Do you bite your nails? Are you a no-SPF beach bum addicted to the midday sun? Or, (eek!) are you a smoker trying to shake the nicotine monkey off your back? Let us help you say goodbye forever to these 14 common bad health habits.
Why you have to stop: Biting your nails makes for ugly hands and over time can interfere with normal nail growth, damage the outer layer of your teeth, and cause nail deformities such as split nails. Harmful bacteria such as staphylococcus also live underneath nails—and you don’t want to chew on that.
Your short-term action plan: Go for a professional manicure once every 2 or 3 weeks, suggests Angelica Kaner, PhD, a clinical professor at Yale University Medical School, because when your nails look pretty, you’ll be less likely to snack on them—especially after you’ve spent $25-plus to make them beautiful. Or try a product such as MAVALA Stop for Nail Biting and Thumb Sucking , which makes nails and cuticles taste terrible. At the very least, keep your nails trimmed short—you’ll have less to bite, and that harmful bacteria has less space to grow.
Your long-term action plan: Nail biting is a common nervous habit that is often an expression of some deeper anxiety. “Ask yourself why you’re feeling anxious,” Dr. Kaner says. If you can’t figure it out on your own, consider getting professional help. Because exploratory therapy can take some time, Dr. Kaner suggests substituting a new, healthy behavior, such as keeping healthy snacks on hand, such as apples or carrot sticks, to satisfy the need to crunch without destroying your nails.
Lying to your doc
Why you have to stop: Doctors can sometimes work miracles, but they can’t read minds. It may be embarrassing to discuss your body with someone you don’t know well, but not telling your doctor the whole story can lead to misdiagnoses, inadequate testing, and even dangerous drug interactions, says Preventionadvisor David Katz, MD. “Health treatment is based on a partnership: the doctor-patient dyad,” Dr. Katz says. “Your care is only as good as this partnership.”
Many patients even fib about how closely they’re following their prescribed health care regimen. A study by the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine examined patients’ use of an inhaler that recorded each use—73% of patients said they used the inhaler three times a day, but only 15% actually did. And 14% even emptied their inhalers to make it look like they had been using them.
Your short-term action plan: Before your next appointment, make a list of: medications and supplements you take, visits you’ve made to alternative practitioners, alcohol or drug use or abuse, any unsafe sexual practices, moods and mental health details, sleep pattern, dietary pattern, and physical activity level. These details are crucial tools your doctor needs to assess your health, and writing them down ahead of time will help ensure that you don’t forget anything. If you feel shy sharing details aloud, hand the list to your doctor. “Remember that your doctor works for you,” Dr. Katz says. “You are not giving away your secrets; you are sharing them with someone who is duty bound to use them only for your good.”
Your long-term action plan: If you still feel yourself withholding information from your doctor, ask yourself why. Is it because you don’t like her? If so, get a recommendation from friends or coworkers for a new doctor. Schedule a meet-and-greet appointment with potential candidates so you can get to know them. “Insurance isn’t an issue when no services are rendered, but it is important to find out the doctor’s policy on payment for this kind of conversation,” says Susann Pisano of America’s Health Insurance Plans, a trade organization that represents health insurance companies.
Why you have to stop: Face it: When you eat because of stress, boredom, or depression, you’re not reaching for the celery sticks—you’re much more likely to chow down on chips, cookies, and other unhealthy comfort foods. Frequently subjecting your body to that kind of fatty, sugary calorie rush can lead to obesity, a leading cause of heart disease and diabetes. “Obesity is more important than heavy drinking and smoking combined in terms of chronic disease,” says Roger Gould, MD, an expert on emotional eating and author of Shrink Yourself.
Your short-term action plan: Gould suggests keeping a food journal . Note what you eat, when and where you eat it, and why you’re eating (Are you hungry? Bored? Do you need to relax?), and then rate your hunger before eating on a scale of 1 to 10. You’ll probably notice a pattern—are you inhaling a stale brownie at your desk after your weekly meeting with your nightmare of a boss?—and can then start to combat the unhealthy responses to emotional stress with preventive measures, like calling a friend before reaching for the brownie.
