The How-To Guide to Your Health

25 Easy Things Every Minnesotan Can Do to Boost Immunity, Prevent Disease, Maximize Muscle, and Feel Better

How to Get Enough of the “Sunshine Vitamin” in Winter

Because our bodies make it when exposed to direct sunlight, vitamin D is often called the “sunshine vitamin.” But Minnesotans are often D-deficient—particularly between September and April, says Greg Plotnikoff, MD, medical director of the Institute for Health and Healing at Abbott Northwestern. And that’s a problem: A lack of vitamin D has been linked to osteoporosis, diabetes, hypertension, chronic pain, and 17 types of cancer.

Most milk is D-enriched, but you would need to drink at least 10 cups a day to get enough. Salmon, mackerel, sardines, and tuna are good sources of D, too. And a tablespoon of cod-liver oil packs the biggest wallop. But if that thought makes your stomach churn, try a supplement with cholecalciferol (it’s a form of vitamin D). Or take Plotnikoff’s advice: “My favorite prescription is a vacation in the sun.” Doctor’s orders.

How to Be Happier (Even If You’re Lutheran)

Studies show that a person’s sense of happiness is mostly genetic, but there are proven ways to boost your mood. Try these remedies:

– Write down three things you’re grateful for every night—including the barista who remembered the extra foam on your latte.
– Act up. A six-week study of college students found that practicing five “random acts of kindness” throughout the week led to higher reports of happiness than five kind acts performed just one day a week.
– Stop comparing yourself to the neighbor with the lake cabin, the talented kids, and the Mercedes. Be thankful for what you have, rather than fixated on what you want.

How to Order at Caribou

Lattes may be good for your health! Drinking lots of coffee (four, six, or more cups a day) has been linked in some studies to lower rates of heart disease, Parkinson’s disease, liver cancer, type 2 diabetes, and gout. But it’s unclear whether a cuppa joe actually causes good health or is simply associated with good health (i.e., drinkers may simply practice other healthy behaviors, too). The chief benefit, says University of Minnesota nutritionist Joanne Slavin, may come from the socializing that often accompanies coffee-klatching—a boost to our emotional health.

Prefer oolong to Kona? Studies are mixed about whether tea fights cancer and heart disease. And a recent study of 16 postmenopausal women found that adding milk to tea cancels any antioxidant powers it might have. For now, order a cup of green tea sans the skim.

How to Pick a Walking Shoe

Walking a mile in someone else’s shoes, while good for the soul, is killer on your feet. And though it often seems difficult—nay, nearly impossible—to find well-fitted footwear these days, many of us underestimate the value of a quality pair of tennies, according to HealthPartners foot and ankle surgeon Troy Boffeli. “If people are getting into walking as their main form of fitness, they need to invest in their equipment, which is just their shoes,” he says. “And people tend not to spend enough on their shoes.” Boffeli recommends specialty shoe stores (he sends his patients to Schuler’s) because they usually have better brands and more knowledgeable sales staff than chain or discount stores.

Photo by Thomas Strand

How I Survived: A Dog Attack

Julia Demgen, 18, Minneapolis »

I was with my friend Natasha. I was 9, and we were doing yard work for my neighbor. She paid $5 an hour, which was a lot. We were waiting for something else to do, so we went into a big walk-in dog kennel in the backyard. I had played with the dog before. It was an Akita, a Japanese security dog. It seemed to be nice. It was probably three feet tall.

Natasha gave the dog a kiss, and the dog licked her face. I went to give the dog a kiss, but it didn’t respond to me at all. I turned around to walk out of the kennel. The door had a latch, though, and I couldn’t get it undone. I turned back around to ask my friend to help me, and the dog was right there. It bit the left side of my face. Luckily, it missed my eyes.

I don’t really remember the next few minutes. Natasha’s dad was next door. He saw it happen. He came over and picked me up off the ground and carried me inside. Natasha went to get my mom four houses down. She freaked out. She walked up to the house, and there was blood everywhere. In the ambulance, I asked my mom if I was going to die.

