America's healthiest pleasures: 10 'vices' that are good for you - CNN.com
(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.
Aim for seven to eight hours of sleep a night, the amount that studies show is ideal. Health.com: 8 factors that could be keeping you awake at night
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!).
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.
Health.com: 10 reasons you're not having sex]
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.)
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,"
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), . 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.
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.
Health.com: Which massage is best for you?
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.
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.