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Be Good to Yourself!

As a mom (of two active kids), a personal trainer, and a freelance writer, I'm up to my ears in family duties, clients to greet, and deadlines to meet. There's not a lot of downtime. But I've learned that without regular breathers, I get run-down and then, inevitably, I get sick. So I start my day at 5 a.m. (okay, it works for me because I'm a morning person), and I grab some peace and quiet and a cup of coffee the only time it's available  -- before my world wakes up. My best friend uses the same strategy, only at night, with chamomile tea. Whatever works.

You can wash your hands and take your multivitamin every day, but that's not always enough to keep your body and mind humming. What can make a difference:

1. Follow the rule of 3
"Staying well means eating well," says Melinda Johnson, of Phoenix, a nutritionist and mom to Phillip, age 3, and 4-month-old Cameron. To make it easy to eat healthfully, Johnson says she chooses from three food groups at meals (and at least two for snacks)  -- for instance, a turkey sandwich with baby carrots and grape tomatoes for lunch, and string cheese and an apple for a snack.

2. Give yourself a time-out
With three kids under age 9 and a busy teaching/coaching career, Shannon Danaher of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, relies on mini-breaks. On days that promise to be hectic, she picks a parking spot that's a five-minute walk from her school. "It gives me quiet time to clear my head as I go into work," she says, "and five more relaxing minutes after school, when I'm returning to pick up my kids."

3. Air out the house
"Even when it's cold out, I open the windows when I'm running a quick errand," says Ida Hinojos- Mahorsky of Austin, Texas, mom of Merick, 2.
And turn on your kitchen exhaust fan for at least ten minutes every day. It's an easy way to clear out dust, allergens, chemical buildup from common household cleaners, and even the pollutants we carry in on our clothes and shoes from outdoors.

More feel-good tips

4. Schedule playdates
Kids aren't the only ones who need to have fun is a motto of sorts for Olinda Reynaud of Richmond, Virginia, mom of Evan and Mallory, 8 and 5. "Once a month, I have a happy-hour date with my girlfriends, and no kids are allowed."

5. Let your mind wander
"When my two kids were young, I used the daily crossword in the paper to unwind," says Karen Zager, Ph.D., a New York City psychologist. "Focusing on finding the right words helped me let go of the day's tensions." Other moms swear by physical activities like knitting or gardening.

6. Make workouts sacred
We all know regular exercise helps the heart, bones, and mind stay strong  -- if you do it often enough. "I have a standing date five days a week with my gym," says Deborah Thaler of Miami, Florida, a lawyer and mom of Aaron, 4. "The gym's daycare allows me to get a workout and take a shower without worrying about rushing before naptime ends." She checked out a few gyms to find one with attentive, well-trained babysitters  -- a good way to ensure peace of mind.
Of course, you needn't join a gym. Trade childcare with a neighbor, or jot down your workout slots on the calendar so your husband knows when he'll be on duty. If you treat workouts as important health appointments, you're more likely to keep them.

7. Go for the green
Don't underestimate the power of a tree! "Taking a walk and playing with my dog in the woods rejuvenates me," says Carissa Sedlacek, of Belchertown, Massachusetts, mom of Owen, 2, and Sarah, 1. Nature is good for you, says Frances Kuo, Ph.D., psychology professor and nature researcher at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "People have a greater sense of well-being the more they are in touch with nature. There's even evidence that people recover from surgery faster if they have a view of trees instead of something like a brick wall."

8. Get into the groove
Who doesn't love listening to favorite songs from high school? Turns out it can be good for you, too. "It transports your mind back by triggering the neural patterns that were originally stimulated at the happy event," says Barbara Reuer, Ph.D., a San Diego music therapist. "This can lower the stress hormones that sometimes make us sick." Trudy Miller of Tatamy, Pennsylvania, mom of Katie, 10, and Emily, 8, is a believer  -- she cranks up '80s tunes when she needs a break: "The bonus is the mini-workout I get from dancing around, and my girls think it's a blast."

9. Just (don't) do it
When you've had it with all your to-do's, try a do-nothing day  -- or afternoon. I buy some magazines and rent the kids a DVD, make popcorn, and order in Chinese food or pizza. No laundry, no phone calls, no playdates, and no errands  -- it's a mini-vacation!

10. Turn errands into exercise
"I always look for an active way to do them," says Selene Yeager of Emmaus, Pennsylvania, and mom of Juniper, age 3. "I put on my backpack and ride my bike with my daughter to the store. Sometimes we drop off library books, pick up milk and bread, even grab a frozen treat; it becomes a fun adventure rather than a tedious round of errands."

11. Get enough shut-eye
"I religiously follow the eight-hours-of-sleep-per-night rule," says Jennifer Wiley of Columbus, Ohio, mom of Ben, 8, and Reina, 4. "It takes only three nights of cumulative sleep loss, and I start feeling sick and lethargic." There is plenty of evidence to show that sleep deprivation hinders a whole slew of things, including concentration, memory, cognitive function, and immunity.

More ways to pick yourself up

12. Rent a comedy
Funny and uplifting movies can make you feel better  -- laughing is said to boost serotonin, the feel-good hormone in your brain.

13. Jump-start your energy
"Whenever I start to slump, I get out of it with a quick hit of heart-pumping exercise like a sprint outside to the mailbox," says exercise physiologist and personal trainer Kelli Calabrese of Long Valley, New Jersey, mom of Nicholas and Melina, 4 and 3. If you're yawning at midday, take two minutes to go up and down a flight of stairs. No stairs? Walk around the block or your office building. Such short bursts burn calories, enhance your mental clarity, and help you relax.

14. Benefit from blooms
Feeling frazzled? Treat yourself to flowers. Researchers at Kansas State University discovered that flowers actually work as a pain reliever; they think that the bright colors may stimulate our brains to produce serotonin and other good-mood hormones. Flowery fragrances are also thought to chase away the blues.

15. Act happy
...even if you have to fake it. "When I'm crabby, I make a point of being nice to someone I don't know  -- the supermarket cashier, say  -- and I always feel better," says Trudy Miller. Optimists are less likely to die from heart attack, stroke, or other cardiovascular problems than pessimists, say Dutch researchers, who speculate that a sunny disposition helps protect the immune system.

16. Refocus on food
Don't think in terms of "bad" food, or depriving yourself. New York City nutritionist Elisa Zied, a mom of two, has a more positive approach: "If I'm thinking about chocolate, I run a mental check on what I haven't had yet. If it's fruit, veggies, or something whole grain, I'll go for that first, and I may still have room for the less nutritious candy."

17. Dump out your purse
You may still have 50 zillion things to do, but less junk to sift through lifts a mental load  -- and your aching shoulders will thank you.

18. Turn your car into a bookmobile
Rebecca Jaffe, a doctor and a mom of two, Joshua, 10, and Rachel, 8, in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, listens to books on tape during her daily commute. "It makes my car seem like a retreat," says Jaffe. She also listens to books on tape with her children as a way of unwinding together.

19. Stretch it out
"When my two-year-old daughter is occupied, I grab a few minutes for this move," says Janice Gates, a yoga instructor in San Anselmo, California:

  • Lie on your back with your legs up against a wall, so your body's in an L shape.
  • Close your eyes and take slow, deep breaths.
  • Try to maintain the pose for 5 to 15 minutes to ease muscle tension and replenish energy.

Marianne McGinnis lives in San Diego and writes about health and fitness.