At the emergency room, they cleaned me up a little bit. I had to wait maybe an hour or two for the on-call plastic surgeon. The therapist showed me the needle they were going to use. It looked like a fishing hook. I don’t know why they showed me that. I asked if it was going to hurt. They told me I was going to be asleep. They did more than 200 stitches. It took about three hours.

When I came home, my mom had to cover all the mirrors with sheets. I looked at myself once and was scared out of my mind. I looked like what I had seen in horror movies. I had nightmares for years. I’ve had three surgeries. I might have another one sometime in the near future, but I feel like it’s going to interrupt my life. This fall is the start of my senior year in high school.

I have scars between my eyes, around my lips, and a few on my left cheek. I have to wear a strong SPF because sunburn can be damaging to my scars. Sometimes, I get really sad about it. It used to affect my self-esteem, but it has changed me for the better. I kind of think of it like, If I survived that, I could survive anything.

—As told to Emily Sohn


How to Avoid Concluding That You’re at Death’s Door While Doing Online Research

You have a headache. You’re dizzy. Your left shoulder hurts. After a quick Google search, it’s official: You have a brain tumor, heart disease, and one month to live. You can start saying your goodbyes now—or learn how to research health issues properly.

Linda Watson, director of the health-sciences libraries at the U of M, offers these tips:

– Choose the right site. Websites that end with .edu, .gov, or .org tend to be more trustworthy than .com’s. Either way, look for an “About Us” section that mentions who finances the site. If the sponsor is a drug or medical-device company, watch for bias. If you can’t find an “About Us” section, move on.
– Get the latest. Medical research changes constantly. Look for dates that indicate the information’s freshness.
– Be wary of chat rooms. Choose research-based sources over opinion-based ones.

For additional help, check out the Medical Library Association’s “User’s Guide to Finding and Evaluating Health Information on the Web” (

How to Support Your Skeleton So It Supports You too

Osteoporosis and low bone mass are problems that plague many American women. But 50 percent of all women who break a hip don’t have osteoporosis, says Plotnikoff of the Institute for Health and Healing. Instead, older folks often fall because they lack balance, strength, and flexibility. To keep your skeleton solid for years to come:

– Adopt a regular exercise routine to build bone density and improve coordination.
– Consume adequate amounts of calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin K, naturally found in foods like milk, yogurt, and broccoli, or in supplement form.
– Don’t smoke, and minimize alcohol intake.
– Know your medications. Some medical treatments, including drugs for arthritis, asthma, lupus, seizures, and some treatments for cancer, can cause bone loss. Make sure to discuss prescription side effects with your doctor.

To test your balance, try standing on one foot for 30 seconds. (If you feel unsteady, make sure there’s a chair or counter within arm’s reach.) If you can’t stay vertical for at least half a minute, Plotnikoff says, you’re at high risk for serious falls.

How to Avoid Germs on Your Next Northwest Flight

You have a 1 in 5 chance of coming down with a cold after spending time on a plane. Your best prevention: Use a liquid hand sanitizer frequently while in flight, says Brian Goodroad, a nurse practitioner at Abbott Northwestern’s Travel Clinic. Viruses from other passengers may be floating about the cabin, but it’s the ones on your hands that matter most. Keep your mitts clean and away from your nose or eyes (the key entry points for viruses). If you have a seat partner who’s wheezing and sneezing, pass them a fresh tissue, says Goodroad. And offer to share your hand sanitizer.

How to Fall Asleep

“Insomnia is part of the human condition,” says Mark Mahowald, MD, medical director of the Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorders Center at Hennepin County Medical Center. “Everyone has it occasionally.”

To avoid an all-night, wide-eyed, tossing-and-turning battle with insomnia, Mahowald recommends the following: If you don’t fall asleep after 15 minutes in bed, get up, go into another room, and do something quiet. Read a book, knit, sketch, or practice some gentle yoga exercises. When you feel sleepy, hit the sack again.

