(Health.com) — Permission granted: You can officially stop feeling guilty about those little “bad-for-you” habits you can’t seem to break. Turns out, many of life’s greatest indulgences bring big health benefits — helping you stay slim, fight off the blues, and kick disease to the curb.
And we’ve got the 10 best right here, conveniently ranked by Health magazine’s expert panelists. Start at the top of the list to get the most bang for your healthy buck, and keep moving on down to learn how to boost your well-being in the most decadent ways possible.
Pleasure No. 1: Getting your zzz’s: Our experts unanimously agreed: Sleep is free and has virtually zero health drawbacks, making it the one treat no one should skimp on. Pillow time gives you energy, bolsters your immune system, boosts your memory, and even helps you get (or stay) slim.
Cut slumber short, and you’ll find it harder to make decisions (no surprise to anyone who’s struggled through a workday after a too-late bedtime). Plus, you’ll increase your risk for anxiety and depression.
“Lack of sleep has also been associated with hypertension, glucose intolerance, and belly fat — all risk factors for heart disease,” says Nieca Goldberg, M.D., medical director of the New York University-Langone Women’s Heart Program.
Aim for seven to eight hours of sleep a night, the amount that studies show is ideal. If you’re up-and-at-’em on less, don’t sweat it: Some people are just wired that way, Goldberg says. But if you have trouble falling or staying asleep, or can’t seem to drag yourself out of bed on a regular basis, talk to your doctor about possible underlying causes, such as anxiety or sleep apnea.
Pleasure No. 2: Playing hooky: There’s a reason it’s called a mental-health day. Studies confirm that time off — whether on a trip out of Dodge or a 24-hour staycation — relieves stress, lowering your blood pressure and your risk for heart disease.
It also promotes creative thinking (attention, bosses!). And women in a 2005 study who took two or more vacations per year were less likely to be depressed than women who took one every two years.
Can’t swing more than a few days away? No problem: The length of a vacation had no bearing on how happy it made people, according to a recent study in the journal Applied Research in the Quality of Life.
What’s more, the biggest thrill came before the vacation. So spread around the joy of that sweet anticipation by planning short jaunts throughout the year instead of one big blowout trip.
Pleasure No. 3: Sexual healing: Getting frisky is, hands-down, the most pleasurable form of physical activity there is. Having sex releases feel-good endorphins and oxytocin, the hormone that promotes attachment.
“That component of feeling connected to another person really benefits mental health,” says Alice Domar, Ph.D., the executive director of the Domar Center for Mind/Body Health.
Another plus: Subjects in one study who did it once or twice a week had higher levels of the antibody immunoglobulin A, which shields you from colds and other infections. Why doesn’t sex rank higher on our list? It can bring unintended consequences, from sexually transmitted infections (especially if you’re not currently monogamous and not practicing safe sex) to “oops!” pregnancies.
Pleasure No. 4: A daily chocolate fix: Our experts gave a hearty thumbs-up to nibbling a little chocolate every day — as long as you stick to a square or two of the dark kind, to minimize sugar and fat intake and maximize the benefits. (The temptation to overeat this sweet treat accounts for it not making it into the top three.)
Dark chocolate and cocoa may help lower blood pressure, reduce the risk of stroke, and provide other cardiovascular benefits, multiple studies have shown.
“Dark chocolate contains antioxidants called flavonoids, believed to improve the flexibility of blood vessels,” Goldberg explains. “That can help lower blood pressure and also make blood vessels more resistant to plaque buildup.”
Chocolate’s rep as a go-to comfort food when you’re upset has science behind it, too. A study published late last year found that eating 1.4 ounces of dark chocolate a day for two weeks reduced stress hormones in highly anxious people. Check for at least 75 percent cacao content to get the most bliss for your bite.
Pleasure No. 5: Girls’ nights out: A flurry of recent studies have shed light on how huge an impact our friends and family have on our behavior, from what we drink and eat to how much we weigh — for better and for worse.
But there’s little question that strong social ties can bring a host of benefits: fewer colds, better brain health, and a longer life, to name a few.
“Friendships are very good for you — as long as you hang out with people with whom you have a well-balanced relationship and limit your time spent with people who are toxic for you,” Domar says.
Pleasure No. 6: Full-fat dressing: For years we were trained to reach for low-fat everything, but there’s no need to deprive yourself of the real deal. Full-fat foods not only taste better but also serve a real health purpose, as long as you get the right amounts of the right kinds.
Aim for at least 10 percent of your daily fat intake to come from monounsaturated fats (found in vegetable oils, avocados, and many nuts and seeds), says Keri Gans, R.D., a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.
These fats reduce your risks of heart disease and stroke — a big deal, since coronary heart disease is the leading cause of death of American women. In fact, nearly twice as many women die of heart disease, stroke, and other cardiovascular diseases as from all forms of cancer.
Omega-3 fatty acids (found in fish such as salmon and tuna, and in flaxseed and walnuts) also lower heart disease risk and may help decrease symptoms of depression, rheumatoid arthritis, and other ailments. Plus, “when you have a meal that includes a little fat, you tend to feel more satisfied, so you eat less,” Gans says.
Still, no more than 30 percent of your daily calories should come from fat — even the good kind.
Pleasure No. 7: Your morning java: It’s completely OK if you need it to pry your eyes open in the a.m. A wealth of research suggests that coffee doesn’t just pick you up — it fights heart disease and some cancers, and it may even help you push through harder, longer workouts.
Moderate coffee-drinking in middle age has been associated with lower risks for dementia and Alzheimer’s. And a 2009 review of more than four decades of research found that for every additional cup of coffee you drink each day — high-octane or decaf — your risk of developing type 2 diabetes shrinks by 7 percent, possibly because chemicals in the beverage improve your body’s insulin sensitivity and increase metabolism.
Enjoy up to two cups a day; more than that may leave you jittery or rob you of that precious number-one pleasure — sleep.
Pleasure No. 8: Getting a rubdown: Don’t ever feel guilty about shelling out for massages.
“In general, people who are touched regularly are healthier,” Domar says. And if your budget doesn’t include spa services, consider hands-on time with your honey.
Women in a 2008 study noted less pain, depression, anxiety, and anger when they were massaged twice a week by their partners — and (bonus!) their partners reported better mental health, too.
Pleasure No. 9: Basking in the sun: Bright days really do lift our moods — sunshine is the ultimate natural antidepressant, triggering our bodies to nip production of the sleep-stimulating hormone melatonin so we’re alert, energized, and ready to face the day. Exposing bare skin to the sun also triggers the synthesis of vitamin D, a hormone that may reduce your risks for cancer, heart disease, fragile bones, and other problems.
Still, many doctors feel that no amount of unprotected sun exposure is safe (that’s the official position of the American Academy of Dermatology). So always wear sunscreen and, Goldberg says, take a D supplement if your levels are low; see your doc to find out.
Pleasure No. 10: Wine with dinner: The buzz on wine is about its heart-healthy properties, though researchers aren’t entirely sure how it works its magic. Its antioxidants may keep blood vessels flexible, or alcohol could boost HDL (good) cholesterol.
Either way, the key is moderation: one 5-ounce glass a day. More than that can raise blood pressure and pack on pounds.
“Women who drink heavily also have higher rates of breast cancer,” Goldberg warns.
More of a martini kind of gal? No problem: You can get similar perks from one liquor drink or beer a day. So go ahead — raise a glass to the pleasures of the healthy life!
If planning a retreat seems like a healthy pleasure to you check out Autumn Equinox Weekend Getaway in California.
Prepare to detoxify and cleanse for Autumn 2010.