The Independent: You don't have to follow a punishing diet or spend hours on the treadmill.

The path to a healthier way of life may be easier than you think. Roger Dobson reports Published: 02 January 2007 ON YOUR BIKE Cycling is a healthy, low-impact form of exercise, and research shows that cycling from two to four hours per week helps you lose weight, and reduces the risk of cardiovascular diseases, bowel cancer, diabetes and stress. Research involving 21,000 people in Finland found that people who cycled for more that 30 minutes a day had a lower risk of developing diabetes. WALK TO WORK Exercise doesn't have to be vigorous, and regular walking can lower the risk of heart disease and osteoarthritis, improve mood, increase good cholesterol, reduce blood pressure, and extend lifespan. Ten days of walking led to a 36 per cent drop in symptoms in depressed men and women. Walking also increases the production of a hormone that reduces worry and anxiety. After 36 weeks of 10,000 steps a day, overweight men and women lost seven pounds of fat, and reduced their waists by half an inch, say researchers at Ball State University. Ulster University research shows that walking twice a week for 45 minutes reduces blood pressure and prevents weight gain. EAT MORE FISH According to more than 10,000 pieces of research, there's not much that fish and its oils won't either protect you from or treat, from backache to heart disease and cancer. A study at Harvard shows that women who eat plenty of sardines, tuna and salmon during pregnancy may have brighter toddlers, while work at the Medical University of Vienna found that omega-3 fatty acids from fish may be an effective treatment for symptoms of autism. A study by Suleyman Demirel University in Kazakhstan links fish-eating to later menopause. BE HAPPIER Being happy boosts the immune system, lowers the risk of infections, including flu, reduces blood pressure and extends lifespan. Research at University College London shows happiness has powerful effects on blood pressure, heart disease and inflammation. Heart rates of the most happy were 68.4 beats per minute, compared to 74 for the least happy. University of Pittsburgh researchers found that the more optimistic a woman was, the less artery disease she had. Over three years, the arteries of the optimistic women thickened by only one per cent, compared to almost seven per cent in the least optimistic. Men and women classed as positive and happy types were three times less likely to become infected when exposed to a laboratory flu virus. GET A HOBBY Hobbies lower stress levels, ease depression, improve mood and immune system, and may lower the risk of high blood pressure and heart disease. According to research at Maastricht University, men who do not have hobbies are much more likely to be sick and to be absent from work more often than men who have hobbies. A study

at Pamukkale University in Turkey found that doctors who did not have a hobby had the highest rates of depression, while a Mayo Clinic survey of cancer specialists showed they rated having a hobby as a key "wellness strategy". MAKE YOUR MARRIAGE WORK Having a good marriage can extend your life, reduce the risk of catching a cold, and lower blood pressure and heart disease. Researchers at Birmingham University have found a direct link between higher levels of antibodies to flu and being in a happy marriage. They looked at men and women given the flu vaccine and measured the antibody response over the next 12 months. The results are showing that those who had high marital satisfaction had the higher antibody responses to the flu strain after just four weeks. A University of Tampere, Finland, study shows that single men are 70 per cent more likely to have a premature end than married men. EAT DARK CHOCOLATE Once considered unhealthy, dark chocolate with high levels of cocoa beans full of antioxidants, is now considered healthy in moderation, with research showing it can lower the risk of heart disease and stroke, reduce blood pressure, insulin resistance and bad cholesterol. Pennsylvania State University research shows it may lower cardiovascular disease, while Harvard University researchers calculate that flavonoids in dark chocolate lower the risk of dying from heart disease by 20 per cent. AVOID WEEKEND SLEEP-INS Research at the University of Adelaide shows that staying in bed for two extra hours on Sunday increases sleepiness and infection risk on both Monday and Tuesday. It's all because the body clock gets confused. GET RICH Money may not be able to buy good health, but it may lead to happiness, and less depression. Research based on lottery winners shows that their mental wellbeing and happiness was much higher than those who had small wins, who were in turn happier than losers. The Warwick University study based on men and women who had medium-sized lottery wins of between £1,000 and £120,000, shows there was no initial burst of happiness at the moment of winning, and that it took up to two years to kick in, possibly because it was spending the money rather than winning that was important. GET MORE SUN While skin cancer is a real problem, with more than 7,000 people diagnosed with malignant melanoma each year in the UK, there's growing evidence of the beneficial effects of exposure to the sun for a wide range of conditions, including breast, lung and colon cancer, depression, pain, fertility, diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, multiple sclerosis, psoriasis, TB and rheumatoid arthritis. Research at the University of Tasmania shows that higher sun exposure at the ages of six to 15 an average of two to three hours per day in summer - more than halved the risk of getting multiple sclerosis. "Sunlight can have beneficial effects, and may protect against autoimmune diseases including type 1 diabetes and multiple sclerosis," say researchers from Sussex University. LAUGH A LOT Laughing boosts the immune system, and reduces pain and diabetes symptoms. It can also help you lose weight. Researchers have worked out that laughter burns up calories at the rate of 2.31 a minute. An average day's laughter gets rid of all the calories in a pepperoni pizza.