Don’t, however, fall into the trap of thinking that as long as you’re awake, you might as well be doing something productive—like paying bills or cleaning the house or making lefse. “What that’s actually doing is rewarding yourself for being awake in the middle of the night,” warns Mahowald. “You don’t want to make insomnia pay off.”

How to Scratch a Winter Itch

If you feel itchy this winter, you won’t be alone. “A lot of people in the winter are convinced they have some kind of rash,” says Barbara Benjamin, MD, a physician at Park Nicollet Primary Care Skin Services. “They really have extremely dry skin.” The cause: Minnesota’s seasonal dearth of humidity.

To keep from scratching, Benjamin recommends the following:

– Shower, rather than bathe, to preserve your skin’s natural oils.
– If you prefer the tub, soak until your skin begins to “prune”—a sign that your skin is hydrated.
– Use only lukewarm water.
– Wash with a very mild soap or a soap-free cleanser.
– Pat yourself dry, and then quickly (within three minutes!) slather your skin with a fragrance-free emollient cream.
– Avoid lotions, particularly those that contain alcohol, which often fail to lock in enough moisture and may actually dry out your skin.

Photo by Thomas Strand

How I Survived: A Brush with a Stingray

Nick Buettner, 39, St. Paul »

It was October 2001. I was on an expedition in the Peruvian Amazon, and we were going to paddle down the remote Rio Azul. But it was low season, and around every curve, we had to stop and pull the canoes through the water.

It was getting late in the day when I jumped out of the raft into shin-deep water and started walking on the rocky bottom. The next thing I knew, I was back in the boat with the most immense pain I have ever had in my life. I didn’t know what had happened.

Our Machiguenga Indian guides killed the stingray and showed it to me. It was about two feet long. There were three injection points in the big toe of my left foot. In high school, a 2-ton trailer crushed my toe at a state fair horse show. The stingray bite hurt worse.

I knew that stingrays have poisonous venom that can kill you. The guides paddled me to shore and started boiling water. For about two hours, they dipped my foot in hot water. I was lying face down with two rocks in my hands, squeezing as hard as I could. I’m 6-foot-2, 190 pounds. I cried. There were tears.

One of the guides ran into the woods and found a branch from a tree called pica de raya—the stingray-bite tree. They made a tea out of it that they squeezed over my toe. The pain went away almost instantaneously. That night, I was in shock.

We were 1,000 miles from the nearest hospital. The next day, I couldn’t walk. I started getting a huge blister that made it look like I had an extra toe. It started turning weird colors, so I tried to keep it clean. I took an antibiotic. I started wondering whether I was getting gangrene. It looked like my toe was dying.

We started hitting civilization three days later. It was another couple of days before I was able to see a doctor. He said, “You’re okay.” I went home a month later. It’s healed up well. There’s no scar.

—As told to Emily Sohn


How to Scare Yourself into Kicking the Soda Habit

Metabolic syndrome

is a cluster of health indicators—excess abdominal fat, high blood sugar, high triglycerides, low levels of the “good” cholesterol (HDL), and elevated blood pressure—that significantly increase the likelihood of developing diabetes or having a heart attack or stroke. A recent study found that those who down one or more soft drinks a day, including sugar-free ones, increased their risk of metabolic syndrome by 40 percent.

Scientists aren’t sure if the beverages themselves raise the risk of metabolic syndrome or if soft-drink aficionados are just more prone to unhealthy lifestyle choices. (Soda drinkers, for example, tend to have diets low in fiber and high in calories, saturated fats, and trans fats.) But Minnesotans, in particular, may find it difficult to kick the soft-drink habit. According to the Beverage Marketing Corporation, this region of the country consumed an average of 72.3 gallons of the stuff per person in 2006—almost 50 percent more than the national average. Gulp.

How to Bust Up Kidney Stones With Lemonade

“The solution to pollution is dilution,” says Daniel Zapzalka, MD, chair of Park Nicollet’s urology department. In other words, calcium, uric acid, and the other ingredients that form kidney stones are less likely to crystalize if you drink enough fluids—Zapzalka recommends three to four quarts of fluids daily (enough so your urine is light in color). Caffeinated beverages and soft drinks are okay, he says, but in moderation. His favorite refresher: 4 to 6 ounces of pure lemon juice in a gallon of water. Studies show that the natural citrate in lemon and orange juices can be as effective as some prescription medications in keeping kidney stones from recurring. It may also help with prevention.

