Nine healthy habits will make you feel better in 2009

By Ron MacCormick
M.D., Scripps Memorial Hospital Encinitas
Most of us make New Years’ resolutions with the best intentions. We really do mean to start hitting the gym every morning or cutting out the junk food.
But then life gets in the way, and before we know it we’re well into spring and not much has changed.
This year, vow to make a few changes that will actually stick.
And try to find a proportionate work-life balance. Listed below are nine simple ways to tweak your day-to-day routine that delivers mentally and physically healthy benefits without much effort at all.
Try including a few of these in your New Year, and see how small changes can have big results.
1. Take a walk.
Walking just 30 to 45 minutes a day pays off in so many ways. Rapid walking after a meal cuts the rise in blood fats, builds cardiovascular fitness, burns calories, helps fight heart disease and other illnesses, and boosts well-being. Make a daily walking appointment with a friend or family member, and you’ll be more likely to stick to it. If it’s solitude you crave, a morning or evening walk with just your thoughts for company may become a highlight of your day. Don’t have a 30-minute block of time? Break it down into two 15-minute or three 10-minute walks. You’ll still get the benefits.
2. Laugh, spend time with family and friends.
Good conversation, a laugh or two or three. All good things that balance stress and anxiety levels. Take every opportunity, especially after a hectic holiday season, to laugh. It helps not only with your mood, but your immune system and stress level as well. Spending time with friends and family can offer you the perfect opportunity to giggle and forget about the pressures of life. Boost your health with laughter as your medicine and don’t take yourself too seriously. Live by the motto, “We are not here for a long time, we are here for a good time.”
3. Order soup.
Going out for dinner? Order soup instead of a calorie-dense appetizer as a first course. Broth-based soups such as chicken, minestrone or vegetable are a smart, tasty way to take the edge off of your appetite. Choose them over creamy soups, which can be high in fat and calories. Split a meal with your spouse or significant other. After soup, half of a regular portion meal will likely more than fill you up.
4. Exercise your brain.
When you exercise a muscle, you help keep it strong and toned. The same principle applies to the brain. Mental stimulation strengthens brain function and actually helps protect against loss of memory. Research has shown that our brains grow new neurons throughout our lives and continually adapt to new stimuli. So use your brain; keep it in shape with puzzles, brain teasers and other mental stimulation.
5. Help others.
Volunteerism can take many forms. Whether you choose to help out by serving meals to the homeless or give of your time at an orphanage or nursing facility, or by building a house, the emotional rewards of giving back are voluminous. If your time is in short supply, try donating furniture, clothing and other household items that you no longer need. And not leaving them on the curb for the weekly garbage pick-up will keep them out of our landfills!
6. Be a better baker.
No need to stop making your favorite cookies or famous brownies. But do replace oil or butter in baking recipes with the equivalent amount of unsweetened applesauce or other pureed fruit. Your baked goods will be lighter, healthier and every bit as tasty — if not more so.
7. Breathe.
Unless you take a yoga class or meditate, you may not pay much attention to your breathing. Deep, focused breathing slows your heart rate, reduces stress and helps you feel calmer and more relaxed. At least once a day, stop what you are doing, close your eyes, and focus on taking 10 deep, full breaths. Inhale through your nose, feel your diaphragm expand, and exhale through your mouth.
8. Eat chocolate.
Yes — resolve to eat more chocolate. But make sure it’s dark. Chocolate that is at least 70 percent cocoa solids lowers blood pressure and raises “good” HDL cholesterol levels.
Plus, it is an antioxidant, which means it fights free radicals, or damaging molecules linked to heart disease and other illnesses.
9. Drive politely.
Practice random kindness while behind the wheel. Although the right-of-way may be yours, allow someone to go ahead of you just to be kind and helpful.
Avoid congested freeways as much as possible during gridlock hours to reduce your stress level and “offensive” driving technique.
Engage in “you” time by turning off your cell phone and the radio.
The silence can do wonders for your mental well-being.