Here's more proof that bigger isn't always better: Several recent studies show that sometimes the smallest changes (like how you brew your tea or when you schedule a medical exam) can have a huge payoff when it comes to improving your health. Whether it's timing, technique, or the type of food you eat, here's how to fine-tune your behavior to get the best results.
1. Take a 'caffeine nap'
Having a cup of coffee before closing your eyes is the most effective way to combat daytime drowsiness, according to research. Sounds counterintuitive, but it takes 20 minutes for the caffeine to get into your bloodstream. So if you take the recommended 20-minute nap (any longer and you can wake up groggy), caffeine's stimulating effects will be kicking in when your nap is ending. "You'll awaken feeling alert from the coffee and refreshed from the nap," says Jim Maas, PhD, a professor of psychology at Cornell University.
Expert tip: To help yourself fall asleep, try to simulate bedtime, even if that just means putting your head down on the desk or reclining in your chair at work. If a nap isn't possible, closing your eyes and meditating is better than nothing to refresh your mind and body, says Maas.
2. Walk backward
People performed difficult tasks faster after walking backward than they did after walking forward or even sideways in a recent study. The scientists believe that the "avoidance" mode of walking backward, similar to how you might retreat from a dangerous situation, helps focus your thinking.
Expert tip: Practice backward walking on a treadmill, where the rails can be used for support, advises Janet S. Dufek, PhD, an associate professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. Try walking forward for 5 minutes and backward for 2 minutes, then repeat the pattern throughout your workout. Caution: Walking in reverse is much harder, so slow your pace by at least 50%.
3. Eat low-glycemic carbs before the gym
High-fiber cereals and breads and most veggies metabolize slowly, helping you burn more fat — as much as 55% — while you work out, find British researchers. So go for whole grains and produce and avoid refined foods and sweetened drinks, which spike blood sugar and produce higher concentrations of circulating glucose and insulin, in turn inhibiting fat burning. Low-GI foods also produce hormones that suppress hunger.
Expert tip: After exercise, opt for foods loaded with protein, such as Greek yogurt, fat-free milk, egg whites, and peanut butter — the protein helps rebuild muscles.
4. Wait to brush your teeth after meals
Acids in foods and drinks can soften tooth enamel, making teeth more sensitive and vulnerable to damage from brushing. Since you don't always know if a meal contains highly acidic foods, wait an hour before you pick up your toothbrush regardless of what you eat. Bonus: Waiting also gives your saliva a chance to wash away acids and for the enamel to reharden.
Expert tip: Rinse thoroughly with water or unsweetened tea to dilute acid while you wait the hour to brush (or if you're not able to brush). Both green and black tea kill germs that cause tooth decay and bad breath, and they're natural sources of protective fluoride.
5. Brew tea for up to 5 minutes
The longer the steep time, the greater the quantity of health-boosting flavonoids, explains Jeffrey Blumberg, PhD, professor of nutrition at Tufts University. Drink tea with a squeeze of lemon juice and you'll increase antioxidant levels by up to 80%.
Expert tip: If you like tea with milk, go easy: Milk may reduce the absorption of tea's beneficial components, says Blumberg. This may explain why the consumption of black tea, which is associated with the reduction of heart disease, provides greater benefits to folks in the Netherlands and the United States — but not in Great Britain, where adding milk to tea is more common.
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6. Get your colonoscopy in the AM
The rate of polyp detection is significantly higher when tests are done earlier in the day, possibly because physicians aren't fatigued. The quality of bowel preparation is also better during morning screenings.
Expert tip: To ease the toughest part of the colonoscopy — the prep to eliminate fecal matter so the physician has a clear view of the colon — ask your doc for a "low volume" prep, which is half the amount previously required for cleansing, suggests Carole A. Burke, MD, director of the Center for Colon Polyp and Cancer Prevention at the Cleveland Clinic. You can also request a "split-dose" regimen. Research shows that taking a dose both the night before and a few hours prior to the procedure results in a cleaner colon too — so polyps are more likely to be detected.