How to Know Whether to Buy Organic Rhubarb

Liz McMann, education and special projects manager at Mississippi Market Natural Foods Co-op, directs chemical-conscious consumers to the Food News website (, which scores 43 common produce items based on typical pesticide load. Produced by the Environmental Working Group, a Washington, D.C.—based nonprofit, the handy reference offers guidance on when to choose organic over conventional produce (hint: when it comes to peaches, go organic) and when the benefits are negligible (buy conventionally grown asparagus—it’s generally low in pesticide load). Another way to lessen pesticide consumption, McMann says, is to not to eat the peels of commercially produced fruits—which, unfortunately, lowers the food’s vitamin and fiber load.

How to Know Whether to Feed (or Starve) a Winter Cold

Forget that old adage “Feed a cold, starve a fever.” There’s little science to back it up. In 2001, some studies by Dutch researchers did find that eating boosted participants’ immune responses and that fasting stimulated a similar response against bacterial infections. But those findings haven’t been replicated.

If the sniffles or other cold or flu symptoms descend upon you this winter, follow the advice favored by Jewish mothers everywhere: Eat chicken soup. Research has shown that the savory remedy has anti-inflammatory properties that help ward off sore throats and relieve mucus congestion. Gey gezunderheit!

How to Keep Your Hair from Going Down the Drain

Many of the patients who seek out Robert Reese, MD, founder and medical director of Reese Hair Restoration in Edina, wonder if they’re to blame for their thinning manes. “Patients will ask me, ‘Did I make myself bald because I wore a baseball cap all the time?’ or ‘Is coloring my hair making it fall out?’ ” Reese says. “I tell them that hair loss is almost always based on genetics.”

So, without rejiggering your DNA, what can be done to keep your thatch thick? Natural remedies aren’t very effective, Reese says, and he doesn’t recommend anything that isn’t FDA-approved. But if you’re in the early stages of hair loss, he notes, non-surgical options like Propecia (which costs $70 a month) and Rogaine ($10 a month for generic versions) have been proven to stop hair loss in clinical trials. (Only Rogaine is approved for use in women.) Another option is low-level laser therapy, in which a patient uses a special comb that emits a low-level laser frequency. Researchers don’t yet understand how the comb—which costs around $500—works, but Reese says that 85 to 90 percent of participants in long-term studies have reported satisfactory results.

Measuring the success of the results is often a matter of managing expectations, however. “If the expectation is to maintain the hair the patient has now, they will likely achieve that,” Reese says. “If a person is lucky, they can slightly enhance their look.”

Photo by Thomas Strand

How I Survived: Cardiac Arrest

Wendell Mogren, 63, New Brighton »

I worked as a pipe fitter for 43 years. When I retired in March 2006, I started walking every morning for exercise. Two months later, on the morning of May 11, I was out for my usual walk.

Halfway through, I stopped—like I always do—for a drink at the New Brighton Cub Foods. Here’s where my memory gets fuzzy: I remember seeing the store, but I don’t remember going into it. I usually get a cup of coffee or a drink of water and keep walking. But that day at 7:05 a.m., I had a cardiac arrest right there in the store. I passed out by the soap, in aisle 15.

One of the ladies from the bakery happened to see me and called for help. Someone dialed 911. The store’s assistant manager had just finished a refresher course in CPR, and he jumped right in and started doing compressions on my chest. Still, I wasn’t breathing. I had no pulse. The CPR was keeping oxygen flowing to my brain and internal organs, but my heart had stopped working.

Believe it or not, a police car was about a mile away, and the officers had a defibrillator. They shocked my heart and got it beating again. Then I was transported by ambulance to Unity Hospital. The doctors there cooled my body temperature to 91 degrees Fahrenheit using a special cooling blanket and gave me drugs to put me in a temporary coma.