A study at Gifu University, Japan, shows that laughter can ease the symptoms in patients with type 2 diabetes by changing the blood levels of a number of chemicals. A study at Meharry Medical College in Nashville shows that mirthful laughter affects the levels of inflammatory chemicals in the blood of people with rheumatoid arthritis. DRINK TEA Tea, both black and green, has been linked to a wide range of health benefits, from helping to prevent Alzheimer's, heart disease, stroke and cancer, and flu, to hair growth and weight loss. A King's College study says that three or more cups a day reduce the risk of heart disease, and that there is some evidence that it can improve mental performance. Research at McGill University in Montreal points to a protective effect for Alzheimer's. When Seoul University dermatologists put green tea on human hair cells they found it stimulated hair growth. An antioxidant called EGCG is thought to be responsible. EAT MORE CURRY Long underrated as a health food, curry is now being linked to a number of positive effects largely thanks to the curcumin in turmeric - including improved insulin levels and protection from heart disease, Alzheimer's, cognitive decline, stress and depression. Curries can also help you lose weight. It's thought that meals containing chillies burn up more calories than other meals. CHEW GUM Good for oral health, especially the sugar-free type, but has other advantages too. Research at Glasgow Caledonian University shows that people who chew gum eat fewer snacks and 10 per cent fewer calories. It is also good for face muscles and for high blood pressure and diabetes. A study at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital, California, suggests it might be good for bowel functioning. It's thought that chewing gum stimulates the same nerves as eating, triggering the release of hormones that activate the gastrointestinal tract. According to a University of Michigan report, chewing gum may prevent tooth decay. TAKE UP SINGING Choral singing increases immunity, reduces depression, improves cognitive function and mood, and increases feelings of wellbeing, according to research at the University of Western Ontario. It can also stop the voice from ageing. Work at Sydney University shows singing helps people cope with chronic pain better, while a University of Frankfurt team found choral singing lowers stress levels and boosts the immune system. A survey of singers by Canterbury Christ Church University shows they had improved lung function and breathing, and better mood.Singing also increases blood levels of the "love hormone" oxytocin, which is released during intimacy. EAT MORE PASTA Eat spaghetti and live longer, lower the risk of diabetes, and have a better sex life. Research from Harvard and Athens universities shows that men and women who eat carbohydrate-rich food increase their survival chances by 10 per cent. A study at the University of Kuopio in Finland found pasta lowers the risk of deteriorating glucose tolerance and of developing type 2 diabetes. Use plenty of pesto with pasta. It contains pine nuts, good sources of arginine, the precursor for nitric oxide, which boosts blood flow and which has been linked to better sexual performance in men. HAVE A DRINK Research suggests that moderate amounts of alcohol, especially red wine, are healthy. People who had two alcoholic drinks a day were up to 50 per cent less likely than abstainers to have had a heart attack.

A study at Université Victor Segalen in Bordeaux shows that antioxidants in wine protect older people from cognitive decline. And researchers in Boston found that even men who had a healthy lifestyle would benefit from having a regular drink. BRUSH YOUR TEETH Taking good care of teeth and gums not only saves painful and expensive visits to the dentist, it could prevent stroke or heart attacks. Columbia University research based on around 700 people found that those with gum disease were more likely to suffer from atherosclerosis - a narrowing of blood vessels that can lead to heart disease and stroke. It's thought the bacteria that cause gum disease trigger a reaction from the immune system, causing inflammation that results in clogging of the arteries. DRINK MORE COFFEE The world's most widely used stimulant can lower the risk of diabetes, Parkinson's, gallstones, bad teeth, heart disease and stroke, and ease pain, relax muscles, and improve speed of thought. Women who drink coffee may be up to a third less likely to have a heart attack, according to research on 32,000 women monitored for six years at Harvard University. Drinking six or more cups a day reduces the risk of diabetes by 54 per cent for men, and 30 per cent for women. Two cups a day can lower the risk of colon cancer by 25 per cent, and halve the risk of gallstones. Trigonelline, a compound that gives coffee its bitter taste, may prevent dental cavities. GET A PET Dogs may be better for their owners' health than cats. Laughter is linked to good health, and research by psychologists based on logs kept by pet owners recording every time they laughed, shows that dog owners have most giggles during the day. Pet dogs can also lower heart rate and reduce stress, but having a cat reduces the risk of a child developing eczema and hay fever. A study at Rakuno Gakuen University in Japan, shows that 30-minute walks with a dog are 87 per cent more effective for heart health than walks alone. But beware, owning a dog can make you grumpy. A study at the University of Tokyo shows that non-owners reckoned people who have pets are more bad-mannered.