With spring on the horizon and summer soon to follow, it's officially time to begin worrying about fitting into a swimsuit. Fad diets and exercise plans promising to "blast the bulge" dominate magazine covers and Twitter feeds. Though these plans may help you lose weight quickly, they are often just a temporary fix for a larger lifestyle problem. So instead of falling into the same trap, start thinking long-term. Start with this list of five healthy choices that you should make right now. They may not get you beach-ready in two weeks, but they'll keep you healthy for years to come.
1. Laugh More
Laughter improves mood and reduces stress. One study found that laughing releases endorphins in the brain, which help to curb feelings of depression and anxiety. But the benefits aren't purely molecular. The physical act of laughing stimulates organs, particularly the heart and lungs. This increases blood flow through the body, which leads to muscle relaxation and the release of tension.
Laughter has long-term health benefits as well. Laughing may improve your immune system by lowering stress. According to one study published in the Psychological Bulletin, stress causes the release of chemicals that attach to white blood cells -- the body's defense against infection and disease -- and affect the immune response. WebMD reports that using humor may raise antibody levels and boost your immune cell levels.
Want to laugh more? That's up to you. Keep funny materials around you -- check out YouTube videos or read the funnies in the morning. The content doesn't matter, as long as it makes you chuckle.
Meditation is another simple and inexpensive way to reduce stress and improve overall mental health. When performed correctly, meditation produces a deep state of relaxation and a tranquil mind. A recent Journal of the American Medical Association study found that meditation programs improved participants' anxiety, depression and pain. The Mayo Clinic also claims that meditation may improve the symptoms of illnesses that are exacerbated by stressful situations, including asthma, high blood pressure and even substance abuse.
There are many types of meditation, but there is no need to sign up for a class in order to mediate. Meditation is based on four elements: focused attention, breathing, a quiet setting and a comfortable position. With this in mind, try incorporating meditation into your daily schedule in one of these simple ways:
• Breathe deeply, inhaling and exhaling through your nostrils.
• Repeat a mantra. Any word or phrase that brings you comfort will do.
• Engage in prayer.
• Take a walk and focus only on the movement of your legs and feet.
3. Take advantage of free preventive care
Be proactive about your health. Preventive care includes screenings for everything from abdominal aortic aneurysm to syphilis. Many preventive services also include counseling to cope with the disease or illness. All marketplace health plans, in addition to other qualified health insurance plans, must cover a long list of preventive services without charging the policyholder a copayment. This is true even if you haven't met your yearly deductible -- as long as you receive the care from an in-network provider.
In addition to the standard preventive care available to all adults, women qualify for an additional set of preventive services, as well as coverage for pregnancy and breastfeeding.
4. Exercise more than you did in 2013
A recent CDC study found that 80 percent of American adults don't get the recommended amount of exercise. The official recommendation is at least 2.5 hours of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or one hour and 15 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity, or a combination of both each week. Adults are also encouraged to lift weights twice a week to strengthen muscles.
Exercise does more than just burn calories, though. A Harvard study found that partaking in an exercise regimen yields the following health benefits:
• Protects against heart disease and stroke by increasing "good" HDL cholesterol and decreasing "bad" LDL cholesterol
• Protects against certain cancers, including colon and breast cancer
• Prevents against type 2 diabetes
• Prevents against osteoporosis
• Relieves symptoms of depression
• Prevents against weight gain
• Improves heart, lung and muscle fitness
• Improves sleep
5. Sit less
Sitting can have a negative impact on almost every part of your body.
• Neck and Shoulders -- Vertebrae in the neck are easily strained by craning your neck forward at your desk. Because the neck doesn't slouch alone, the shoulder and back muscles are also overextended and vulnerable to soreness.
• Back -- Sitting pushes unevenly on the disks in your back and prevents blood and nutrients from flowing to the area. The disks then harden in that position, resulting in an inflexible spine.
• Core -- Slouching in the seated position doesn't require effort from the abdominals or glutes. The muscles then weaken from lack of use. Weak abdominals cause an overextended curve in the spine and weak glutes hurt stability.
• Legs -- Sitting slows blood circulation and leads to problems including varicose veins, swollen ankles and even blood clots.
• Organs -- Muscles burn less fat when sedentary. This allows fatty acids to flow through the body and possibly clog in the heart, which can lead to heart disease. Sitting also causes the pancreas to produce more insulin to trigger sluggish muscles, which can lead to diabetes.
There are some steps you can take to prevent and combat the negative effects of sitting.
• Sit on something wobbly, like a yoga ball. It will force you to engage your core muscles.
• Walk during commercials. You will burn twice the calories of sitting.
• Alternate between sitting and standing.
• Do yoga. The cow and cat poses extend the spine and increase its flexibility.