Ask a Best Doctor: The Lazy Person’s Guide to Getting Healthier

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Man yawning while sitting on exercise bicycle
Photo: C.J. Burton/Corbis

Q: What can I do to get healthy with the least amount of effort?

A: If we all had fancy Gandalf wands, we could magically transform ourselves into organic-kale-eating models of health. But we don’t, and let’s face it: getting healthier kind of sucks. So, two weeks into 2013, why not make things a little easier on yourself this year and make one resolution that will give you the biggest return on your investment? We asked Nieca Goldberg, M.D., a cardiologist and director of the shiny new Joan H. Tisch Center for Women’s Health at the NYU/Langone Medical Center, to help us rank the top six in order of how much they’ll prolong your life.

1. Quitting smoking — for real this time.
“If you smoke, you gotta quit, it’s a killer,” says Dr. Goldberg. Aside from heart disease, smoking causes thirteen different types of cancers, including, weirdly, cervical cancer. Plus, there's the bone loss and the link to the horribly bloat-tastic GI-tract problem called Crohn’s disease. Researchers have crunched the numbers and know that quitting smoking can add ten years to your life.

2. Spend a few scant hours exercising.
“Physical activity makes you younger. There are studies that showed people who exercised regularly had arteries that acted ten years younger than their chronological age,” says Dr. Goldberg. Not only will exercise help you live longer by fighting off heart disease, cancer, and other serious illnesses, it’ll also help you live happier since it wards off falls (broken hips hurt like heck) and Alzheimer’s as you get old. The ultimate amount to aim for: At least 150 minutes of moderate cardio (or 75 minutes of vigorous cardio, like running or biking hills) plus two strength training sessions each week.

3. Dropping some weight (but only if you really need to).
Study after study has found that being mildly overweight isn’t as big a deal as health researchers used to think. But obesity (having a BMI of 30 or higher) is still firmly linked to a host of life-threatening ills such as cancer and heart disease. “When you start getting older you can’t metabolize that box of chocolate chip cookies the way you did in college,” says Dr. Goldberg. “Simple changes can make a big difference: I had one patient who lost 30 pounds after she stopped drinking soda. Modifying your diet leading to weight loss will help you live longer.”

4. Swapping out sugars and starches for veggies and whole grains.
In other words, adopting more of a Mediterranean diet, says Dr. Goldberg. This is one of the most-studied ways of eating, and the research all points in one direction: Eating more healthy fats (like olive oil), lean protein (think seafood), and produce of all kinds can add years to your life. Well, at least one year, according to one large European study. 

5. Getting a handle on out-of-control stress.
Stress ain’t always a bad thing — extra pumps of adrenaline can help you nimbly navigate through the Times Square subway station at 5 p.m. or scramble out of the way of a slightly crazier-than-usual cabbie. But when you find yourself with a racing heart, sleepless nights, jaw pain, headaches, or other classic symptoms of stress overload, you need to get a handle on it, since chronic stress can lead to heart disease, depression, and even obesity, says Dr. Goldberg. “Sometimes people need a little help by seeing a psychologist,” says Dr. Goldberg. “CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) can be particularly helpful, since it helps you identify the triggers for your stressful issues and your responses to them. You might not be able to change that annoying person at work, but you can certainly change your response to them.” And that could help add more (happy) days to your life.

6. Make sure your drinking is moderate.
“That’s one drink a day for women, two for men,” notes Dr. Goldberg. “Anything more than that and it starts to raise blood pressure, which can lead to heart disease or even stroke.” What’s more, even moderate drinking can raise a woman’s risk of breast cancer — so if that disease runs in your family, you might want to think twice before heading out for a pub crawl or having that second dirty martini.