Your long-term action plan: If you can’t prevent the snacking, seek out a mental health professional. Emotional eating is “emotional hunger transformed into physical hunger,” Dr. Gould says. In fact, a 2006 study found that obese people’s desire to eat triggered the same brain action as addicts’ desire for drugs—that’s a serious addiction, and you should not be afraid or ashamed to ask for help. If you’re not exactly bingeing but still having trouble kicking the habit, learn to replace snack attacks with stress-relieving activities, such as taking a walk or doing yoga.
Why you have to stop: Flossing helps prevent gum disease and keeps your teeth and gums looking good, but it may also stave off non-mouth-related diseases: A study in the journal Circulation showed that older adults with higher levels of four gum disease-causing bacteria in their mouths also tend to have thicker carotid arteries, which raise the risk of stroke and heart attack. Plus, people with gum disease have a 63% higher risk of pancreatic cancer, according to a study in theJournal of National Cancer Institute. That’s scary business, because 90% of dentists say that most patients don’t floss regularly.
Your short-term plan: Buy a floss-holding device to make the process easier and faster. In an Indiana University study, 50% of previous nonflossers were doing so regularly 6 months after introducing floss to their routine; 85% of the new flossers used a holding device—only 15% preferred doing without the aid.
Your long-term action plan: Incorporate flossing into your morning routine before or after brushing. “Think of it like taking a shower,” says Steven R. Fox, DDS, in private practice in Manhattan. “It’s something you should do every day.”
Weighing yourself too often
Why you have to stop: The number on the scale is exactly that—just a number. It doesn’t reflect how healthy you are or how much of your weight is lean muscle. Plus, the scale can’t tell whether you’re carrying extra weight on your hips, rear end, or the more dangerous belly area, which is a major factor in your risk of heart disease. In fact, waist-to-hip ratio is a better predictor of heart disease than body mass index, according to a study from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas.
Your short-term action plan: Step off the scale and say hello to your new, improved fat-measuring tool: a tape measure. Measure around your stomach, hips, thighs, and upper arms once a week and record the results. “A quarter-pound fat loss may not register on the scale but could mean millimeters on a tape measure,” says Cynthia Sass, RD.
Keep a close a eye on your (hopefully shrinking) waist to sustain the right goals, which are losing fat in high-risk areas such as the tummy, lowering your risk of heart disease (a study from Harvard University found that women whose waists were 38 inches or larger had more than three times the risk of heart disease than women with waists 28 inches or less), and improving your overall health—not just shedding pounds.
Your long-term action plan: Shift your focus to other health issues such as cholesterol (it should be less than 200 mg/dL), blood pressure (systolic blood pressure should be less than 120 and diastolic blood pressure should be less than 80), energy level, and quality of sleep. These are better indicators of your overall health than body weight, shape, or size, says Sass. Still, keep up the tape measure so you can continue to monitor your fat levels.
Putting your health last
Why you have to stop: Detecting health problems before they turn deadly is crucial: Survival rates for breast cancer, for example, are close to 100% when it’s found in the early stages, but they drop to 20% when the cancer is detected in the last stages, according to the American Cancer Society.
Plus, common ailments whose symptoms start out fairly tame can turn serious without proper treatment: Untreated strep throat can lead to rheumatic fever and kidney inflammation, mononucleosis can cause the spleen to enlarge and possibly rupture, and ear infections can lead to long-term hearing loss.
Scarier still: Most women with ovarian cancer—one of the deadliest cancers because it’s often caught in a very advanced stage—have symptoms such as bloating, abdominal or pelvic pain, and bleeding long before they’re diagnosed. Likewise, many women who suffer heart attacks chalk up their preattack symptoms to aging, rather than going to the doctor for a diagnosis.
Your short-term action plan: Schedule a checkup with your doctor to create a health plan. Discuss which screening tests you need and when, changes you should make to your diet or exercise regimen, and any vitamins or supplements you should take. “You have to do this—it’s nonnegotiable,” says Pamela Peeke, MD, author of Fit to Live.
Why you have to stop: Eating late at night in itself isn’t bad for you, but chances are you’re eating cold pizza slices instead of apple slices. Adding those extra calories does the late-night damage, according to an Oregon Health & Science University study. Snacking late at night can also exacerbate symptoms for those prone to heartburn, as lying down after eating makes it easier for stomach acid to flow into the esophagus.
