Read enough alarmist headlines and healthy living can stress you out start to sound awfully hard. This food makes you fat! Exercise more, or else! Before you know it, you’re living in fear of nibbling on the wrong snack, missing a daily workout or staying up past your bedtime to watch The Tonight Show.
Thankfully, those hard-core health messages don’t apply to the majority of us, assures Fred Pescatore, M.D., author of Thin for Good. “Most people do not require overly restrictive or time-consuming habits to achieve optimal health and wellness,” he explains. “Slow and steady can truly win the race.”
Indeed, research reveals extreme health behaviors can cause injury, weight gain and other unwelcome effects. For instance, a study at Florida State University in Tallahassee found that prolonged crash dieting may cloud judgment, leading to risky health choices in other areas. So relax! Here’s how to look and feel better by doing — and worrying — less.
Exercise revs energy, boosts brainpower and defends against everything from heart disease to the common cold. But more is not always better: University of Oxford researchers analyzed 1.1 million women and found hardcore athletes like marathoners had no advantage in heart attack or stroke risk over women who exercised by walking or gardening.
And previous studies show that a 30-minute session of moderate-intensity activity is actually better at boosting mood and energy than a joint-rattling run. You can relax even more if you’re not striving for weight loss or washboard abs. “Go out and walk the dog,” Dr. Pescatore suggests. “Just 15 minutes a day of any movement — not even moderate exercise — is enough to help you live longer and healthier.”
Eat less... of only certain foods
With so much news about the dangers of obesity, it’s no wonder we stress about cutting calories. But we might be better off eating more! In a 2014 study, overweight volunteers limited to 500 calories a day lost 19 pounds in five weeks. Meanwhile, the control group shed 18 pounds — and they ate 1,250 calories a day. Why? Moderate dieters retained more muscle, the foundation of a fast metabolism.
They also avoided other fat-hoarding pitfalls of sustained crash diets. Dr. Pescatore’s advice: Strive to avoid processed foods. In a Harvard study, dieters who ate a mix of whole foods (like nuts, greens and fish) lost 4 pounds more than those who relied on premade products (like wheat-free muffins) with similar calorie counts.
Sleep more... or just relax
Sleep has emerged as the secret sauce of great health, with sound slumber proven to slow aging, normalize appetite and more. So if you suffer a restless night or two, you might think you need to revamp your schedule to hit the hay early. Quite the contrary, says sleep expert Michael Breus, Ph.D., author of Good Night. Forcing yourself to bed can set off anxious thoughts that create a stubborn cycle of insomnia, he cautions. Instead, use pre-bedtime hours to knock off nagging to-do’s that might make your mind race. And don’t fret over numbers — 8 hours of sleep isn’t necessary for all.
“I’ve always been a 6.5-hour sleeper,” Breus says. “Whatever amount leaves you feeling refreshed should be your goal. Give yourself a break and enjoy the sleep you get!”
This story originally appeared in our print magazine.