When was the last time you got 8 hours of sleep or lifted weights at the gym? You’re not alone if you can’t remember: Even some of the most savvy women didn’t get the memo about these health-wrecking habits.
Even people who know a lot about staying healthy tend to make these mistakes. Find out if you’re among them. You’re supposed to watch saturated fat and eat lots of vegetables—that’s why you usually pick up a salad for lunch and dinner (even when the kids get burgers). But you’re not obsessed with the scale like some women you know. You brush your teeth twice a day, and you last flossed, oh, maybe 2 weeks ago. You exercise but avoid lifting so you don’t bulk up. The tummy pains you got last week? Must have been gas — nothing serious. And hey, you’d like to get 8 hours of sleep, but the days are short, and it’s hard to get everything done. Sound familiar? These so-called “good” habits may actually be derailing your health. Here, experts share the surprising things you’re doing wrong — and how to recover.
1. You Always Order a Salad Don’t assume that bowl of lettuce is always the healthiest menu pick. 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 grams of fat; a Big Mac has 540 calories and 29 grams.
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 sour cream, 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 leave.
2. You Rock Out While You Work Out Do your ears ring after a long iPod-powered workout? 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 MP3 player models let you lock in a range. Or switch over to a pair of sound-isolating earphones; they drown out background noise so your music doesn’t have to.
3. You Avoid the Scale
For some women, this is the only thing in the house gathering more dust than the treadmill. Doctors call scale-phobia 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 or not it will motivate you.” But if you’re trying to lose weight or maintain weight loss, you may need the kind of feedback the scale provides, says Brownell. If you weigh yourself regularly, you can notice a gain when it’s easier to shed — at 3 pounds, say, instead of 15. But it’s important not to get so obsessed with the numbers that you’re weighing yourself once or twice daily. Your weight can vary from day to day, even hour to hour.
The Fix: If you’re trying to lose weight, get on the scale monthly. Do it first thing in the morning, naked, after you use the bathroom, and at the same time in your menstrual cycle — not when you’re likely to have water-weight gain. If you’re maintaining weight you’ve recently lost, hop on at least once a week. That’s how the biggest “losers” in the National Weight Control Registry — the largest study of people who’ve been successful at long-term weight loss — stay slim. Don’t freak out over anything less than a 5-pound gain; that’s a normal fluctuation. But if you find yourself drifting higher than that, it’s time to rein yourself
4. You’re Sloppy with Sunscreen Think you’re sunscreen savvy? Maybe not You know sunscreen is essential for preventing burns, wrinkles, and skin cancer. But one study finds 9 out of 10 people don’t do a good enough job when applying sunscreen. Just 25% of participants got complete coverage over any one area. The most common mistake? Putting sunscreen on too carelessly.
The Fix: To apply the right way, focus on one area at a time, careful not to miss spots like feet, tops of ears, temples, and the back of the neck. Be sure to use enough: You’ll need at least 1 ounce of sunscreen to cover your entire body. If your bottle is 4 ounces, it should not last for more than 4 applications. Squeeze the lotion directly onto your body skin and rub it in with your fingertips; putting it on your hands first makes most of the lotion stick to your palms.
5. You Forget to Floss We spend millions a year on procedures that bleach our teeth whiter than pearls, but many don’t put in the less than 5 minutes a day it takes to floss. The result: At least 23 percent of women between 30 and 54, and 44 percent of women over 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. “Flossing is so critical because the hormonal changes that occur in women during puberty, pregnancy, and menopause cause the oral bacteria that lead to gum disease to grow more readily,” says David Schneider, DMD, a Chevy Chase, MD, periodontist.
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. Here’s a reminder how-to from the American Dental Association: Take about 18 inches of floss and wind it around the middle fingers. Hold a few inches of the floss tightly between thumbs and forefingers. Guide the floss between your teeth, using a gentle rubbing motion. When the floss reaches the gum line, curve it into a C shape against one tooth, and gently slide it into the space between the gum and the tooth. Hold the floss tightly against the tooth. Gently rub the side of the tooth, moving the floss away from the gum with an up-and-down motion. Repeat this for every tooth.
