Here are the 12 most powerful things you can do today to improve your health

From Dr. David Eifrig, MD, MBA, editor, Retirement Millionaire:

Deciding the best ways to improve your health is tough.

One day, you hear a self-appointed expert tell you one thing. And the next day, a different talking head claims something that sounds like the exact opposite. Often, the advice is contradictory and confusing. Much of it also lacks scientific evidence.

That’s why, in 2006, I started publishing a list of my top ways to improve your health. I wanted to give patients and readers a simple, straightforward way to start on the path to a healthier life.

I originally created this list for myself in 1997. I kept the list on my refrigerator to remind myself of the importance of these tips. I have continued to update it every winter since then…

Every year, I review the most recent research and use it to reorder the list and add or remove items.

In total this year, I’m reporting 12 ways to improve your health for 2015. Please don’t let the number of tips overwhelm you. Read the list and then pick out a couple each month to focus on as the year rolls on.

If you’re a longtime subscriber, many of these may be familiar to you. And if you haven’t been feeling well over the past year, look at this list again. Start at the top and try a few out for the next couple months. You’ll feel better almost immediately.

I promise something on this list will change your life…

12. Control Your Digital Life – People spend more than eight hours a day in front of a screen… whether that’s a computer, phone, or television. This is a hazardous habit. As I’ll touch on later, these devices emit blue light, disrupting your circadian rhythms.

Moreover, the screen time is also making you fat. Have you ever sat in front a TV with a bowl full of chips and discover, before you know it, the bowl’s empty? It’s called mindless eating.

Screen time also increases stress. According to a study from the Univer­sity of British Columbia, people who check e-mail often at work are more stressed than people who spend less time checking e-mail. Frequently check­ing e-mail also hurts productivity. A study from the University of Lon­don found that interrupting a task to check e-mail or a text message low­ers IQ by 10 points.

More research is coming out on the dangers of digital equipment in our lives. I suspect that next year this category will move up a few notches. It’s turning out to be that critical within our lives.

11. Blueberries – Blueberries are a true superfood. They’re packed with antioxidants (like vitamin C, vitamin E, beta-carotene, fiber, and manganese), flavonoids, anthocyanins (this gives them the blue color), and other chemi­cals. They lower cholesterol, improve eyesight, and reduce inflammation.

If you don’t like blueberries, other berries – raspberries, strawberries, and blackberries – have similar benefits. To get even more benefits, pair your berries with yogurt. The probiotics in foods like yogurt, help break down the antioxidants in blueberries (called polyphenols) to more usable forms. This allows your body to absorb more of the nutrients and reap more benefits.

I eat berries year-round in yogurt, oatmeal, and by themselves. I always keep packages of wild blueberries in my freezer so I can eat them even when they’re not in season. I eat about a half-cup per day.

10. Music – If such a thing as a “miracle cure” exists, music comes close. Music can improve mood, boost immune function, increase exercise stamina, reduce chronic pain, and reduce pain after surgery. Also, most of Mozart’s music, as well as much Baroque music, greatly improves learning, test taking, creativity, and spatial reasoning.

I change the type of music I’m listening to depending on my activity and mood. As most people in my office could tell you, I listen to a mix of clas­sical and jazz during the workday. It keeps me calm and helps me to concentrate. Toward the end of the day, when people typically get tired, I’ll switch to more upbeat music to keep me energized.

9. Stop Sharing – Eating and drinking from other people’s utensils and glasses is one of the quickest ways to get a cold. And not just colds… It can result in cold sores. Known as the “herpes simplex virus type 1,” cold sores are the painful blisters you get around your mouth and nose. They last for about a week and can lead to cold or flu-like symptoms. It’s also the quickest way to spread a sore throat and gut bugs.

That’s why I tell people every year to stop sharing utensils. During the winters I shared utensils, I’d suffer multiple colds. Once I stopped, I had only a rare cold during winter. Now when I feel the need to share food or drink, I get clean utensils and glasses.

8. Alcohol – Whether it’s beer, liquor, or wine, moderate drinking of al­cohol is good for you. (I drink a large glass of wine a day.) Wine lowers blood sugar, decreases your risk of dementia, and protects your prostate. Beer is packed with B vitamins, which help maintain healthy insulin levels. Liquor has similar benefits to wine and beer, although to a lesser extent.

If you don’t drink alcohol, there’s increasing evidence than non-alcoholic red wine has health benefits as well. A 2012 Spanish study published in the American Heart Association journal Circulation Research found that the antioxidants in non-alcoholic red wine were just as beneficial. While the study was small, it’s promising for people who don’t drink.

But if you do drink, remember, moderation is key… Too much disrupts your sleep cycles, increases blood pressure, and increases your risk of cancer.

7. Massage – Massage decreases inflammation and modulates the immune system. That means fewer aches and pains. Swedish-style massage is my preferred choice as it moves toxins out of the muscles and body tissues while assisting the immune system in its functions. A study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine showed Swedish massage helped patients with osteoarthritis improve their range of motion and decrease pain.

Massage is also a great way to relieve everyday pains and improve your mood. I try to get a full-body massage twice a month. If you find the right person, the energy flow and “recharging” alters your life for at least a couple days. If a professional massage isn’t in the budget, find a partner who will exchange or barter with you.

