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Small Steps to a Better You

Small investments in your physical and mental health may really pay off.

May 16, 2017

What does it mean to invest in our health? While eating that apple a day is still a great idea, there are many factors, including things you already do and enjoy (like sleeping comfortably and spending time with family), that can nourish your mind, body and spirit. Some of the latest insights from science and research suggest that our DNA doesn’t hold all the power when it comes to good physical, mental and, yes, even financial health.

Whether you’re in retirement or still planning for it down the road, making healthier lifestyle choices could help you shave off added healthcare expenses and save those dollars for the things you care about most. Even small tweaks to established habits can reap significant benefits in terms of the length and quality of our lives. Here’s what we mean.

Mind Over Genes

It would be perfectly understandable to assume that the physical characteristics and DNA you’re born with reign superior, but science shows that’s not necessarily true. We all know that healthy lifestyle changes – eating vegetables and exercising – can have a positive impact on our overall well-being. But did you know that lifestyle changes – including eating better, exercising, managing stress and devoting more time to loving relationships – could give you the power to change the way your genes are expressed for the better?

In his Ted Talk, Dr. Dean Ornish – a physician and founder of the nonprofit Preventive Medicine Research Institute – shares that in a study on men with prostate cancer more than 500 genes were favorably changed when participants made comprehensive lifestyle changes. That means they were able to “turn on” disease-preventing genes and “turn off” the disease-promoting ones. His research has shown that we may be able to stop or slow the progression of early prostate and breast cancer, slowing tumor growth by 70% in patients who made these changes.

80% of all heart disease, stroke and Type 2 diabetes, and up to 40% of cancer could be prevented if people quit using tobacco, ate more healthily and exercised more.

Source: World Health Organization

Brainy and Better Looking

It’s also been found that when people lead a healthier lifestyle, the brain gets more blood flow and oxygen and actually grows in size. In a study published in Nature Neuroscience, participants who walked for just three hours per week over three months developed enough new neurons that the size of their brains measurably increased. Living healthy also increases blood flow to your skin and heart, reducing signs of aging and reversing heart disease.

Certain foods are actually proven to increase your brain cells, including chocolate, tea and blueberries. (Yes, chocolate!)

The Restorative Powers of Sleep

Truly a cure-all, sleep has been credited with a litany of beneficial side effects including improvement of short-term memory and better mood, relieving symptoms of anxiety and depression. In a study of more than 900 women, a bad night’s sleep affected their happiness as much as pressing work deadlines and differences in income among the group.

Sleep is also proven to boost our ability to learn. In a study, participants were given a visual discrimination task and then required to stay awake for the next 30 hours. They then slept for two full nights before trying the task again. The result? No significant signs of improvement from their first try, despite having plenty of time to catch up on their sleep. It seems we’re better able to retain information if we get proper rest after learning something new. Teenagers everywhere may already know this.

Starve a fever; rest a cold?

Those who sleep less than seven hours a night are three times more likely to catch a cold than those who get eight hours of sleep or more.


And it’s not just in our heads. Sleep has a powerful influence on our physical health, as well. You might already be active, but a lack of sleep could keep you from building muscle. In a study of women published in Clinical and Experimental Dermatology, researchers also found well-rested skin was better able to recover from ultraviolent light exposure than participants who slept five hours or less.

Keep Your Friends Closest

There’s a reason you’ve heard the phrase “support system” throughout your life. As social creatures, it’s proven that we benefit from our relationships, be they romantic, familial or friendships – but exactly how important are they?

Just like sleep and healthy eating, quality relationships greatly influence our happiness and longevity. In one particular study of more than 300,000 people, researchers found that those lacking strong relationships faced an increased risk of premature death by 50%. This rate is roughly similar for those who smoke up to 15 cigarettes a day, and greater than obesity and a lack of exercise.

Even more impressive evidence can be found in the Harvard Study of Adult Development, where 700 men were studied over 75 years. When researchers looked at the well-being of the participants at age 50, the best predictor of their health at age 80 wasn’t their cholesterol levels, but whether they had strong relationships with their spouses, friends or family.

If you’re looking to boost your health and quality of life, no step is too small to incorporate, whether it’s scheduling a family game night or going for walks around the block. And who knows? Taking those measures could even help you save healthcare dollars down the road, allowing you to put them toward the things you enjoy and care about most.

Sources:,, Business Insider, K-State Today,, National Institutes of Health


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