Keeping up with women's health advice can be exhausting. Between trying to get your 60 minutes of daily exercise without cutting into your eight hours of nightly shut-eye, calibrating your red-wine intake to stave off heart disease without boosting your risk of breast cancer, and figuring out what to make of ever-contradictory health advisories, you'd be forgiven for throwing up your hands and ignoring the whole mess of guidelines altogether. The good news, according to Dr. Susan Love and health psychologist Alice Domar, is that you can go right ahead. In their new book, Live a Little! Breaking the Rules Won't Break Your Health, the authors say your best bet is to scrap the crazy rules and adopt commonsense habits that will keep you safe from premature disability or death while leaving you plenty of license to enjoy life. TIME spoke with the authors.
Why did you decide to write this book?
Love: We were really frustrated with all these health rules and all these people who were getting stressed out trying to keep them. So we decided we would research them and find out the truth. We were surprised to find that most of them were based on very little if any data.
You go through a lot of rules we can scrap. What are the big ones?
Domar: You have to sleep eight hours every day, or else you're going to drop dead or get fat. For my patients, that's a huge one. Whether they can't sleep because they're nervous or their kids wake them up or whatever, they're absolutely convinced that a few nights of interrupted sleep is really bad for them.
Love: I think some of the exercise rules [can be scrapped] as well. When you're young and you've got two toddlers on your hip, then you really don't have to lift weights.
You recommend separating exercise from the idea of weight loss.
Domar: Women see exercise as punitive. They either exercise as a punishment for eating or so they can eat. You need to separate food from exercise. You [should] do it because it feels good and because it's good for you.
Love: Fit and fat is healthier than skinny and a couch potato. We have to try to get away from having [weight] be the dominant theme in everything.
When confronted with a new study, what questions can readers ask to figure out how much to pay attention?
Love: The first thing to ask is, What kind of a study was it? Were they just observing? Or were they doing a randomized [trial], where some people ate blueberries and some people ate raspberries? The second thing is, Was it in people or in rats or in Petri dishes? You want to look at how many people they studied. Obviously, the more people you study, the more accurate the data's going to be. And then, Who funded the study? It does seem that all the studies that are funded and published by the Blueberry Growers of America say you should eat blueberries.
Speaking of asking questions, you say a lot of screenings may not be necessary. How can a patient figure out whether to get a particular test?
Love: One thing you should always ask is, How is this going to change my treatment? A lot of tests are just done out of habit. You don't want to have any unnecessary tests, because there's always a downside.
You say that some of the anxiety over health rules comes from the sense that if we can just follow them, we'll never have health problems and will live forever.
Love: And it's just not true.
Domar: I had a graduate student years ago who had terrible PMS. She had changed her health habits in a more extreme way than anyone I've met. She had no sugar, no caffeine, no flour. She ran. And when she was 27 about to get her Ph.D. she was diagnosed with a very aggressive form of breast cancer, and she died about two years later. I remember thinking, Here's somebody who was leading what we would call a perfectly [healthful] life. And she still got sick and died. The reason we think we have to follow these rules is because we want control. We're trying to educate women. Have peace of mind, but live your life the best way you can.
How can we help people move beyond simplistic health rules?
Domar: I think everybody assumes that people are stupider than they are. People are smart. And honestly, people know that it's good to move. People know what food is good for them. To keep on giving these messages over and over again doesn't make sense.
Love: It gets to be magical thinking: If I just do this, this and this, I'll live forever. Well, the goal is not to live forever. The goal is to live as long as you can with the best quality of life. And then drop dead.