After about 24 hours in the deep freeze, the doctors started warming me up and taking me off the drugs. I started slowly waking up. My cardiac arrest was on a Thursday, and the first thing I really remember was Monday morning. They did an angiogram and decided I needed a stent, so I was transported to Mercy Hospital, where one was placed the following day. After that I started feeling more like myself.

Now I feel fully recovered. I have no pain— so I think I’m doing good. I’m back to my morning walks, though my wife makes me take a cell phone along now.

The doctors tell me that when you have an attack like I had there’s only an 8-percent chance that you’ll survive. When I tell my story, people often say that the stars must’ve been aligned for me that day. I could’ve fallen down in the parking lot instead of in the store. Nobody would’ve seen me; I probably would’ve died right there.

—As told to Andy Steiner


How to Breathe Your Way to Lower Blood Pressure

Nearly 1 in 3 adult Minnesotans has high blood pressure. If you’re one of them—or don’t want to become one—inhale deeply. Slowing down your breathing for 20 minutes a day can help you significantly lower your blood pressure—by an average of 14/8 mm Hg, according to several recent studies. “Breathing with prolonged exhalation contributes to blood-pressure control well beyond the 20 minutes you’re doing it,” says Sheldon Sheps, MD, emeritus professor at the Mayo Clinic and author of Mayo Clinic on High Blood Pressure. The key is to make your breaths slow and deep (fewer than 10 per minute).

How to Battle Boredom at the Gym

Sick of spinning? Does yoga make you yawn? Gayle Winegar, who for 25 years has headed the SweatShop Health Club in St. Paul, says that many of her most dedicated clients suffer from what experts call “fitness fatigue.”

“Active people tend to get bored easily,” Winegar says.

Your body gets bored, too, she adds: “Your muscle stops benefiting after years and years of the same routine.” So when fitness fatigue strikes, Winegar advises her customers to try new activities that combine elements of their favorite exercises in new, exciting ways—like yogalates, a new exercise that combines the best of yoga and Pilates, or Nordic walking, a hot new fitness trend that involves fast walking with aluminum poles, adding to the aerobic activity.

Another way to re-invigorate your workout is to change your environment. When weather permits, the staff at the Marsh in Minnetonka hold spinning or tai chi classes outside on the deck of the facility. “Mixing things up helps fight boredom,” explains Liz Anema, Marsh studio coordinator. “When we encourage people to do something a little bit out of the ordinary, we see them get re-engaged.”

How to Make Sex Interesting Again

Even the most red-hot lover can experience a cooling trend after several years with the same partner, says Beatrice “Bean” Robinson, a psychologist and associate professor at the U of M’s Program in Human Sexuality. In some cases, a sexual slowdown may be a byproduct of the aging process, but more often than not the sexual doldrums are simply the result of too much of the same old, same old.

When she works with couples that feel sexually out of sync, Robinson sometimes suggests a technique she calls “It’s my week—it’s your week,” where both partners agree to take turns granting one member the power to make all sexual decisions for one week. The member who has the week “off” agrees to go along with his or her partner’s wishes. The next week, the roles reverse.

“Basically, before you get started you have a meeting and set ground rules and establish limits,” Robinson says. After the boundary list has been agreed upon, it’s the lead member’s week to be a little selfish. “You aren’t worrying so much about pleasing your partner, but rather you are thinking about framing a sexual experience exactly as you’d like it.”

How to Stave off Premature Hearing Loss

“Eh? Could you speak up?” In a few years you may be hearing a lot of that—or worse, not even hearing that.

Roughly 28 million Americans have hearing loss, says Julee Sylvester, spokesperson for the Minnesota-based Sight & Hearing Association, and that number is expected to grow rapidly in the next few decades. Researchers estimate that by 2030, 78 million Americans will experience significant hearing loss. “It’s the baby-boomer generation,” Sylvester says. Listening to all that newfangled stuff called rock ’n’ roll has taken its toll, it seems.

