5 Ways to Increase Health and Wealth in Minutes

10/01/2010 07:39 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Your first thought may have been about ice cream, but talk of a "double dip" these days is anything but sweet. The latest economic numbers are not encouraging. Simply put, many folks are out of work, or just not working enough to make ends meet.

Economists and politicians and think-tankers are all busy trying to read the signals of America's economic health. But rather than fret about layoffs or despair about the Dow, remember that, until all this health care overhaul business gets sorted out, a medical crisis is still your number one risk factor for filing for bankruptcy in this country.(1)

So while you might not be able to do anything about new housing starts or employment rates or even potential raises in insurance premiums or co-pays, you can definitely take control of your most important personal investment: The health of your own body.

The best part about this investment in your health is that it needn't cost you an extra dime. Consider the money, time, and health-saving tips in our new book, "The Doctors: 5-Minute Health Fixes" (Rodale, 2010). Here are a few to help you safeguard your health and save yourself (and your country) some sorely needed cash.

"Ride" your errands: If you're headed somewhere one or two miles from your house, ride your bike. You'll save money on gas and parking while keeping your brain sharp--and burn calories, too. A German study found that people who biked three times a week for over a span of three months increased the volume of hippocampus, a brain region associated with spatial navigation and long-term memory, by 16 percent. Not surprisingly, researchers also found improvements in short-term memory--no doubt helped by the fact that cycling challenges your brain to recall the best routes, navigate around potholes, react to traffic. All with zero carbon emissions--a healthy no-brainer that's good for the earth, too.(2)

Teach teens to ditch the lunch line. A recent study published in the journal Preventing Chronic Disease found teens who brought lunch from home five days a week ate less fast food, drank less soda and ate more fruits and veggies than their classmates who never brought lunch. Invest in a cooler bag and some reusable glass containers with plastic tops, and send along "fast" snacks like baby carrots, grape tomatoes and chopped cucumber.

While you're at it, pack one for yourself, too. Why waste half your lunch hour waiting to drop $10 on a deli sandwich--when five minutes prepping lunch in your own kitchen would be way cheaper and healthier?(3)

Steal your baby's butt cream. Many personal care products found at the drugstore have phthalates and other chemicals that disrupt our hormones and cause other negative health effects scientists are just beginning to understand. Reduce your body's chemical load and save money with more natural products. Treat dry, flaky skin with an over-the-counter diaper cream that contains zinc oxide and aloe vera moisturizers. (The zinc oxide even doubles as an effective, less toxic sunscreen.) Or avoid unhealthy chemicals in more expensive bleaching solutions by lightening dark elbow and knee skin patches with lemons. Slice them in half and rub on at bedtime--the vitamin C in lemon is a natural skin lightener. That skin a bit rough, too? Combine the pulp and juice from each half of lemon in a bowl and mix them with coffee grounds to create an all-natural exfoliating scrub.

Shop Priceline instead of Amazon. When times are tough economically, a lot of people skip vacations. But people with a higher risk of heart disease who take a vacation every year are 32 percent less likely to die from heart disease and 30 percent less likely to die of a heart attack than those who don't. Research shows that spending money on "stuff" feels good at first but the buzz wanes quickly. In contrast, when you spend money on an experience like a vacation, you feel more positive emotions--which prolong the heart-healthy effect and could lower your medical costs in the long run.(4)

If you can't afford to leave town, just pitch a tent in the backyard: Even just five minutes spent in a green space has been proven to have a positive effect on your mental health.(5)

Or simply stay in bed. Sleep is the ultimate healer, but very few of us get the recommended seven to eight hours every night. Lack of sleep can elevate stress hormones like cortisol, high levels of which have been linked to everything from belly fat to high blood pressure to cognitive decline. Getting more sleep can increase your concentration, improve your skin tone, even decrease your blood sugar and control your appetite, lowering your risk for diabetes.

One way to increase these effects? Make sure your honey stays with you. Studies have found that if you have sex at least once a week, you'll cut your risk of erectile dysfunction by 200 percent. Bump that up to two or three times a week, and you decrease your risk of heart attack or stroke by 50 percent--and add up to eight years to your life.(6,7)

Now that's what we call good medicine.

[1] David U. Himmelstein, MD, Deborah Thorne, PhD, Elizabeth Warren, JD, Steffie Woolhandler, MD, MPH, Medical Bankruptcy in the United States, 2007: Results of a National Study. The American Journal of Medicine, doi:10.1016/j.amjmed.2009.04.012.

[2] Pajonk FG, Wobrock T, Gruber O, Scherk H, Berner D, Kaizl I, Kierer A, Müller S, Oest M, Meyer T, Backens M, Schneider-Axmann T, Thornton AE, Honer WG, Falkai P. Hippocampal Plasticity in Response to Exercise in Schizophrenia. Arch Gen Psychiatry 2010;67(2):133-43.

[3] Hastert TA, Babey SH. School Lunch Source and Adolescent Dietary Behavior. Prev Chronic Dis 2009; 6(4):A117.

[4] Carter TJ, Gilovich T. The Relative Relativity of Material and Experiential Purchases. Soc Psychol 2010;98(1):146-59.

[5] Pretty J. What Is the Best Dose of Nature and Green Exercise for Improving Mental Health? A Multi-Study Analysis. Environ Sci Technol 2010;44(10):3947-55.

[6] Baumhäkel M, Schlimmer N, Kratz MT, Böhm M. Erectile Dysfunction: Indicator of End-Organ Damage in Cardiovascular Patients. Med Klin (Munich) 2009;104(4):309-13.

[7] Davey Smith G, Frankel S, Yarnell J. Sex and Death: Are They Related? Findings from the Caerphilly Cohort Study. BMJ 1997;315(7123):1641-4.