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Originally published Monday, May 28, 2012 at 5:30 AM

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Eat, exercise, relax and sleep your way to good health

Columnist Carrie Dennett provides the four keys to good health: low stress, exercise, sleep and nutrition.

Special to The Seattle Times

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Maybe if some of us remembered these lessons from elementary school we wouldn't be... MORE
I think a lot of Ms. Dennett's message is, "keep it simple stupid." Of course... MORE
These points are definitely the basics, however, many people really don't know that not... MORE

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It goes without saying that I'm a fan of good nutrition. Building meals and snacks from a variety of healthful foods, while allowing for a bit of indulgence, can yield countless benefits. But there is more to optimal health than what you put in your mouth. A healthy body is best cultivated with a multipronged approach:

Exercise. Simply put, our bodies are meant to move. This makes exercise nutrition's perfect partner in health. Yes, nutrients such as calcium and vitamins D and K are important for healthy bones, but so is regular weight-bearing exercise. Separately, a healthy diet and exercise each plays an important role in keeping your heart healthy and preventing or managing type 2 diabetes — but the benefits of both together may be greater.

Even better, you don't have to be an athlete to reap the benefits of exercise. For general good health, a brisk 30-minute walk five days a week will do. Yes, research shows that you can divide the 30 minutes into three 10-minute walks, if that works best for you.

Stress management. A burst of adrenaline when you narrowly avoid an accident is normal. However, if you live in a state of unrelenting or frequently recurring stress, your body never gets a break from stress hormones. That's not normal — or healthy.

One of these stress hormones, cortisol, can raise your blood sugar, constrict your blood vessels and flood your bloodstream with fatty acids. This can contribute to diabetes and high blood pressure. It also can cause fat to accumulate around your middle — the unhealthiest place to store it. All of that can increase your risk of heart disease.

Stress and elevated cortisol also can make you crave foods full of salt, sugar and fat. We don't munch on apples and green salads when we're stressed — we grab ice cream or potato chips.

Sleep. For optimal health, your body needs to rest, repair and recharge each night. If you are chronically short on sleep, your cortisol levels tend to be higher, and your levels of growth hormone, which are essential to cell repair, lower. Other hormones can get out of whack, too, potentially leading to weight gain. Plus, you'll be tired, making it harder to muster the energy to exercise or prepare healthy meals. Lack of sleep also can hinder your immune system's ability to fight off everything from the common cold to cancer cells.

In the short term, a healthy diet and lifestyle will help you look and feel your best. The long-term benefits are even better. For many of the so-called "lifestyle-related" related diseases such as type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and heart disease, combining healthy habits with good nutrition can be good medicine, often reducing, and sometimes eliminating, the need for actual medicine.

You have only one body, so take good care of it. Now there's some food for thought.

Next time: The hope, hype and truth about vitamin D.

Carrie Dennett: nutritionbycarrie@gmail.com; Dennett is a graduate student in the Nutritional Sciences Program at UW; her blog is nutritionbycarrie.com.

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