1. Giggle Health boost: Improve blood flow by 21%
A good laugh can be good for your heart. One recent study from the University of Texas at Austin found that those who chuckled while watching a comedy increased the dilation of blood vessels by one-fifth for up to 24 hours; when they watched a serious documentary, the arteries actually constricted by 18%. (Constricted blood vessels can lead to high blood pressure.)
"When you're happy, your body releases feel-good neurochemicals, which can have numerous favorable effects on the body," says David Katz, MD, director of the Prevention Research Center at Yale University School of Medicine.
2. Brush and floss Health boost: Cut risk of head and neck cancer by 400%
Take good care of your smile and you'll have more than just white teeth to show for it. New research from Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, NY, shows that people with the chronic gum disease periodontitis have a fourfold risk of developing a type of head or neck cancer (which makes up about 5% of all malignancies in the United States), especially in the mouth and throat. The risk was increased even among patients who never used tobacco. Gum disease occurs when the bacteria that live in plaque infect the gums, so brush and floss regularly to prevent plaque buildup.
3. Brew a pot of tea Health boost: Cut stroke risk by 21%
Sipping tea may help protect you from a life-threatening stroke, according to a study from UCLA School of Medicine. Researchers there examined data from nine studies detailing almost 4,400 strokes among 195,000 people and found that those who drank at least three cups a day had one-fifth the risk of stroke, compared with those who drank less than one cup. It doesn't matter if you prefer green or black tea—both are made from the same plant, Camellia sinensis, whose powerful antioxidant EGCG (epigallocatechin gallate) and amino acid theanine may protect vessels and arteries.
4. Pen a thank-you note Health boost: Feel 20% happier
Students who wrote letters expressing gratitude to someone special were happier and more satisfied with their lives, researchers at Kent State University found. Other research has shown that expressive writing may improve immune, lung, and liver function; reduce blood pressure; and provide a greater sense of well-being.
But be sincere: "It has to be a heartfelt sentiment showing significant appreciation," says researcher Steven Toepfer, PhD, an assistant professor of family and consumer studies. Dashing off a quick e-mail or texting a pal might not have the same effect, adds Toepfer, who says taking the time to put pen to paper allowed students to reflect: "Through the process of writing, they had time to think about the links they established between themselves and others and to count their blessings a bit, which made them feel more grateful."
5. Hide your TV remote Health boost: Whittle 2 inches from your belly
When switching TV stations, put down the remote, get up, and do it manually. An Australian study found that people who did the greatest amount of light activity during otherwise sedentary behavior, such as watching TV, had 16% smaller waist circumferences than those who were inclined to stay put. Even the simple act of getting up and walking around for a minute or so was enough to make a difference, regardless of whether they had a regular workout schedule.
They also had lower body mass indexes and triglyceride and glucose levels, all of which are associated with a reduced risk of metabolic syndrome. More ways to break up an otherwise inactive day: Stand up every time the phone rings at your desk; take the long way back to your desk after a bathroom break; do some stretches before reading a new e-mail.
6. Doodle during work meetings Health boost: Improve memory by 29%
People who doodled while listening to a recorded message had nearly one-third better recall of the details than those who didn't draw, according to a study published in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology. "Doodling acts as a buffer against daydreaming," explains researcher Jackie Andrade, PhD, a professor in the School of Psychology at the University of Plymouth in England. "It provides just enough distraction to stop you from drifting off, but you can still focus on what is being said."
7. Keep your doctor on speed dial Health boost: Slash medical mistakes up to 25%
Don't assume that no news is good news when you've had a checkup: Physicians fail to inform 1 out of every 14 patients whose abnormal test results are clinically significant, according to a recent study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine; among some doctors, the number of no-calls was as high as 1 in 4. Delayed diagnoses can be linked to thousands of serious injuries and health crises—and even deaths—each year.
"If you are subjecting your vein to a needle, you have a right to know what the test is for and why it matters," says Katz. Talk with your doctor about when you'll hear about results, and if she finds something that requires treatment, when you might expect to hear from her again. You can always follow up with her after that date.
8. Squeeze your husband's hand Health boost: Slash stress by 200%
A brief hug and a few minutes of holding your hubby's hand can fend off stress, according to a study reported at the American Psychosomatic Society. Researchers asked two groups of participants to speak about a stressful event, an exercise that typically causes a spike in blood pressure. BP readings of those who did so without holding their spouse's hand before speaking were more than double those of people who held hands; their heart rates also rose twice as much.
9. Strike a warrior pose Health boost: Ease back pain by 56%
Spending time on a yoga mat can significantly reduce chronic lower-back pain, according to a study from West Virginia University. Researchers asked 45 people whose back pain caused mild to moderate disability to do a 90-minute yoga workout twice a week for 6 months. Compared with patients who only continued whatever therapy they'd already been doing, the new yogis reported significantly less pain and better function and fewer symptoms of depression (down almost 60%). They also continued to see these benefits even 6 months later.
10. Grill some fish for dinner Health boost: Lower risk of dementia by 19%
More evidence that fish is brain food: A study of nearly 15,000 adults worldwide found that regular fish eaters (those who have it more than once a week) were just one-fifth as likely to have dementia as those who never ate the food. It also found that those whose diets contained the most meat were slightly more likely to have dementia than non-meat eaters. Omega-3 fatty acids (found in oily fish like salmon, mackerel, and tuna) may help protect nerve cells in the human brain and are known to limit inflammation, which is associated with dementia.
11. Drink milk at breakfast Health boost: Shed 5 pounds
Women who consumed a large (20-ounce) glass of fat-free milk in the morning ate, on average, 50 fewer calories at lunch, compared with days when they drank fruit juice with the same number of calories, according to a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Researchers say the milk drinkers felt more satisfied and were less likely to overeat at their next meal. Over a year, that translates to a 5-pound loss.
12. Pour a glass of Pinot Health boost: Live 5 years longer
A Dutch study following 1,300 men for 40 years found that those who regularly drank up to a half glass of wine each day boosted their life expectancy by half a decade, compared with teetotalers. Study authors say the polyphenolic compounds in wine (especially red) may have heart-healthy effects that are probably seen in women as well. "Alcohol raises levels of 'good' cholesterol and can increase levels of tPA [tissue plasminogen activator], a protein that helps break down blood clots; both benefits can help minimize potentially life-threatening ailments such as stroke and heart disease," says Katz. But remember, because even modest alcohol intake is associated with an increased risk of breast cancer, if you are a social drinker, keep your daily intake low—no more than one glass per day (men can have up to two).