6. 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 half an hour a day doing any exercise.
So think of “weight lifting” more as a great way to tone, tighten, and trim your body (and get those Jennifer Aniston arms or Heidi Klum legs). Your goal isn’t necessarily weight loss — in fact, once you start, you may even notice that you’ve put on a few pounds, but don’t panic. You’re gaining muscle, which weighs more than the fat you’re losing. But because muscle is more dense than fat, it takes up less space, helping you fit into your clothes better. And if you lift regularly, you’ll eventually start dropping pounds. Plus, research at the University of Alabama at Birmingham found that women on a strength-training program for 25 weeks lost significant amounts of belly fat — the dangerous kind that increases your risk of heart disease and diabetes.
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.
7. You Ignore Aches and Pains If you’re knee-deep in caring for kids, managing a household, and holding down a job, you may be quick to brush off a nagging cough, back twinge, or bout of indigestion. You may think fatigue is your natural state. But you shouldn’t ignore any of those symptoms. Years ago, Stephanie Goldner, a then 37-year-old mother of four, went to work despite waking up with what felt like a bad case of indigestion. But her colleagues at Baptist Hospital in Miami took one look at her and sent her to the emergency room. There she learned that her bad indigestion was actually a heart attack. Although women tend to go to doctors more often than men do, and though they’re the caretakers for everyone from grandparents to the pet parakeet, they’re least likely to take care of themselves, says Diana Dell, MD, assistant professor of obstetrics-gynecology and psychiatry at Duke University Medical Center. Research suggests that some women will ignore even crushing fatigue and pain, symptoms that in a partner or child would send them scurrying for a doctor’s appointment.
The Fix: Familiarize yourself with the symptoms of serious illness, know your risk factors, report anything unusual immediately, and don’t let anything get in the way of regular screening tests, which can often detect problems when they’re still small and treatable.
8. You Wear Contacts No Matter What It’s safer to switch to glasses when you’re under the weather. Fighting a cold? If you normally wear contacts, switch to eyeglasses. Your eyes don’t work as well when you’re sick, say researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Optometry. A decline in tear production makes contact lens wearers more prone to conjunctivitis — a.k.a. pinkeye. So can using antihistamine meds, which also dry out eyes.
The Fix: Wear your specs until you’re feeling better, experts advise, or switch to daily-wear disposable lenses to avoid infection.
9. You Don’t Get Enough Sleep Scrimping on sleep may seem like a smart way to squeeze a few more productive hours into the day, but busy women who do it can pay a heavy price with their health. Though there’s no set amount of sleep people need, 7 to 9 hours is about right for most adults. However, according to the latest poll from the National Sleep Foundation, 20% of Americans sleep less than 6 hours a night. Only 28% of people report getting 8 hours or more of shut-eye a night. The risks of sleep deprivation go way beyond waking up with that groggy feeling even coffee won’t cure. Women who sleep less than 8 hours a night over a 10-year period are at slightly higher risk of heart disease, reported a study in the Archives of Internal Medicine. Another study found that sleep deprivation can lead to an imbalance of various weight-related hormones that can encourage your cells to store excess fat and lower your body’s fat-burning ability. Still other research has linked sleep deprivation to depression and anxiety, as well as insulin resistance — a trigger for high blood pressure, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes. And accidents caused by drowsy drivers injure more than 40,000 people a year and kill at least 1,500, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The Fix: Acknowledge the futility of trying to fit 26 hours’ worth of activities into 24. Cut back on your commitments. Divvy up family responsibilities with your partner and children. Establish a bedtime for yourself, and stick to it every night. Avoid caffeine in the afternoon and evening. And don’t use alcohol as a sleep inducer; it can actually interfere with a full night’s rest. Your sleep may improve if you adhere to the same relaxing bedtime rituals you’ve started for your kids, such as reading, listening to music, or taking a warm bath.