But losing your hearing doesn’t have to be part of growing old. “One-third of all hearing loss is preventable,” Sylvester says. She suggests several ways you can protect your hearing:

1. Turn down the volume. Dial down your iPod. Don’t crank the car radio.
2. Walk away. If there’s a jackhammer on your side of the street, cross to the other side. When you hear a loud noise, cover your ears.
3. Plug ’em up. Wear earplugs the next time you mow your lawn or go to a rock concert.

How to Get a Norwegian Bachelor to Get a Checkup

Most women visit the doctor at least once a year. Men, on the other hand, have been known to go years between appointments. Jim Lovestar, director of the Minneapolis-based Institute for Men’s Health and Well-Being, says men are taught to ignore or brush off signs of illness. Many also like to believe they are immortal. “As a gender, we tend to be more in denial than women are,” he says.

If you want to convince a man to see a doctor, the last thing you should do is instruct him to get a checkup. “When told what to do by the women in their lives, a lot of men will hear their mother talking,” Lovestar says. “And that’s a sure way to generate resistance.”

Instead, Lovestar suggests appealing to a man’s competitive nature. “Pose it as a challenge,” he says. “Say you’re talking about the kids. You could say something like, ‘Do you want to be there when he graduates?’ or ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to see your first grandchild?’ Sometimes it requires a light touch to get a man thinking seriously about the future.”

Photo by Thomas Strand

How We Survived: Our Son’s Kidney Surgery

Stephanie Wittleder, 34, Minneapolis »

In the spring of 2005, my husband, Eric, my daughter, Hana, and I were living in Duluth. I was pregnant with my second baby, and everything seemed normal. At my 20-week ultrasound, we found out we were having a boy.

A couple of days later, I got a call from my primary-care doctor. She said, “We discovered something on the ultrasound.”

That was the beginning of a long and stressful pregnancy. There were many tests. I was put on and off hospitalized bed rest. Eventually I went down to Minneapolis, to Abbott Northwestern and Children’s Hospital and Clinics, to see specialists. The doctors told me that our son had extensive damage to both of his kidneys. They said there was a possibility for him to receive a kidney transplant if he survived birth and his lungs were strong enough. Near the end of my pregnancy, I had daily appointments.

On August 9, I gave birth. We decided to name our boy after Lance Armstrong, because we knew he was going to have to be a fighter.

The doctors determined that Lance had a condition called prune belly syndrome. He was going to need a new kidney in the first year of his life, but he had to weigh at least 22 pounds before the surgery could happen.

Lance left the neonatal intensive-care unit at Children’s six weeks after he was born. But within three months, his kidneys were failing and he needed dialysis to survive. We saw doctors at the University of Minnesota Children’s Hospital-Fairview, to prepare for the transplant. Both my husband and I went in for workups to see if we were donor matches. We both were eligible, but my husband said he wanted to be the one to donate.

Finally, on July 20, 2006, Lance was ready to get his daddy’s kidney. It was an 8-hour surgery. I was going crazy, pacing, visiting with family and friends. When I heard that Lance had his daddy’s kidney, I was finally happy.

Because we had to miss so much work to care for our son, both my husband and I lost our jobs in Duluth and we had to give up our house. We moved to Minneapolis and found new jobs. Today, we live in an apartment in south Minneapolis.

Lance is one of only 105 children in the United States who have been transplanted under the age of one. It’s been a miracle. He has not had any rejection issues. Because he’s immunosuppressed, he takes about 12 medicines a day, but overall he’s a happy 2-year-old.

We all love Lance. He’s strong, loving, and brave. He’s catching up to the other children, and he’s crazy about his big sister. We’re all excited about what our future holds.

—As told to Andy Steiner


How to Get a Straight Answer from Your Doctor

The widespread availability of health information on the Internet has transformed the doctor-patient relationship. “In the past, doctors hesitated when they saw a patient come to an appointment with a long list of questions or a stack of printouts,” says James T. Li, MD, professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine. “Now many physicians welcome an informed patient.”