There are also tools you can use to give yourself a massage. I use a Body Back Buddy to help relieve aches in my back. (You can find them on Amazon for less than $40.) You can even use a tennis ball. It’s the quickest headache and back-pain reliever I know of. I travel with one and use the ball under my upper back and roll around until I find the pressure points. You can easily adjust how much weight is on the ball and the pressure points.

6. Air – This year, I’m combining two of last year’s categories – clean air (No. 9) and aromas (No. 11) and moving them up in importance.

Polluted air is filled with various particles so small that they can get into your lung tissue and blood stream. They cause cancer, reduce the ef­fectiveness of your immune system, and damage your respiratory system. Having excessive dust, dirt, or smoke in your home can lead to chronic inflammation… leading to more colds and heart attacks. Breathing clean air is an essential part of having a healthy year. I keep an air purifier in my bed­room, where I spend almost a third of my life.

Good smells in the air around you are also important. Aromas can improve your mood, trigger positive memories, help you sleep, and improve concentration. Some – like the combination of lavender and pumpkin pie – can even increase the male libido.

5. Meditation – People who meditate have lower blood pressure, less heart disease, and better oxygen uptake – and they also report feeling less stressed. Meditation has benefits similar to exercise but without the wear, tear, and stress on your body that happens during training.

Many people are afraid of meditation’s religious connotations. And it’s true devout religious people use this technique when they pray. But you don’t have to be religious to invoke the body’s abilities.

Try what I do and sit in a chair (or in bed) with my neck and shoulders balanced and relaxed, feet on the floor and hands interlocking on my lap. I think of just one word, such as “one” or “omm” or “peace.” When my mind drifts to other things, I slowly and softly bring it back to that word. Taking deep, but not forced, breaths, I let my mind and body go where they want to for 15 or 20 minutes. This is my time to relax my mind and focus on my breathing, body, and being in the moment. (No chanting involved.)

4. Sun – Sunlight lowers the risks of several cancers. The vitamin D pro­duced by the body from sunlight may be critical in preventing diseases such as multiple sclerosis and depression.

Some people would rather take a pill to get their vitamin D than go out­side for 20 minutes a day. But there’s a catch… The vitamin D we get in our food requires sunlight to chemically activate and become useful. So go spend some time outside, instead of relying on a pill.

The Institute of Medicine, a group with no pills to sell and no ax to grind, recommends people get between 400 and 800 international units (IU) of vitamin D per day, depending on your age. If you live in a northern climate, do what I do and take 800 IU every other day, but still go out and get sun on your face and hands (if it’s not too cold).

3. Vegetables – Most Americans only eat about 1.5 servings of vegetables per day. A study published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health in 2014 suggests eating up to seven servings of fruits and vegetables per day lowers your risk of dying from any cause. But it also noted it’s likely the vegetables doing the work. I concur.

Vegetables are low-fat, low-calorie, and high in fiber. Green leafy vegetables like spinach and kale are some of the most nutrient dense. Plus, spinach promotes muscle growth. (Popeye had the right idea.) According to re­searchers at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, nitrate – a compound in spinach – strengthens fast-twitch muscles. Fast-twitch muscles are the ones your body uses for high-intensity exercises.

Vegetables are easy to dress up or hide in other foods. I put a little ol­ive oil and lemon on my salads. Or you can hide spinach in a fruit smoothie.

2. Movement – Exercise improves your mood and boosts your immune system. And one excuse people use for not exercising is a lack of time. Well, this year’s most fascinating science results are coming in fast, and time can no longer be an excuse.

According to a new study from McMaster University, people who did just one minute of intense exercise as part of 10 total minutes of exercise (the nine other minutes were a slow walk), three days a week for six weeks, lowered their blood pressure and increased their endurance by 12%. Researchers called it sprint interval training (SIT). All it takes is 30 minutes a week to see benefits.

If you’re interested in learning more, I recommend reading Body by Science by John Little and Fast Exercise by Michael Mosley.

1. Sleep – Sleep has returned to my No. 1 most important health secret. This past fall, I kept getting sick. Usually, I get through cold and flu season unscathed. However, before winter hit, I had gotten sick twice in eight weeks. The fix was easy.

I had started reading on a backlit tablet in bed that emits blue light. Blue light is just one color of light that electronics like laptops and tablets give off. But (as I briefly mentioned yesterday) it’s the one that’s the most disruptive to circadian rhythms. Think of the circadian rhythm like a clock that signals our bodies the optimal time to do things, like falling asleep and waking up. Blue light also stops the release of melatonin – the hormone that makes you sleepy.

To give your brain time to get ready to sleep, shut off your electronics an hour before bed. Keep the lights dim and the shades covered.

These tips are the best ways to get started living a healthier life. As I said before, please start using these tips immediately. But just try one (or two) at a time. After a few months, you’ll have built them into your life as regular habits.

P.S. These are just some of the ways you can live a happier and healthier life, starting now. My brand-new Big Book of Retirement Secrets features more than 50 health-related tips… and roughly 250 total ideas to help you save more, spend less, and live healthier. Plus, right now, you can claim a FREE copy. All we ask is that you pay shipping costs of $5. You can learn all about the book and this special offer right here.

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