10. You Assume Home Cooking Is Always Healthier Making your own meals is usually healthier than takeout, but your cookbook may not be as slimming as you think. Beware the creeping-calorie trend among time-tested recipes: When food scientists at Cornell University analyzed the 18 recipes that have appeared in each edition of The Joy of Cooking — the iconic cookbook, updated every 10 years since 1936 — they found that the average calories per serving have increased nearly 40%. Even though the dishes — such as macaroni and cheese, chicken à la king, brownies, and apple pie — are essentially the same, richer ingredients and larger serving sizes have inflated calorie counts.
The Fix: Eat smaller portions at mealtime, then freeze leftovers in individual containers so you eat one portion at a time, not two or three. And use low-calorie, healthy, home-cooked meal recipes that won’t weigh you down.
11. Your Faucet’s Always at the Same Temp When you cook or drink, keep it cool. When you wash your hands, turn up the heat. When you’re soaping up after the bathroom, warm-to-hot water is necessary to kill germs. But when you’re quenching your thirst or prepping a meal, make sure to draw water from the cold tap. Hot water is likely to contain higher levels of lead, says the EPA, because it dissolves the toxic metal in plumbing more quickly than cold water does. About 15% of our lead exposure in the United States comes from drinking water. High blood lead levels have been linked to a host of health problems. Just 4 ug/dl (micrograms per deciliter) can double your risk of a fatal heart attack or stroke, and similar levels may cause memory loss, says Eliseo Guallar, MD, PhD, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins.
The Fix: If you haven’t turned on the faucet for 6 hours or more, let it run cold for a minute before using, the EPA advises — and use only water filters bearing a seal from NSF International, a company that certifies products’ lead-removing abilities.
12. Your Friends Have Bad Health Habits With friends like these, you may need to watch your waistline. If a close pal had an unhealthy amount of weight gain, your chances of packing on pounds increase by 57%, found one Harvard University study; if that friend is the same gender as you, odds rise by 71%. Having heavyset friends around appears to stretch your own notion of what’s acceptable for body size, says lead author Nicholas Christakis, MD, PhD, allowing weight gain to spread like a disease through social networks. Your pals can affect how much you drink too. If your work friends frequent the local happy hour, you may give yourself permission to overindulge at home. University of Texas researchers found that people were 82% more likely to be heavy drinkers when their coworkers held liberal views about alcohol.
The Fix: Maintain your own beliefs about what is healthy — and avoid being swayed by friends and their weight gain. “Those around us can influence us in ways we don’t realize,” says Christakis. If your friends are sharing unhealthy apps at dinner, order the usual healthy choice you would have with a different crowd.
13. You Drive With the Windows Down Commuting may be hazardous to your lungs. University of Southern California scientists studied urban commuters and found that though they spend only 6% of their day in the car, during that time they’re exposed to up to 45% of the air pollutants they encounter in a 24-hour period. That makes getting to work in car-centric cities the second biggest weekday health risk — topped only by smoking.
The Fix: During a trafficky commute, driving with windows shut and air recirculating helps somewhat, say researchers; taking a train or biking on less busy roads can have an even healthier impact.
14. You Don’t Check Your Doc’s Track Record Having an operation? An overachieving surgeon could save your life. A review of the medical records of 474,000 surgery patients found that their doctors’ experience was the strongest predictor of who survived and who didn’t. This result overturns long-held advice that simply choosing a high-volume hospital (one that does a lot of procedures) ensures the safest surgery. Two examples: Pancreatic cancer patients were nearly 4 times more likely to die after surgery, and heart valve — replacement patients were 44 percent more likely to die, when the procedures were performed by less experienced doctors, compared with more practiced surgeons.
The Fix: To check your surgeon’s experience, call her office and ask: Is she a fellow of the American College of Surgeons? Is she board certified in her specialty? How many surgeries of the type you need has she performed in the past year? How does her success rate compare with the national average? Has she ever had to pay to settle a malpractice claim or been disciplined by a hospital or a state medical licensing board?