But now that you know more, how do you communicate with your physician—and make sure that he or she communicates with you? Li has developed a set of courses on advanced medical interviewing. He says that patients should consider all encounters with physicians as opportunities for dialogue. If your physician says something that isn’t clear, for instance, Li says: “It is completely appropriate for a patient to pause and say, ‘I don’t understand. Could you explain it further?’ ”

Most physicians have a limited amount of time to spend with each patient, but you should make the most of it. Take notes. Ask questions. Bring a companion or ask questions from a pre-prepared list of queries if it makes you more comfortable.

“Basically, we have the same goal,” Li says. “We all want the patient to be in the best of health.”

How to Boost Your Immune System in Four Easy Steps

1. Move your muscles.

“People who are de-conditioned are at risk for all sorts of medical problems, including disease,” says Daniel Mueller, MD, an immunologist and professor of medicine at the U of M. Even relatively low levels of aerobic exercise (30 minutes of brisk walking daily) can kick your immune system into higher gear.

2. Catch your zzz’s. A night of tossing and turning can leave you weary and cranky the next day. But it can also be a nightmare for your immune system: one study found that staying awake for 24 hours lowers the body’s immune response by half—and that impact lasts at least a month.

3. Maintain a balanced diet. Focus on eating fruits, veggies, and whole grains, which are rich in immune-boosting antioxidants. Don’t rush off to stock up on the latest food item praised as an immune strengthener (like blueberries, ginger, or walnuts). No single food is a miracle worker, says Mueller.

4. Keep up with your vaccinations.

How to Do a Sit-Up Without Wrenching Your Neck

Don’t worry about washboards. Worry about your neck. Anna VanDeLoo, who heads up the personal training department at Life Time Fitness in Roseville, explains how to do a good old-fashioned sit-up: start with one set of 12 three times a week, and work up to three sets of 20.

Lie with your knees bent, feet flat on the floor. Carpeting or a thick towel should provide enough cushion. Interlace your fingers behind your head.

As your sit up, lift your chest—not your neck or head—toward the ceiling, slightly tucking your chin in toward your chest. Your shoulders should come two to three inches off the ground.

Exhale as you sit up. Inhale on your way back down.

How to Spend All Day at Your Desk Without Destroying Your Tendons

Most of the 10,000-plus runners who entered this month’s Twin Cities Marathon probably made sure to stretch and wear comfortable shoes. If only more of us prepared as well for the rigors of sitting at a computer for hours, which can cause strains, aches, and carpal tunnel syndrome.

The key to avoiding injury is to fit your workstation around your body, says Philip Jacobs, an ergonomic consultant in St. Paul. Some basics include the following:

– Set your feet flat on the floor as you sit in your chair, with your knees bent at a 90-degree angle. Find a chair that supports your back in its natural double-S curve shape.
– Keep wrists in a neutral position and shoulders relaxed. If needed, support your elbows and wrists with props such as armrests and a wrist cushion.
– The top of your monitor should be no higher than eye level. If it’s too low, use phonebooks to raise the screen.
– Give your muscles a break from typing every 15 minutes, and take a 5-minute break every hour. Stand and stretch to keep blood pumping.

How to Steer Clear of “Bad Fats” While Eating Out

First, it was sugar. Then, saturated fat. Then, bread. Now, trans fats have won the title of Nutritional Enemy No. 1. New York City has banned trans fats from restaurant foods, and several cities and counties have followed suit. Minnesota legislators haven’t taken any action on the issue, but many restaurants are rushing to remove trans fats from their menus. Your best bet is to prioritize fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, says U of M nutritionist and dietician Slavin. Avoid anything deep-fried, and don’t eat treats with “partially hydrogenated” or “shortening” in the ingredient list. Not sure what’s in that menu item you’re eyeing? Just ask!

