April 31, 2013 -- intro: We know a bad habit when we see one. Smoking? Check! Not exercising? Duh! Gorging on doughnuts? Of course! But what about, say, eating lunch at your desk? Turns out that can be worse for you than you'd think (and here we were just trying to be extra productive).
It's not always easy to know what's good for us and what's not, especially because medical advice keeps changing as new research emerges. (Remember when eating eggs was considered a no-no?) But never fear: We have the lowdown on 10 potentially worrisome everyday habits so you will know just when you can—and can't—relax.
quicklist: 1category: Health Habits Worth Rethinkingtitle: You Skip a Birth-Control Pill Now and Then url: text: The verdict: It won't kill you, but...
It could get you pregnant. For every 100 women using oral contraceptives, between two and nine get pregnant each year, mostly because of errors, like forgetting a pill or starting a pack late, says Lauren Streicher, MD, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine. If you miss your daily dose: "Take it as soon as you remember, or take two the next day," she says. "If you skip two pills, take two pills for two days, and use backup birth control, like a condom, for a week."
The best birth control is the one you use consistently, so if you find you're having trouble staying on top of a daily pill, talk to your doc about changing things up—IUDs and implants, for instance, are effective set-it-and-forget-it options.
quicklist: 2category: Health Habits Worth Rethinkingtitle: You Load Up Your Coffee With Extras url: text: The verdict: It won't kill you, but...
A heavy hand with the condiments adds empty calories to your diet—especially if you go for extra-large drinks, because you're adding more flavorings than you would for a small cup. And we're not just talking about whipped cream and mocha syrup: Even stirring in half-and-half and a couple of packs of sugar can add 50 calories to your five-calorie cup of joe. Over a year, if you don't offset those extra calories each day, that's enough to pack on 5 extra pounds.
That said, if you're generally a healthy eater, then a splash of milk and a little sugar are "not a problem," says Kelly Morrow, RD, associate professor of nutrition at Bastyr University in Seattle. Just stick to real milk. Typically low-fat nondairy creamers are made of mostly corn syrup—i.e., added sugar—and trans fats, which research suggests can up your risk for heart disease and other ailments.
quicklist: 3category: Health Habits Worth Rethinkingtitle: You Weigh Yourself Daily url: text: The verdict: No worries! Really!
Now, we're not suggesting that you step on the scale every 15 minutes: Body weight can fluctuate by several pounds throughout the day, and watching it bounce up and down like the stock market will drive you bonkers. And it may not help you actually lose weight, according to a recent review of research in The New England Journal of Medicine.
But weighing in once a day, in the morning, after you pee and before you put on your clothes, can be a smart way to keep tabs on whether you've been gaining over time, says Rena Wing, PhD, professor of psychiatry at Brown University and director of the Weight Control and Diabetes Research Center at the Miriam Hospital in Providence, R.I., home of the National Weight Control Registry—a database of more than 10,000 people who have lost at least 30 pounds and kept it off for at least a year.
About 36 percent of people in the NWCR weigh themselves every day. The trick is to approach the scale as a source of data, not judgment, Wing notes. So even if you're up a smidge, don't let it tank your day. "Daily weigh-ins allow you to detect small changes before they become big changes," Dr. Wing says. "If you're up 1 pound, you can adjust your eating for a few days and lose it. If you're up 10 pounds, that's going to take some time and work."
quicklist: 4category: Health Habits Worth Rethinkingtitle: You Use Your Kitchen Sponge Till It Shreds url: text: The verdict: It won't kill you, but...
That sponge sitting in your sink is germier than you might realize, according to a study in the American Journal of Infection Control, which found that squeezing out a wet kitchen sponge could leave up to a million potentially illness-causing bacteria (like salmonella and E. coli) on your hands. If you use it to clean your sink or counters—especially after you've mopped up raw meat and poultry juices and only quickly rinsed the sponge—you're just spreading those germs all over the place. Ick, right?
That doesn't mean you should never reuse a sponge. You just have to clean it thoroughly enough to zap the bacteria in it, either by running it through the dishwasher or nuking the damp sponge in the microwave on high for one to two minutes once a week, says Marianne Smith Edge, RD, senior vice president of nutrition and food-safety communications for the International Food Information Council in Washington, D.C.
quicklist: 5category: Health Habits Worth Rethinkingtitle: You Scarf Down Lunch at Your Desk url: text: The verdict: It won't kill you, but...
