Health & Fitness

Underestimate your willpower when it comes to eating snacks

Ever start losing weight, only to find yourself ripping through your officemate's candy stash or adding a cinnamon bun to your nonfat latte order? Don't blame your lack of willpower. Turns out that overestimating your ability to resist temptation is what causes cave-ins.

Psychologists staged a diabolical experiment, offering snacks to people who were hungry or full and telling them they'd get paid if they returned the treats, uneaten, in a week. People with full stomachs believed they had plenty of willpower and chose the most irresistible snacks. Hungry ones said their willpower was iffy and chose less-tempting options. The winners? The hungry crowd. They were a third more likely not to give in.

What's with that? When you believe your willpower's stronger than kryptonite, you think you can handle a peek at the doughnuts, just one bite of triple-cheese pizza or a sliver of chocolate cheesecake. (You know what happens next!) But in a humbler state of mind, when you realize you're short on super-powers, you're more likely to avoid temptation.

The real-life lesson: Underestimate your willpower. Rely on avoidance tactics instead. Your office has cream cheese and bagels every Friday? Pack a juicy peach and stay clear of the coffee room. There's half a birthday cake left after the party? Give it to the neighbors. The grandkids want ice cream? Wait in the car. It's way easier to be smart than strong.

Drug-free hot-flash relief

When a hot flash drenches your clothes, reddens your cheeks and makes you feel like you ate a jalapeno, what you want most is a shower. Next, you want to never have another one. We can't help with the shower, but these research-proven steps give you a good shot at turning off your personal inferno.

Cool off with a mind trick. Conjuring up a chilly scene worked for women who had hot flashes. Waterfalls and rain topped the "whew, that helped" list, followed by wind, mountains, forests, snow, frost and air-conditioned movie theaters. Try it at home with this guided imagery exercise: Close your eyes, take a few deep, calming breaths, then focus all of your senses on beaming yourself into the chilliest scene you can think of; linger for a while. Need help doing this?

Lose a little weight. Women with hot flashes who lost a few pounds within six months were twice as likely to report hot-flash relief. Those who shed about 13 pounds or took 2 inches off their waists had 32 percent fewer hot flashes. Researchers aren't sure what doused the flames — the weight loss, the healthy diet or the 200 minutes a week of brisk activity (about 30 minutes of fast walking a day) —but if you need to lose, this drug-free combo of coolers is worth a try. Slimmer and cooler? Hot stuff.

Get ready for snack rehab

When it comes to snacking on packaged sweets, Utah and New Jersey take the cake. If you're an average Joe or Jane living in either state, you ate 126 to 138 pounds of sugary treats in 2006 (when the last national survey was done). Those of us in the other 48 are not off the hook. We averaged at least 93 pounds each, not counting sweets eaten away from home. The US of A is clearly in need of some serious snack rehab. Try this six-step program:

1. Clear your sweet-tooth stash from your fridge, pantry, desk. Be tough. Dump anything with more than 4 grams of added sugars per serving.

2. Don't buy more. In fact, don't even look down the candy and cookie aisles in the grocery store.

3. Be prepared. Make enough grab-and-go bags of nuts and dried fruit, or chopped veggies and nonfat yogurt dip, to last a week.

4. Go on automatic. Have the same snack every afternoon, like air-popped popcorn seasoned with flavored cooking spray and garlic salt, or balsamic vinegar (try it; you'll be amazed). Eliminating choices helps keep you from thinking, "Wouldn't a Twinkie be good about now?"

5. Take a walk. When a Kit Kat craving hits, a brisk walk will release the same feel-good brain chemicals that eating sweets does.

6. Be kind. If you slip and buy a box of frozen Dibs, don't beat yourself up. Just go back to No. 1 and start over.

Unleash the Fido effect

Taking your dog for a walk makes your pet do a happy dance — and sets off a cascade of lasting health benefits for you, too. Dog owners in a recent study who didn't take their four-legged friends on regular outings were 58 percent more likely to tip the scales too high for their health and nearly twice as likely to have high blood pressure as dog owners who took Spot for a daily stroll.

And compared with regular dog walkers, people who didn't own a furry companion were:

* About twice as likely to smoke

* About twice as likely to have high cholesterol and depression

* About three times more likely to have diabetes.

Another bonus of caring for a canine: All dog owners had stronger social-support networks — a proven stress reducer and health enhancer — than non-owners.

Getting the most from your relationship with your dog doesn't take much time. Dog-walkers in this study were active for about 30 extra minutes a day — a small investment in leash time that pays big dividends. Turns out hoofing it with Trixie or Jasper can speed your walking pace 28 percent, improve your balance, lower stress and even reduce the number of visits you make to the doctor.

The moral to this shaggy dog story? If you're among the 40 percent of American households that have at least one dog, tie up your sneakers, get out the leash and hit the sidewalk. If you don't have a pup, get out there anyway; you might meet some nice doggies along the way.