one or more stress management techniques, such as abdominal breathing or meditation, during a noncrisis period. "This is a mental fitness. It takes practice and discipline. The human nervous system is enormously more complex than a piano, so you need lessons." The time you invest will not only strengthen your mental resilience but offer physical benefits as well. Pelletier points to studies that have shown people who practice basic relaxation techniques are less susceptible to infection.

"When people see [a recommendation of] 30 minutes of exercise on most days of the week, they say 'no way' and don't do anything," says Walter R. Thompson, PhD, author of the ACSM Fitness Book. But even smaller amounts of physical activity have benefits, so anything you can do is better than nothing.

Thompson says the first step is to figure out which activities you enjoy. "What do you like to do? If you don't like it, you're not going to do it." For example, if you enjoy walking but loathe the idea of lifting weights, don't sign up for a strength-training class. Focus instead on walking whenever possible. Take the stairs instead of the elevator and make time for a quick walk during your lunch break. Conversely, if you enjoy strength training but not aerobic exercise, you can still get a cardiovascular workout by doing many repetitions with lighter weights.

That sounds good, you think, if only there were 25 hours in a day. But take a close look at your schedule and you'll probably find pockets of time where you could be more physically active. "People who think they are too busy should analyze their day," Thompson tells WebMD. "Everybody can find time, with no exception."

Published May 9, 2005.

SOURCES: USDA Dietary Guidelines. American Dietetic Association. American Dental Association. American Academy of Dermatology. American Psychological Association. American College of Sports Medicine. National Sleep Foundation. Dave Grotto, RD, American Dietetic Association spokesman; director of nutrition, Block Center for Integrative Cancer Care in Evanston, Ill. Richard Price, DDS, American Dental Association spokesman. Robin Ashinoff, MD, director, Dermatologic Mohs and Laser Surgery, Hackensack University Medical Center. Kenneth R. Pelletier, PhD, clinical professor of medicine, University of Arizona and University of California at San Francisco; chairman, American Health Association; co-author, Stress Free for Good: Ten Scientifically Proven Life Skills for Health and Happiness. Walter R. Thompson, PhD, professor, Georgia State University; author, ACSM Fitness Book.

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