6 Easy Ways to Improve Your Health

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3. Stand up. The United States is one nation of underactive people, putting us at increased risk of health problems and even early death. “Americans’ physical inactivity is the biggest public health problem of the 21st century,” says Steven Blair, P.E.D., professor of exercise science and epidemiology at the University of South Carolina’s Arnold School of Public Health in Columbia, who points to research showing that approximately 25 percent to 35 percent of American adults are inactive—meaning that they have sedentary jobs, no regular physical activity program and are generally inactive around the house or yard. “This amounts to 40 million to 50 million people exposed to the hazard of inactivity,” he continues. According to the Aerobics Center Longitudinal Study, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, poor fitness level accounted for about 16 percent of all deaths in both men and women—calculated by estimating the number of deaths that would have been avoided if people had spent 30 minutes a day walking. “For comparison, obesity accounted for two to three percent of all deaths,” Blair says. Physical activity is also important for brain and mental health, he notes. In fact, studies have found that regular exercise can reduce a person’s risk for everything from depression to dementia. So make a pact with yourself to never sit for more than one hour at a time (simply standing up for a few minutes every so often—taking “breaks in sedentary time,” according to an Australian study—can help lower blood sugar, triglycerides, body mass index and waist size) and commit to at least 30 minutes of dedicated physical activity, such as walking, every day.

4. Learn something new. Acquiring knowledge stimulates and protects your brain in profound ways—particularly if you opt for something like playing an instrument or exploring a second language. Several studies have found a link between music lessons and an increase in cognitive abilities and IQ—and, according to Northwestern University research, bilingual speakers may have an easier time focusing, prioritizing and multitasking than people who speak one language. Other studies find that speaking two languages reduces the risk of developing dementia at an advanced age. Beyond the intellectual benefits are the emotional ones (read: it’s just plain fun!). “Acquiring a lasting new skill—be it learning to play guitar or to speak French—can harness the brain’s joy of learning new things and leave you with something of permanent value: a sense of fulfillment, which goes back to what pioneering psychologist Abraham Maslow called ‘self-actualization,’ ” explains cognitive psychologist Gary Marcus, director of the New York University Center for Language and Music and author of Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning (The Penguin Press HC). Marcus explains that there are two types of pleasure: that of the moment (hedonia) and the longer-term pursuit of living life to the fullest (eudaimonia). “Research suggests that the greater sense of purpose and personal growth associated with eudaimonia correlates with lower levels of cortisol, better immune function and more efficient sleep,” he says. To get started, simply look for music or language classes being offered at your local community center or college and sign up for the ones that interest you. “The most important thing after self-discipline is a great teacher, but the best teacher is not necessarily the best musician or best linguist,” notes Marcus. “Find someone who communicates well with you, pays attention to what you need to work on and has good suggestions for how to develop your weak points.” There are also countless books, DVDs and other learning resources available to you. Do a quick web search for whatever you want to learn, and let the transformation begin.