Five easy ways to outsmart illness

What you do with your arms, feet and fork can slash your risk for chronic disease by up to 80 percent, reports Dr. David L. Katz in his latest book. We spoke to him to find out how he stays vital and healthy — and how you can too!

Photo of a woman's running shoes

Photo, by Istockphoto.

1. Move your feet (often!)
Get at least 20 minutes of any exercise, no fewer than five days a week. Make it a rule and honour it. I work out every day. My routine consists of 40 minutes on the elliptical, 5 km on a rower, some weights and core exercises with chin-ups and pull-ups. That may seem like a lot, but I choose to view exercise not as a chore but as a privilege. It’s a gift to be able to move.

Try it today: Squeeze in mini workouts whenever you can. Take the stairs. Walk to do nearby errands. And if you’re still struggling to find the time to exercise, set your alarm 20 to 30 minutes earlier and go for a walk around the block.

2. Choose foods that love you back
You shouldn’t have to pick between the pleasure of good food and the pleasure of good health. The more whole food you eat, the more you come to prefer it. It doesn’t happen overnight, but you can train your taste buds to like different foods, one choice at a time. My breakfast is berries with whole-grain cereal and organic fat-free plain Greek yogurt. I snack on nuts, vegetables and fruit. Dinner is Mediterranean-style, with a mixed green salad, cooked vegetables and grains (like quinoa, bulgur or buckwheat), beans or lentils, and fish or free-range organic poultry on occasion. I enjoy good wine and dark chocolate, so I never feel like I’m missing out.

Try it today: Set yourself up for success by stocking your fridge with a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables. Practise the “out of sight, out of mind” concept by pledging to skip unhealthy options at the supermarket. When a craving hits, drink a glass of water before having a snack. Sometimes hydration is all your body needs.

3. Train yourself to sleep more soundly
Sleep is a hard one for me. I try to ease into it but often find my mind is cluttered. I’ve told myself that I need to prioritize at least eight hours a day for sleep, and the act of vocalizing it keeps me accountable. Try to stick to a consistent sleep schedule, even on the weekends. Avoid taking naps (a 20- to 30-minute one is okay if you’re exhausted, but beyond that, it’s likely to interfere with your sleep). And establish a relaxing routine before bed that acts as a buffer between daily stresses and sleep. I watch TV with my wife (we’re fans of So You Think You Can Dance), read a book or listen to music.

Try it today: Make sure your bedroom is set up for good sleep: dark, quiet and not too hot or cold.

4. De-stress with a quick “thought makeover”
Research shows people who report high levels of stress are more likely to eat more and exercise less, which is a bad combo for disease prevention. To get the upper hand on stress, discover your “optimal tension-taming technique.” It could be meditation, visualization, even physical exercise. And remember, the way you think about stress can make it better or worse, so challenge negative thoughts by asking yourself how likely it is that your worst fear will happen. This is what I call a thought makeover; it can help you reframe how you view any stressful situation.

Try it today: Next time you feel your anxiety levels rising, use this calming breathing technique. Take air in through your nose for a count of three (let your belly expand as you do this). Then let air out through your mouth for the same count. Repeat two to five times, eyes closed, listening to your breath as you go.

5. Reach out and hug someone
From romantic love to fostering friendships, we all need to feel close to others. It turns out creating connections with those around us might even be a more important defence against stress than exercise (although the combination of both is powerful). So no matter how busy things get in my life, my rule is to give my wife a hug every day. We sit down for a cup of coffee together in the mornings, relax in the evenings — and always talk out our problems. We’re a team. You always feel stronger (and much healthier!) when you act in unity.

Try it today: Expand your social circle by joining a fitness or hobby club or taking a class.

Dr. David L. Katz is an internationally renowned specialist in chronic disease prevention and weight management. He’s written 15 books, including Disease-Proof ($26), out now.