Small Healthy Habits With Big Health Benefits

It’s no secret that some of the best ways to stay healthy are eating well, lowering stress and connecting with loved ones. The challenge, of course, is squeezing in time each day -- even a few minutes -- to take care of yourself.

The good news is that you don’t have to take long yoga classes or whip up organic meals every day to make a positive impact on your health. Small changes can produce big results. 

Research suggests that adopting a few simple, healthy daily habits will help you feel better and possibly reduce your risk of major illnesses like heart disease and osteoporosis.

Here are some of the most important changes you can make for your health, and the perfect time to squeeze them into your daily routine.

7 a.m.: Floss your teeth.
Flossing fights gingivitis and gum disease, but it may also help you live longer. A recent study at the University of Buffalo showed that oral bacteria are associated with an increased risk of heart attack. Researchers believe the bacteria that produce dental plaque can enter your bloodstream and may lead to inflamed arteries and blood clots -- the hallmarks of heart disease.

Try to make it a habit to floss in the morning. If you leave the task for bedtime when you’re exhausted, you’re more likely not to do it. It’s also smart to floss before brushing. Doing so opens up the space between teeth so the fluoride in your toothpaste can better seep in, eliminating even more pesky plaque.

9 a.m.: Pour yourself a pick-me-up.
In addition to revving up your morning, coffee may improve memory and protect against Alzheimer’s disease, suggests a review published in the American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease and Other Dementias. Researchers compared evidence from several studies and concluded that as caffeine consumption increases, incidence of Alzheimer’s disease seems to decrease.

The results may be due to coffee’s caffeine content. Caffeine blocks adenosine receptors (“activators”) in the brain, and adenosine is known to slow cognition and affect memory. So, in other words, with less active adenosine, the brain gets a bit sharper. This occurs even at the range of normal daily consumption (about two to four cups). More studies are warranted, but results are promising.

Other perks are also associated with daily coffee drinking: an increase in focus and concentration, plus reduced risk of Parkinson’s disease. Just don’t drink too much. More than a few cups in one sitting may lead to a caffeine overload, resulting in jitters, a headache or a stomachache. 

11 a.m.: Snack smart with yogurt.
Snacking gets a bad rap, but it can actually keep your weight in check if you choose the right foods. When your stomach has been growling, you’re more likely to clean your plate and go back for seconds at mealtime. But if you eat something small about two to three hours before your next meal, you’re less likely to overindulge, says Angela Ginn-Meadow, a registered dietitian with the American Dietetic Association. A good rule of thumb: “Aim to get about 100 to 200 calories per snack,” she advises.

Low-fat yogurt is the ideal snack food. Studies have shown that thanks to its protein, it keeps you feeling fuller longer than other foods like cookies or chips. Yogurt may also help reduce the risk of high blood pressure and osteoporosis. Plus, it contains active cultures (aka good bacteria) called probiotics. These microorganisms may improve digestion and strengthen your immune system.

Opt for plain yogurt to avoid added sugar, then mix in your own fruit, nuts or honey for a tastier treat.

3:30 p.m.: Reach out to a friend.
Hitting a midday slump? Feeling stressed about work? Instead of walking to the vending machine, meet up or take a walk with a friend. If you have very little time, give her a call for a quick bonding session. Researchers at the University of Michigan found that when women felt emotionally close to someone, their levels of progesterone increased, boosting feelings of well-being and reducing anxiety.

It doesn’t require hours of talking to gain these health benefits. A quick five- to ten-minute chat does the trick. But do talk instead of sending an email or Facebook message, which isn’t as personal and may not foster the same emotional connection. Chances are, a quick check-in will boost the spirits of your pal too.

11 p.m.: Stretch for a better night’s sleep.
Stretching isn’t just for post-workout cooldowns. Done before bedtime, it can help you catch better-quality z’s. Try this five-minute routine: Slowly touch your toes, then rise, twisting side to side, reaching for the sky; gently stretch your neck, arms and legs.

Aside from improving flexibility and circulation, stretching helps your body release stress and tension from a long day, reports the Mayo Clinic on its Web site. Relaxing your body in this way also helps relax your brain, which receives the signal that it’s time to wind down. This healthy habit is an important part of a healthy sleep routine.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, establishing a relaxing routine like stretching can prevent sleep problems. The organization found that many people engage in stimulating practices before bed, such as watching television, doing chores and surfing the Internet, all of which do not promote a good night’s sleep. Getting a sound seven to eight hours of sleep a night will deliver a big return on your investment: Research shows it bolsters your immune system and improves concentration.

Making your own well-being a priority doesn’t take much time, nor does it mean you have to steal time away from your family. And adopting healthy habits like these also sets a good example for your kids, showing them that sometimes life really is all about the little things.