How to Take Your Antioxidants

Popping a pill is as good as the real deal—right? Not exactly. Studies have shown that when nutrients such as antioxidants are isolated in the form of supplements, they act differently than when they’re packaged alongside vitamins and minerals courtesy of Mother Nature. In fact, there isn’t solid evidence that our supposed free-radical fighters are solely responsible for lowering rates of cancer or heart disease. Your best bet? Andrew Flood, a professor in the U of M’s division of epidemiology and community health, suggests eating a healthy diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

How to Size Up Your Height-Weight Ratio

That spare tire you’re carrying around is a bigger threat to your health than, say, extra fat around the hips. In a recent study, researchers measured more than 2,700 adults for “hardening of the arteries,” which increases the risk of heart disease. They found that measuring the ratio between waist size and hip size was a more accurate indicator of arterial buildup than one’s body mass index—a widely publicized obesity measurement based on height and weight. And after analyzing the ratios, they concluded the bigger the belly compared to the hips, the more likely the buildup.

Mike Enright and Kate Nelson contributed to this report.


The Total Slacker’s Guide to Living Forever


No dieting! No exercise! No kidding!

You’ve heard it a million times: To live a long and healthy life, you have to eat well and exercise. Oh well, you think, as you plate another wedge of chocolate cake and settle in for a Desperate Housewives marathon. If life ends early, at least you’ll have enjoyed it. ¶ And you may be on to something. Some health beneï¬ts can be yours without dieting or a lick of exercise. Follow the six steps below and you might just end up living longer—despite yourself.

Say the Rosary

Researchers in Italy found that nuns who pray the rosary every day have lower-than-average blood pressure, says U of M cardiologist Daniel Duprez, MD. It’s probably because their breathing becomes slow and regular as they say the Hail Marys. Another option: an FDA-approved electronic device that gets its wearer to breathe 10 times a minute or fewer (compared to the usual 16 to 19) lowered blood pressure in the manufacturer’s clinical trials. And breathing rhythm might also explain the relaxation effects of activities like meditation and yoga.

Move to Italy…or Japan

Proportionally, more men live past 100 in Sardinia, Italy, than anywhere else in the world. People in Okinawa, Japan, also tend to live exceptionally long lives, and their rates of heart disease, cancer, and dementia are extraordinary low. Genetics probably plays a role, but researchers also credit low-stress and active outdoors-oriented lifestyles based on farming and fishing. Healthy eating helps, too—Okinawans consume low-calorie meals filled with fresh fruits, vegetables, soy, and fish, while Sardinians add heart-healthy olive oil and red wine to their vegetable-rich diets.

Invest in that Six Pack (And Drink Just a Can a Day)

Studies show that Seventh-day Adventists in Utah, who avoid alcohol, caffeine, and tobacco, live an average of eight years longer than other Americans. But seriously, who wants to move to Provo? So here’s another suggestion: Stop smoking today (quitting can lead to a 50-percent drop in heart-attack risk in the first year), and moderate your alcohol intake. Drinking more than one or two glasses of wine or beer a day can raise “bad fat” levels in your blood. But a drink a day—without the cigs, of course—seems to have the opposite effect.

Go to Bed…or Get Up Already!

A 2002 study of more than a million people linked sleeping too little (less than six hours a night) or too much (more than eight hours ) to a shorter life. The mechanisms are not yet clear, but effects happen quickly. In a 1999 study, healthy adults who slept four hours a night or less began to have trouble digesting sugars, as if they were developing diabetes—after just a few days.

Meet a Friend at Dunn Bros—and Bring your dog

People who are lonely tend to develop cardiovascular disease sooner than social folks, says Duprez. There may be a physical link, but he also suspects that isolation interferes with the motivation to take medications, exercise, and cook for yourself. Even a pet can help: If other creatures depend on you, you’ll probably have even more motivation to stay healthy yourself.

Renew Your Subscription

For reasons that have yet to be fully established, married folk tend to live longer than bachelors and bachelorettes, according to research compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Even compared to loving couples that aren’t married, people in healthy marriages have lower rates of heart failure, cancer, and other diseases. They are less likely to drink or smoke, more likely to exercise, and more likely to have a strong support network. The one drawback: Married people, especially men, are far more likely to be overweight than their appearance-conscious single friends.

—Emily Sohn