When you nosh as you work, especially if you're sitting in front of your computer, you're more likely to overeat, according to research in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. When we're distracted, the study showed, we tend not to recall very much about what we've just put in our mouths. "That blunts the satiety"—that is, fullness—"response and leads to overeating," explains lead author Jeff Brunstrom, PhD, professor of experimental psychology at University of Bristol in England.
Try to relocate to your office's kitchen or cafeteria, or a spot outside, to eat lunch. But if you don't have that luxury (and really, who does?), Dr. Brunstrom recommends at least turning away from the computer screen for the duration of your meal so you can savor each bite.
quicklist: 6category: Health Habits Worth Rethinkingtitle: You Text While You Walk url: text: The verdict: Danger! Danger!
Being absorbed in your smartphone while crossing the street is a really great way to become roadkill. In a recent study, people who traversed several busy intersections while texting were four times less likely than nontexters to look before they crossed, cross with the light or stay in the crosswalk. It also took them two seconds longer to navigate the intersection.
"Crossing less cautiously and spending more time in the intersection raises the risk of being hit by a car. We certainly saw some near-misses," says senior study author Beth Ebel, MD, director of the Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center at the University of Washington. "It's dangerous to text when you're doing tasks that require your full concentration."
quicklist: 7category: Health Habits Worth Rethinkingtitle: You Sit Your Bare Butt on Public Toilet Seats. url: text: The verdict: No worries! Really!
The toilet seat is probably the cleanest thing you'll touch in a public restroom, according to research done at the University of Arizona, largely because anxious women either use those seat covers or otherwise wipe the seat before touching down. So go ahead and make yourself comfortable! "There's this idea that if you sit on a toilet seat you're going to get some dreaded disease," Dr. Streicher says. "That's just not going to happen. Things like gonorrhea, syphilis and HIV don't live on surfaces. And your vagina doesn't touch the toilet seat; it hangs over the bowl."
So hovering is unnecessary—and might be more of a nuisance than anything: "When you crouch, you might not empty your bladder completely, so you'll have to go again sooner," Dr. Streicher says. "I'm a gynecologist, and I sit down firmly on public toilet seats."
quicklist: 8category: Health Habits Worth Rethinkingtitle: You Pop OTC Pain Relievers Like Candy url: text: The verdict: Danger! Danger!
Stuff hurts and you want it to stop, so you pop an Advil or a Tylenol. Nothing wrong with that. But where this habit starts getting a bit troublesome is if you're regularly taking a lot more than the prescribed daily amount. That can lead to liver issues if acetaminophen is your pain reliever of choice.
If you prefer NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), stomach and/or kidney problems can occur. And if you're one of the 25 percent of women who get migraines, taking over-the-counter pain relievers two or three times a week for weeks on end can actually cause more headaches, says Brian Grosberg, MD, co-director of the Montefiore Headache Center in New York City. (That's due to a rebound effect that can occur after your body gets used to medication.)
That doesn't mean you're stuck stiff-upper-lipping it. "If you need to take a pain reliever a couple of times a day for a couple of weeks for knee pain or after surgery at your doctor's recommendation, that's OK," Dr. Grosberg says. "If you're going to take more than the prescribed dose for an extended period, tell your doctor."
quicklist: 9category: Health Habits Worth Rethinkingtitle: You Blow Off Going to the Doctor url: text: The verdict: It won't kill you, but...
It's very important that you get all your regular preventive screenings, like Pap smears (now recommended every three years for most women), mammograms and cholesterol tests. And you really should visit your doctor if you're not feeling well, says Ateev Mehtora, MD, associate professor of general internal medicine at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. "In a 2007 study we did, most preventive tests ended up being ordered when patients saw their physicians because they were feeling ill."
In an ideal world, you'd also see your primary-care doctor for annual physicals. That way, she can check your vitals, update your chart and recommend any screenings you're missing out on—and you have a chance to talk to her about any issues you've been having.
That said, if you slip up and skip a year, don't panic: A recent Danish study found that going in for yearly checkups simply because it's "that time again" doesn't lower your risk of an early death. However, do schedule that appointment, if you can, just to be on the safe side.
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