You can officially stop feeling guilty about those little “bad-for-you” habits you can’t seem to break. Turns out, many of life’s greatest indulgences bring big health benefitshelping you stay slim, fight off the blues, and kick disease to the curb. And we’ve got the 10 best right here, conveniently ranked by Health’s expert panelists.
Start at the top of the list to get the most bang for your healthy buck, and keep moving on down to learn how to boost your well-being in the most decadent ways possible.
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Getting your zzz’s
Pillow time gives you energy, bolsters your immune system, boosts your memory, and even helps you get (or stay) slim. Cut slumber short, and you’ll increase your risk for anxiety and depression. “Lack of sleep has also been associated with hypertension, glucose intolerance, and belly fatall risk factors for heart disease,” says judge Nieca Goldberg, MD.
Aim for seven to eight hours of sleep a night, the amount that studies show is ideal. If you’re up-and-at-’em on less, don’t sweat it: Some people are just wired that way, Dr. Goldberg says. But if you have trouble falling or staying asleep, or can’t seem to drag yourself out of bed on a regular basis, talk to your doctor about possible underlying causes, such as anxiety or sleep apnea.
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There’s a reason it’s called a mental-health day. Studies confirm that time offwhether on a trip out of Dodge or a 24-hour staycationrelieves stress, lowering your blood pressure and your risk for heart disease. It also promotes creative thinking (attention, bosses!). And women in a 2005 study who took two or more vacations per year were less likely to be depressed than women who took one every two years.
Can’t swing more than a few days away? No problem: The length of a vacation had no bearing on how happy it made people, according to a recent study in the journal Applied Research in the Quality of Life. What’s more, the biggest thrill came before the vacation. So spread around the joy of that sweet anticipation by planning short jaunts throughout the year instead of one big blowout trip.
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Getting frisky is, hands-down, the most pleasurable form of physical activity there is. Having sex releases feel-good endorphins and oxytocin, the hormone that promotes attachment. “That component of feeling connected to another person really benefits mental health,” says judge Alice Domar, PhD. Another plus: Subjects in one study who did it once or twice a week had higher levels of the antibody immunoglobulin A, which shields you from colds and other infections.
Why doesn’t sex rank higher on our list? It can bring unintended consequences, from sexually transmitted infections (especially if you’re not currently monogamous and not practicing safe sex) to “oops!” pregnancies.
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A daily chocolate fix
Our experts gave a hearty thumbs-up to nibbling a little chocolate every dayas long as you stick to a square or two of the dark kind, to minimize sugar and fat intake and maximize the benefits. Dark chocolate and cocoa may help lower blood pressure, reduce the risk of stroke, and provide other cardiovascular benefits, multiple studies have shown. “Dark chocolate contains antioxidants called flavonoids, believed to improve the flexibility of blood vessels,” Dr. Goldberg explains.
A study published late last year found that eating 1.4 ounces of dark chocolate a day for two weeks reduced stress hormones in highly anxious people. Check for at least 75 percent cacao content to get the most bliss for your bite.
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Girls’ nights out
A flurry of recent studies have shed light on how huge an impact our friends and family have on our behavior, from what we drink and eat to how much we weighfor better and for worse. But there’s little question that strong social ties can bring a host of benefits: fewer colds, better brain health, and a longer life, to name a few. “Friendships are very good for youas long as you hang out with people with whom you have a well-balanced relationship and limit your time spent with people who are toxic for you,” Domar says.
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Full-fat foods not only taste better but also serve a real health purpose, as long as you get the right amounts of the right kinds. Aim for at least 10 percent of your daily fat intake to come from monounsaturated fats, judge Keri Gans, RD, says. These fats reduce your risks of heart disease and strokea big deal, since coronary heart disease is the leading cause of death of American women.
Omega-3 fatty acids also lower heart disease risk and may help decrease symptoms of depression, rheumatoid arthritis, and other ailments. Plus, “when you have a meal that includes a little fat, you tend to feel more satisfied, so you eat less,” Gans says. Still, no more than 30 percent of your daily calories should come from fateven the good kind.
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Your morning java
It’s completely OK if you need it to pry your eyes open in the a.m. A wealth of research suggests that coffee doesn’t just pick you upit fights heart disease and some cancers, and it may even help you push through harder, longer workouts.
Enjoy up to two cups a day; more than that may leave you jittery or rob you of that precious number-one pleasuresleep.
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Getting a rubdown
Don’t ever feel guilty about shelling out for massages. “In general, people who are touched regularly are healthier,” Domar says. And if your budget doesn’t include spa services, consider hands-on time with your honey. Women in a 2008 study noted less pain, depression, anxiety, and anger when they were massaged twice a week by their partnersand (bonus!) their partners reported better mental health, too.
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Basking in the sun
Bright days really do lift our moodssunshine is the ultimate natural antidepressant, triggering our bodies to nip production of the sleep-stimulating hormone melatonin so we’re alert, energized, and ready to face the day. Exposing bare skin to the sun also triggers the synthesis of vitamin D, a hormone that may reduce your risks for cancer, heart disease, fragile bones, and other problems. Still, many doctors feel that no amount of unprotected sun exposure is safe (that’s the official position of the American Academy of Dermatology). So always wear sunscreen and, Dr. Goldberg says, take a D supplement if your levels are low; see your doc to find out.
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Wine with dinner
The buzz on wine is about its heart-healthy properties, though researchers aren’t entirely sure how it works its magic. Its antioxidants may keep blood vessels flexible, or alcohol could boost HDL (good) cholesterol. Either way, the key is moderation: one 5-ounce glass a day. More than that can raise blood pressure and pack on pounds. “Women who drink heavily also have higher rates of breast cancer,” Dr. Goldberg warns. More of a martini kind of gal? No problem: You can get similar perks from one liquor drink or beer a day. So go aheadraise a glass to the pleasures of the healthy life!
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