5 Ways to Improve Your Health

05/18/2009 05:18 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Simple lifestyle changes boost your health-and your happiness

Health care isn't just what happens between you and your medical professionals. It's how you care for yourself and maintain your health and well-being. Here are five ways to change your life in a way that will not only make you healthier, but happier too.

1. Connect with friends-face-to-face

Spending time with your best friends is proven to be good for your health. Bonding with your girlfriends is different from connecting to your spouse, kids, family, significant other or lover. Day-to-day life is stressful. Reaching outside your routine to connect with friends provides real relief-and a way to get in touch with the real "you," who can get lost in daily shuffle.

But bonding requires face-to-face interactions. While I'm a huge fan of Facebook, Twitter, texting and e-mailing, it's not the same.

Get together for lunch, take a walk, chat over tea. Be that care-free girl you once were to boost your health. (Men: this goes for you too. Grab your best buddies and go have some fun.)

2. Listen to the joy

Researchers at the University of Maryland School Of Medicine found that listening to joyful music can have a healthy effect on blood vessels. But the key is joyful music. It was found the blood vessels relaxed and widened by 26 percent when subjects listened to uplifting music, compared to a 6 percent narrowing while listening to music that causes anxiety.

So what music did the participants of this study choose to evoke joy? Country. (I knew I loved Rascal Flatts for a reason.)

Anxiety-producing music? Heavy metal.

So choose the music that makes you feel good-it will also make you healthier.

3. Laugh Out Loud

Laughing doesn't just make you feel good. The Mayo Clinic reports that laughter can have short- and long-term health benefits.

Short-term, laughter increases levels of endorphins that are released from your brain. It can stimulate your heart, muscles and lungs. It can reduce stress, tension and stomach upset.

Longer-term, laughter can even help improve your immune system and relieve pain.

4. Eat Healthy

Eating mostly fresh fruits and vegetables, lean proteins and whole grains is demonstrated to be one of the most powerful ways to boost your health, reducing risk for most major chronic diseases and improving the health and function of nearly every body tissue.

Easy to say. Hard to do.

One of my favorite health books provides an excellent way to make healthy eating a reality: ChefMD's Big Book of Culinary Medicine by John La Puma, MD.

As a physician, Dr. La Puma knows his stuff about health. As a trained chef, he knows how to make amazing meals. The recipes are quick and simple, healthy and delicious. Dr. La Puma has been a guest on the Health in 30® Radio Show; give the segment a listen for more.

And if you happen to love hummus, here's a great healthy recipe from ChefMD.

5. Just move

Sedentary lifestyle is a major risk factor for heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, obesity and-this is not as well-known-clinical depression.

And you don't have to be an exercise fanatic to reap the health benefits. The American Heart Association recommends 30 minutes per day, 5 days per week. So does the federal government, though its exercise guidelines for Americans go into more detail.

Brisk walking is one of the easiest ways to get this kind of exercise. It also sets a healthy foundation for other kinds of activities you might want to do.

The guidelines differ a bit for those 65 and older and for people with chronic health conditions and physical limitations, so check with your doctor before starting an exercise routine.

Having support from your friends or an exercise partner may make exercising more fun and improve your chances of sticking with a regular schedule.

For me, I love to just grab my iPod and walk or run. On nice days I love being outside. Otherwise I'll hit the treadmill indoors.

Find something you like and can stick with over the long haul. Getting in shape for bathing suit season is fine, but in terms of long-term health it's not the same as integrating regular exercise into your life.