Health & Fitness

Don't rely on your system; get a flu shot

Have you been hoping your immune system is tough enough to shrug off the flu virus, or that taking extra vitamin D-3 will shield you from this year's strain? Or figuring it's not worth spending 25 bucks on a flu shot this late in the season? That's like hoping a rain hat will protect you in a hurricane.

If you're among the 60 percent of adults who are still flip-flopping about a flu shot or have pretty much written it off, better start saving up your sick days: Flu season usually peaks in February, and the virus waits to sucker-punch 20 percent of its victims in March or April. Days of body aches, fever, hacking cough and general misery still threaten. By contrast, it takes minutes to get a flu shot at your drugstore. Totally worth it.

What about other reasons to skip it?

1. Despite online rumors, no one's ever done a head-to-head study comparing any form of vitamin D to the flu vaccine. Even the most ardent medical supporters of the vitamin (we're big fans of D-3) get flu shots.

2. Don't overestimate your immune system. While lots of people say they're relying on their "natural" immunity, acquired from previous cases of flu, those antibodies won't help you fight off the newest strains.

3. Tight budget? Thanks to health care reform, more people than ever qualify for free vaccines (ask your doctor or insurer). Paying out of pocket? At $25 to $30, it's still a great deal.

4. Needle-phobic? Get a spritz of the nasal vaccine.

When weight becomes a driving risk

You've heard about many of the disabilities throwing extra weight around can bring. If you know someone who is overweight (let's call him Al), we hope you'll pass this column along. There's one more he needs to know about.

Every time Al gets into the car, it could be the last thing he does.

Sure, that's true for everyone. But the risks are much higher for Al. Moderately obese people are 21 percent more likely to die in a serious car crash; morbidly obese folks, 56 percent more likely.

Why? Blame it partly on buff crash-test dummies. They don't look like Al. They're based on average body sizes from 20 years ago. So the "average Joe" is the person the cars are designed to best protect.

Even if Al makes it to the hospital (not always a fast process, as many ambulance gurneys aren't designed to carry the extremely obese), Al faces nearly twice the complications

So these tips are for Al:

1. Look for cars whose seats have a big range of adjustability. If your body is practically up against the steering wheel, there's less time to reduce momentum.

2. Drive less; walk more. This one's a twofer: reduces accidents and increases activity, a critical step to losing weight and protecting against other weight-related hazards for Al (heart disease; stroke; diabetes; breast, prostate and colon cancers; and memory dysfunction).

3. Walk every day with friends. You'll keep each other motivated to continue striding toward living longer and feeling younger. Plus, you get more miles per gallon when you walk.

Bigger brains, better memories

Forgetting things? Can't remember where you put that dang whatchamacallit? Listen up. We have something for you that can do what no drug on the market can: improve your memory and even ward off Alzheimer's disease. It won't cost you a dime. Ready?

Walk out the door. (Wait, finish reading this first!)

Yep, it's that simple. Put one foot in front of the other for 30 minutes a day, and you'll cut your risk of memory loss and Alzheimer's disease — the ultimate memory thief — by 50 percent, according to a new study. Even if you already have early signs of cognitive decline or Alzheimer's, walking five miles a week could put the skids on that.

So how does a walk around the block turn aging brain cells into whiz kids?

Strolling makes your brain bigger. And with this organ, size does matter. Increased blood flow to your neurons from even mild aerobic activity prevents the brain shrinkage that occurs with age and accelerates with Alzheimer's. Walking sends fresh oxygen and blood straight to the parts of the brain that keep you witty and clever enough to actually remember a punch line.

Boosting brainpower isn't the only benefit. Walking perks up your mood, adds energy and cuts your chances of developing diabetes. Even slow walkers have fewer heart attacks and strokes than couch potatoes do.

Middle age, without the spread

Middle-aged spread is not as inevitable as plastic surgery in Hollywood. If you're physically active throughout early adulthood, you can look forward to a slimmer waist and a trimmer body in midlife than your couch-potato cousins.

For women, the numbers are dramatic: It typically means your waistline's 1.5 inches smaller and your body's 13.4 pounds slimmer. Guys wind up 5.7 pounds lighter, with waists 1.2 inches smaller. (That translates to about three years less of disability and three years more of greater sex.) All it takes, according to a new study, is moderate-to-vigorous exercise for 150 minutes a week — 30 minutes a day, with two days off.

Not a jock when you were younger? No worries. Start now. After only two months of strength training (three 40-minute sessions a week, including warm-ups), women 65 to 75 can recover a decade of muscle loss, and men can recover two decades.

Here's how to get started and stick to it:

1. Find your true motivation. To stick with a plan, ask yourself why you want to get moving. To look better? Ease aches? Get stronger? Enjoy more years with the grandkids? Now hold that thought.

2. Start slow. We're glad you're revved up, but overdoing it early invites strains and injuries that sap your goals.

3. Match activities to your personality. Love parties and being sociable? Sign up for Zumba classes. Like moving at your own pace but don't trust yourself to stick with it? Schedule exercise dates with a friend or your grandchild — they'll love it. Or spring for a trainer.

Then buy a full-length mirror to admire the results.

Cut the lights, sleep better, lose weight

Satellite pictures reveal that big chunks of planet Earth are lit up like a Christmas tree at night. It's a breathtaking sight. But here are three great reasons to impose your own blackout at bedtime:

Dim your obesity risk. Light at night (all except red light waves) seems to disrupt your body's internal dinner bell, making it ring "time to eat" at the wrong times, and also prodding you to eat more.

Avoid a hidden depression trigger. Whether it's the glare of a streetlight or the glow of a computer screen, having lights on while you're sleeping can reduce connections between your brain cells. You won't just forget who won last year's Super Bowl (the Saints) or this year's "Dancing With the Stars" (Jennifer Grey), new research shows that you're also at greater risk for depression.

Switch off a cancer promoter. The connection isn't clear yet, but it's sure there: Several studies show that light exposure at night (whether you work the late shift or during sleep) increases your risk for some cancers. Light exposure at night may encourage tumor growth. And prostate cancer rates are higher in countries with the most nighttime illumination.

What's going on? Light (except red light waves) seems to reduce levels of melatonin, a hormone that helps ensure a restorative night's sleep and suppresses cancer growth. So, do what it takes — pull down the shades, close the curtains and/or use a sleep mask (especially if you're a night-shift worker) —to get your nightly quotient of darkness.