Your short-term action plan: Eating late at night is often done because of boredom, not hunger, says Dr. Peeke. Once the craving hits, focus on an activity that engages you until it’s time to go to sleep, such as e-mail, a crossword puzzle, or meditation.
Your long-term action plan: Pretty simple—work on going to bed earlier, which might be easier if you can’t wait to dive back into a great new novel you’re reading. You’ll limit the time you have between dinner and bed for snacking, and your hormones will be optimally balanced to help you combat cravings.
Why you have to stop: Getting insufficient sleep is a serious health risk. A lack of sleep not only decreases your alertness and ability to focus, but also damages your health in a major way. Your body’s immune response plummets with sleep deprivation; your hormone levels increase, affecting appetite, weight distribution, food choices, and mood; and your circulation slows down, giving you those lovely wrinkles, dark circles, and bags under your eyes, says Michael Breus, PhD, author of Good Night: The Sleep Doctor’s 4 Week Program to Better Sleep and Better Health.
Your short-term action plan: “Make a commitment to getting more sleep,” Dr. Breus says. “Sleep can be like a diet—you really have to want it and work for it to get it.” Then look for common sleep thieves: caffeine and light. Avoid caffeine for 8 hours before your bedtime, and block out excess light and sound from your bedroom, Dr. Breus suggests.
Your long-term action plan: If you can’t get all your sleep in at night, try a short afternoon nap, advises Sara Mednick, PhD, of the Laboratory of Sleep and Behavioral Neuroscience at the University of California, San Diego, and author of Take a Nap! Change Your Life. “Even if you’re not fully dozing off, you will get some benefits from the early parts of sleep—alertness, improved memory, and increased physical stamina,” she says. Skip the nap if you have insomnia, though, and don’t nap closer than 8 hours to your bedtime, because you’ll have t
Doing the same workout
Why you need to stop: If you never vary your fitness routine, your body adapts to it after time, and muscle will stop growing, says Dr. Peeke. You’re likely to get bored with your workout if you’re doing the same thing every time, making it easier to find excuses to skip the gym altogether—in fact, a University of Florida study found that exercisers who varied the type of exercise were 15% more likely to work out regularly than those sticking to the same routine.
Your short-term action plan: Even something as simple as changing the route of your morning’s walk or creating a new workout sound track can add some oomph to your present routine. Visit workoutmusic.com and download music in genres you like that are tailored to 30- and 60-minute workouts. The key is to have some good old distracting fun, and “fun comes from your ability to make it different” or more challenging, Dr. Peeke says. For example, if you’re a walker, try going up hills or interspersing spurts of jogging: “You may be shocked to find you’re short of breath,” she says.
Your long-term action plan: Always have a fitness goal in mind, such as walking a mile in 15 minutes instead of 20, so that you’ll have something to keep you driven, Dr. Peeke says. “The key is to check yourself at the beginning,” she says, evaluating how well you perform when you first start working toward your goal so you have something to compare.
Why you have to stop: You know the health risks associated with smoking (heart attack, lung cancer, emphysema, and cancer of the mouth, throat, stomach, bladder, kidney, and cervix), but here’s something you might not have considered: money. A single pack plus taxes averages $4.49, so smoking a pack a day means you’re turning a whopping $1,639 a year into smoke, ashes, and black spots on your formerly pretty pink lungs. Plus, the CDC estimates that 19% of women in the United States are smokers, and older women who smoke may be up to 40% more likely to develop breast cancer than nonsmoking women, according to research from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.
Your short-term action plan: Ask your doctor about drugs that can help kick-start your quitting process and help you combat cravings and withdrawal. Zyban, an antidepressant, helps reduce psychological withdrawal symptoms such as frustration, restlessness, anxiety, and irritability. Chantix blocks the effects of nicotine on your brain, which helps reduce cravings. According to a study, 44% of smokers were able to quit after 12 weeks using Chantix, and another study showed that Zyban was nearly twice as effective as a nicotine patch in helping smokers quit.
Your long-term action plan: Two factors predict smoking relapse: drinking alcohol and living with a smoker, says Michael Fiore, MC, director of the Center for Tobacco Research and Intervention at the University of Wisconsin Medical School. “For the first 3 months after the quit date, avoid booze,” Fiore says. If your partner smokes, quit together. A Spanish study found that only 28% of smokers whose partners lit up were able to quit, but 46% of those with nonsmoking partners were successful.
