This year, let's make a pact. No more false promises, no more extreme measures, and no more white flags raised. Here are nine key numbers you can easily tweak to make a huge difference in your overall health
Blood Pressure: 115/75 Hypertension is a cunning thief; left unchallenged, it can steal a decade of quality life. The average American's blood pressure in middle age is about 130/80, but since the average American dies of heart disease, that number isn't good enough. Instead, aim for 115/75. Measure your blood pressure monthly at the same time of day with a home monitor or one at a local drugstore. To lower blood pressure: Exercise hard enough to sweat for at least an hour each week. If you're used to 30-minute workouts, this means you'll need to do three, since it takes at least 10 minutes to start sweating.
Resting Heart Rate: 83 Before you get out of bed to commune with the coffeemaker, take your pulse: Put two fingertips on your wrist or carotid artery (in your neck under your jaw) and count the beats per minute. This is your resting heart rate. Anything higher than 83 means you're at increased risk for a heart attack. To slow your resting heart rate: The key, ironically, is to make your heart beat faster for an hour per week (to calculate your ideal number of beats per minute while exercising, subtract your age from 220, then multiply the result by 0.8). So, just as you'll be doing for healthy blood pressure, simply work up a good sweat.
Cholesterol: 2 to 1 When it comes to cholesterol, the total level isn't as predictive of heart disease as what's known as the ratio. To explain, cholesterol is carried in the blood by two different lipoproteins: The bad one, LDL (think L for lousy), spews the waxy, fat-like substance in your arteries, gunking them up; the good one, HDL (H for healthy), gathers up cholesterol so it can't clog. If you have some risk for heart disease (family history, high blood pressure, diabetes, smoking), keep your LDL under 100. Otherwise you're okay aiming for under 160; better yet, below 130. Ideally, your HDL should be more than 50. Doctors love it when the ratio of LDL to HDL is less than 2 to 1; they're tolerant if it's 3 to 1. To improve your ratio: Include soluble fiber in your diet from sources such as oatmeal, kidney beans, and apples, aiming for 25 grams a day. To spice things up, try a whole grain called quinoa. It contains a nearly perfect balance of proteins, as well as the mineral manganese—low levels of which are associated with hypertension.
Omega-6s to Omega-3s: 4 to 1 Omega-6s and omega-3s are called essential fatty acids for a reason: Their work includes building cell membranes and nerve insulation. But since the body doesn't produce these fats, you must get them from your diet—and the balance makes all the difference. American drive-through cuisine includes huge amounts of omega-6s (irritating in high levels), yet hardly any omega-3s (particularly beneficial for the heart). Although the optimum ratio is 4 to 1, ours is often 20 to 1, which puts us at increased risk for cardiovascular disease, arthritis, asthma, and some cancers. To right the omega balance: Eat more fish, seafood, whole grains, beans, nuts, and ground flaxseeds to increase omega-3s. And cut back on processed foods—along with oils made from corn, safflower, cottonseed, and peanuts—to ease off the omega-6s.
Inflammation: 1 If you've ever seen an apple slice turn brown 20 minutes after being cut, you can picture what inflammation does to your body: It causes the rusting of tissue. You can gauge your level of inflammation with a blood test that measures C-reactive protein (CRP), which is produced by the liver and is part of the body's battle response. A healthy level is under 1—meaning you've got less than half the chance of heart disease than if your level is greater than 3. A number above 10 suggests you may have another ailment (such as an autoimmune disease) that should be diagnosed. To reduce CRP: Try to eliminate low-grade irritants like gingivitis (floss daily) and vaginitis (see a doctor, especially if it recurs). Also move toward a Mediterranean-style diet (lots of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains; fat from olive oil; moderate amounts of wine).
Vitamin D: 30 When you're deficient in vitamin D, you may be at increased risk for heart disease, cancer, multiple sclerosis, and immune disorders, not to mention osteoporosis. To make sure you're getting enough, take a blood test for vitamin D: Your level should be greater than 30. To boost vitamin D: If you can't get 15 minutes of sun exposure daily, take a supplement containing at least 1,000 IU of D3, the most potent form of the vitamin, or chug a tablespoon of cod liver oil every morning.
Waist Size: 32.5
Ideally, your waist should measure less than half your height (do it at the belly button—go ahead and suck in). That means if you're 5'5", yours would be less than 32.5 inches. The reason: The omental fat beneath your stomach muscles causes inflammation, which drives many of your body's other critical numbers in the wrong direction. To lose inches at your waist: Focus on slicing off 100 calories a day. Since salad dressings sabotage many a good intention, one idea is to make this nutty recipe part of your routine:
1. Mix 1 tablespoon each of walnut (or hazelnut) oil, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar; add salt and pepper to taste.
2. Chop 1 small tomato, 1/4 cup diced onions, and 6 sliced mushrooms.
3. Pour the combo over 1 head of Boston lettuce.
Makes 2 servings, about 150 calories each.
Blood Sugar: 125
The other danger of omental fat is that it can block insulin's ability to work, which increases blood sugar and puts you at risk for diabetes. Your blood sugar should be less than 100 after an overnight or eight-hour fast and less than 125 if you aren't fasting. To lower blood sugar: Try chia seeds, which contain omega-3s and fiber (sprinkle them on yogurt or salads). It's believed that they form a gelatinous substance in the stomach that helps slow the speed at which sugar is absorbed.
Bone Density: -1
It's a good idea for all postmenopausal women to get a bone density scan, especially those who are not on hormone replacement therapy, stand taller than 5'7", or weigh less than 125 pounds. You should also be tested at around age 50 if your mother has had osteoporosis or either of you has had a hip fracture, if you take steroids, or if you drink excessively or smoke. The standard DEXA (dual energy X-ray absorptiometry) scan provides a T score—your bone density compared with that of a healthy young woman: Above -1 is normal; between -1 and -2.5 indicates osteopenia, which may lead to osteoporosis; below -2.5 means you have osteoporosis. To strengthen your bones: Along with 1,000 IU of vitamin D, take 1,200 milligrams of calcium and 400 milligrams of magnesium (to prevent the constipation that calcium can cause)—half in the morning, half in the evening. Also, start a program of resistance training (using gym equipment, dumbbells, or exercises like pushups and squats) for at least 30 minutes a week.