The 12 days of good health

This season's must-have gifts for optimal health and longevity.
© MSN Healthy Living // © MSN Health
Pipers piping and lords-a-leaping aren’t likely on your holiday wish list, but why not make each day an opportunity to create a new, healthy habit? Check out this list of gifts to give yourself and reap the benefits all year long.
On the first day of good health my true love gave to me...1 ounce of dark chocolate
Eating chocolate to improve heart health sounds like wishful thinking, but it's true, says Enas A. Enas, MD, a cardiologist on staff at Advocate Good Samaritan Hospital and author of How to Beat the Heart Disease Epidemic Among South Asians (2005). The caveat: the chocolate must be dark (not milk), and can't be combined with nuts, caramel and other goodies. "Flavonoids, naturally-occurring antioxidants in cocoa, block free radicals associated with heart disease," says Enas. "At the same time, they lower blood pressure and improve blood flow to the brain and heart."
Research also indicates that dark chocolate, consumed in small quantities, improves the body’s sensitivity to insulin, which in turn can help with blood glucose control. And while dark chocolate is no substitute for diabetes medicine, this small indulgence can lessen the feeling of deprivation in many diabetics.
For the sake of weight management, limit yourself to one ounce a day, approximately 100 calories.
--By Linda Melone for MSN Healthy Living
1 of 13 Dark chocolate squares (© Chris Young/Food And Drink Photos/age fotostock)

On the second day of good health my true love gave to me...2 great big hugs

Hugs may be the easiest and fastest way to de-stress. "Hugs release oxytocin, a brain chemical known as the 'love hormone,'" says Elizabeth R. Lombardo, PhD, MS, psychologist and author of  A Happy You: Your Ultimate Prescription for Happiness, (Morgan-James, 2009). The oxytocin also lowers blood pressure and heart rate, according to a study from the University of North Carolina. "Hugs also strengthen relationships, promote trust and, therefore, help combat issues such as depression," says Lombardo.
2 of 13 Woman smiling and hugging man (© Jose Luis Pelaez Inc/Blend Images/Getty Images)

On the third day of good health my true love gave to me...3 ounces of salmon

The omega-3 fatty acids in three ounces of salmon help protect your heart and brain, says Jacob Teitelbaum, MD. "They act as natural anti-inflammatory agents, decreasing pain while lowering your risk of heart attack and stroke." Also found in tuna and other fish, omega-3's protect against metabolic syndrome (risk factors linked to heart disease) and type 2 diabetes, according to a recent study from Texas Tech University School of Medicine. It may also help ward off depression. Choose wild salmon over farm raised for a higher percentage of omega-3's. 
3 of 13 Plate of salmon (© Stock Connection/SuperStock )

On the fourth day of good health my true love gave to me...4-ounces of red wine

Kicking back with a glass of wine after a stressful day may be the most pleasant way to boost heart health. Red wine's flavonoids, antioxidants found in grape skin and other berries, raise HDL, the "good" cholesterol, and help prevent heart disease, particularly in middle-aged men and women, says Enas. Yet, the heart-healthy benefits of a four-ounce glass of vino apply only when imbibing in moderation. "Women should limit themselves to one, four-ounce glass a day and men to two, four-ounce servings daily."
4 of 13 Glass of red wine (© Hammond/PhotoCuisine/Corbis)

On the fifth day of good health my true love gave to me...5 golden raisins

When hunger pangs hit while you're out holiday shopping, it's easy to reach for a quick fix. Problem is, you're less likely to make healthy choices. Golden raisins mixed with nuts make a quick, portable, healthy snack and includes both carbs and a bit of protein and healthy fat, says Keri Gans, RD, a New York based registered dietician and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association (ADA). Keep in mind, however, that two tablespoons of raisins qualifies as a fruit serving at 60 calories. "Limit snacks to 200 calories," Gans says. 
5 of 13 Golden raisins (© Michael Rosenfeld/FoodPix/Getty Images)

On the sixth day of good health my true love gave to me...6 days of activity

It may be unrealistic to try to lose weight over the holidays, so strive for weight maintenance, says Russell Pate, PhD, professor of exercise science at the University of South Carolina and a spokesperson for The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). ACSM recommends 30 minutes of exercise on most days of the week for adults. "Planning ahead is key," says Pate. "Mornings often work best, since you're less likely to encounter distractions." Go for a brisk walk or pop in an exercise DVD for a home workout. 
6 of 13 Woman on exercise cycle (© Paul Burns/Getty Images)

On the seventh day of good health my true love gave to me...7 hours of sleep

Too many late-night parties can leave you fatigued and sleep deprived. "Most adults need a minimum of seven to seven and a half hours sleep," says Michael Thorpy, MD, director of the Sleep/Wake Disorders Center, New York Montefiore Medical Center. Memory, concentration and coordination become compromised otherwise. Plus, recent studies show chronic sleep deprivation may be associated with weight gain and even cardiovascular risk factors, says Thorpy.
7 of 13 Man and woman sleeping in bed (© Inspirestock Inc./Alamy)

On the eight day of good health my true love gave to me...8 ounces of Greek yogurt

Without the slightly bitter tang of traditional yogurt, Greek yogurt makes it easy to get your bone-building calcium requirement for the day. "Eight ounces of Greek yogurt contains approximately 300 mgs of calcium," says Jeri Nieves, PhD, associate professor of clinical epidemiology at Columbia University and an expert with the National Osteoporosis Foundation (NOF). "People under the age of 50 need 1000 mg of calcium a day; people over 50 need 1200 mg," says Nieves. Stir in chopped almonds to increase the bone-building benefit.
8 of 13 Cup of yogurt (© Adam Gault/Alamy )

On the ninth day of good health my true love gave to me...9 glasses of water

9 of 13 Man drinking water (© Dana Hursey/Masterfile)

On the tenth day of good health my true love gave to me...10 minutes of sunshine

Looking for ways to boost your vitamin D? Ten minutes of sunshine is enough to give you the equivalent of 5,000 to 10,000 IU of vitamin D, says Mark Moyad, MD, MPH, director of preventive medicine, University of Michigan. "Sun or UVB light strikes the skin (any part) and turns your body into a vitamin D3 making factory, even if you're wearing sunscreen," says Moyad. During the winter months you make only several 100 IU's due to the sun's lower intensity. Supplement with 400 IU's, the amount recommended by the Institute of Medicine as sufficient to meet most people's needs.
10 of 13 Woman bundled in jacket in the sun (© Corbis)