Why you have to stop: Blame it on Coco Chanel—before she returned golden brown from a Mediterranean vacation in the 1920s, pale skin was in. But until Morticia Addams is back in style, stick to self-tanning lotion if you feel you must look tan: The sun’s UV rays damage your skin’s DNA, increasing your risk of skin cancer (not to mention sunspots, brown spots, sagging skin, and wrinkles).
Your short-term action plan: Learn to practice safe sun habits, says Doris J. Day, MD, author of Forget the Facelift. Wear sunscreen daily on sun-exposed body parts, even during the winter. The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends applying 1 ounce of SPF 15 sunscreen with UVA and UVB protection to your entire body 30 minutes before going outside on a typical day, and then reapply every 2 hours. If you’re spending the day outdoors, wear a wide-brimmed hat and cover exposed skin with clothing, preferably with built-in sunscreen.
Your long-term action plan: To see what your skin might look like if you don’t change your sun-loving ways, have your dermatologist take an ultraviolet photo of your face, which approximates sun damage, such as wrinkles and sunspots. Yikes.
Wearing the wrong workout gear
Why you have to stop: Throwing on old T-shirts and stinky sneakers can harm more than your fashion credibility, says Prevention fitness expert Chris Freytag. A cotton shirt on a hot day can cause chafing, the wrong sneaker in an aerobics class can result in a sprained ankle, and jogging in an unsupportive bra can cause a myriad of issues. And your socks aren’t so innocent, either: It’s very important to wear socks with a wicking fabric, Freytag says, because “cotton gets wet and causes blisters.”
Your short-term action plan: Invest in the right pair of shoes first. Freytag suggests working with salespeople at stores geared toward running and walking to find the best shoe for you . Reward yourself with a new piece of fitness clothing, such as a sports bra or stylish hoodie when you reach your next fitness goal.
Choose clothes that wick moisture, sneakers that are specific for your exercise regimen, and a sports bra that fits . The bra should completely contain your breasts and be snug but not constricting. A Portsmouth University study showed that wearing a regular bra while jogging reduced breast bouncing by 40%; wearing a proper sports bra resulted in a whopping 78% reduction. Bouncing is not only painful but also leads to sagging, which can only be corrected with surgery.
Your long-term action plan: It’s not enough just to have the right clothes: You need to use and take care of them. “Change out of your sweaty workout gear as soon as possible,” says Freytag, “and wash it right away to keep the stench from setting in” and to prevent yeast infections.
You’ll need new running sneakers every 500 miles or 6 to 12 months, whichever comes first. Replace workout bras, socks, and pants when they start to lose their shape or when washing doesn’t get rid of sweat smells—usually 6 to 12 months, depending on how often you work out and how much you sweat, Freytag says.
Using an expired skin care routine
Why you need to stop: If you're using the same regimen your mom swore by, you're skin isn't appreciating it. Although genetics do play a part in your skin’s health, so do outside factors such as sun exposure and pollutants, says Neil Sadick, MD, a clinical professor of dermatology at Weill Medical College. Your skin care products should be specific to your skin’s needs, unless you want to risk acne, dryness, and unnecessary aging. Take advantage of advances in skin care science, such as new knowledge about antioxidants, alpha and beta hydroxyl acids, and retinoids.
Your short-term action plan: Schedule a checkup with a cosmetic dermatologist so you can determine your specific skin type. “A consumer can’t really do that on her own,” Sadick says, so you’ll need professional help to determine exactly what your skin needs. Ask whether your skin is healthy, whether you’re at risk of skin cancer, and if there’s any way you can slow down aging.
Your long-term action plan: At the very least, start your day with a high-potency antioxidant cream or one with coffeeberry extract, which protects against ultraviolet and environmental damage, and a sunblock with broad-spectrum UVA and UVB protection such as Neutrogena Helioplex or Anthelios SX , which protects against all short and long UV rays. At night, use a cream with vitamin C, an antioxidant, or alpha and beta hydroxyl acids, which turn over skin cells and stimulate new collagen synthesis.
Your diet matters, too: Drink a lot of water and eat foods rich in antioxidants such as green tea, soy, and tomatoes, Sadick says. This can help protect skin cells and prevent skin cancers.