Most of us (if not all of us) want to be healthy - we really do - but sometimes it can feel so hard to do. Our time is limited, and work and family suck most of that up. If we can find the time to work on healthy habits, we tend to overcomplicate it, thinking we need to do more - restrict more, count more, push our bodies more. Our busy, demanding, and overachieving selves compartmentalize what healthy is - like it’s some thing we do in addition to the countless other things on our to-do list. But health and wellness shouldn’t be just another thing that demands more from us; it should be seamlessly woven into our daily lives in a way that serves us well and supports the other components of our lives. Sounds nice, right? But we know, it’s easier said than done. That’s because it’s really a slow process that incorporates small changes, but it’s also less complicated than we think. Using the five basic building blocks of healthy living, here are tips on how to slowly start building a solid foundation of healthy practices that result in more health, wellness, and overall happiness.
Focus on what you are eating
Stop looking at calories and fat, protein, carb counts. It’s less about the numbers of a given food and more about what you are eating. All calories aren’t created equal, nor are all macronutrients. The truth is that nobody really becomes unhealthy or overweight or prediabetic because they are eating too many sweet potatoes or strawberries; it’s often because they are eating highly processed foods that contain a ton of added sugars, hydrogenated oils, artificial flavors, and colors.
The single biggest thing you can do nutritionally for your health is cut out the processed junk and eat real foods. That can be pretty overwhelming for a lot of people so start by adding in healthy foods rather than subtracting unhealthy ones. Start adding more fresh, whole foods, like veggies and fruit, one meal or one food at a time. The more nutritional food you add, the less space you will have for the not-so-good stuff.
Be mindful when you eat
Research suggests that how we eat is just as important as what we eat. Many of us are frequently eating while working at our desks/computers, scrolling through our phones, or watching TV, which often means we tend to overeat or make unhealthy choices that we otherwise wouldn’t. We also tend to eat faster which isn’t good for our digestion. Next time you eat, try putting down your phone, computer, or shutting off the TV...even if it’s just for one meal. Pay attention to the food you are eating and enjoy the silence (if you are eating alone) or company of others. It may feel hard or even painful at first but it really can change a lot, like your hunger, satisfaction with food, and digestion. And it also forces you to slow down and take a break for a short period of time, which also does wonders for your sanity, creativity, and overall well-being.
Move every day
We live an increasingly sedentary life - sitting in an office, sitting in our cars, sitting on the couch - which is pretty terrible for our health. Small changes in daily movement can have a big impact. Parking farther away, taking the stairs, walking to a co-worker’s office instead of emailing, and taking the long way gets your blood pumping, which improves circulation, aids in getting rid of cellular waste, boosts energy, and regulates digestion (and pooping). Not only that, but taking breaks and connecting with others and/or the outdoors - even for a few minutes - can improve focus and creativity. Moving also has a huge impact on your mind and mental health.
But moving doesn’t have to be how we traditionally think of exercise - after all, our ancestors didn’t have a gym or aerobic class. They just moved more. There is this misperception that exercise isn’t exercise unless it’s long and/or intense. It also means that a lot of us fall into that “all or nothing” way of thinking. If we can’t go hard, we don’t do anything. The truth is that as little as 20 minutes a day can make a big difference not only in how you feel physically and mentally, it can also increase your lifespan. Just 10 minutes a day can lengthen life by nearly 2 years. On the flip side, inactivity has been shown to decrease life expectancy by as much as 7 years. So doing something, even if it’s a 10 minute walk around your neighborhood or 20 squats at your desk, is way better than nothing. The goal is to create a habit so start as small as possible - even if it’s just 2 pushups a day. If you know you will do that no matter what, and you start to do it every day, it will become a part of life and much easier to build upon.
And don’t be afraid to redefine exercise - play with your kids at the park instead of sitting on the bench; hike a trail for the beauty around you or the quiet; swim around in a pool; kick a soccer ball around your backyard; or have a little at-home dance party. Just get moving in a way that you love.
Create a healthy sleep routine
Anyone with kids knows that having a bedtime routine is critical for getting your kids to bed and ensuring they get enough sleep (research also backs this up). It signals to them that it’s time to wind down and helps their body prepare for sleep. Well, guess what, we grownups aren’t any different. Yet more than one-third of us aren’t getting enough sleep, and according to sleep science experts, as little as one night of bad sleep can wreak havoc on our health - including lowering our immune system and impacting our insulin response. Over the long run, not enough sleep is linked with an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s.
The single best thing you can do for your sleep and creating a routine is to go to sleep and wake up at the exact same time every day (even on weekends). It helps your body regulate itself and function according to its natural circadian rhythm.
Another great tip is to make your house colder at night. Your body and brain actually need to drop its core temperature by about 2-3 degrees in order to initiate sleep (it’s why falling asleep in a hot room is nearly impossible). The ideal temperature is around 68 degrees Fahrenheit, although some experts recommend closer to 65 degrees. To help your body cool itself, it is also helpful to take a warm or hot bath before bed. The heat causes your temperature to rise temporarily which, when you get out, causes the temperature to drop relatively quickly. This can signal to your body that it’s time to start getting ready for sleep. And adding something like Epsom salts, which contain magnesium, helps even more.
Finally, dimming the lights in your house an hour before bedtime helps release melatonin, which helps you fall asleep. This also means turning off all screens - TV, phone, computers - an hour before bed because they emit blue light that actually hinders the release of melatonin. They signal to your brain it’s daytime which can make it harder for your brain and body to slow down and get ready for sleep.
Unplug - both figuratively and literally
As mentioned above, turning off electronic devices before bed can do wonders for sleep. Literally, doing that one thing can make a huge difference. However, the benefits aren’t limited to sleep. Putting down your phone can help connect you more with the ones in your life, as well as with yourself and your surrounding environment. There is a lot of research that shows that our electronic devices, especially our phones, are negatively impacting our romantic relationships as well as the relationship with our kids. This also negatively impacts us as individuals and how we feel - increasing stress and making us less focused. For those of us with a smartphone addiction, we are more likely to have anxiety, depression, and an actual chemical change in the brain.
Unplugging isn’t just about turning off our devices, it’s also about taking a break from the craziness of our day. Avoid doing work one night if you can; schedule a date night with your partner or with a friend; take a new class you’ve been wanting to try; or, if possible, take an actual vacation...even if it’s just for one night. The world won’t stop just because you hit the pause button. If anything, your contribution to it and others will be much better because your brain and body had a chance to unwind.
Shift your perspective
Life is tough and messy, and we are overworked and overscheduled. This can color our view of everything with gray-tinted glasses. Our reactions to people or events may be irritation, anger, or disconnection simply because we are exhausted and overwhelmed. The redundancy and responsibility of daily life can also feel like we have a lot of “have tos”. But slightly shifting your perspective can make a world of difference in how you view, internalize, and respond to things.
Taking a page out of the wonderful, magical book “everyone's an aliebn when you're an aliebn too” (and yes that is how it is spelled), what if you changed the phrase, “I have to” to “I get to.” “I get to pick my kids up at school.” “I get to walk my dogs.” “I get to travel for work.” “I get to go to the grocery store.” It shifts the focus from something that may feel like a burden to something that feels like a privilege...or at least something that doesn’t feel dreaded. It’s a way to see the positive in the task rather than just focusing on the responsibility of it. It sounds simple and kind of silly but seriously try it. It makes such a big difference in your perspective and your mood.
Finally, one last simple but drastically changing tip: assume positive intent. Without realizing it, most of us assume negative intent on the part of others in just about every interaction. A guy cuts you off - he’s a selfish jerk; a friend hasn’t reached out to you in forever - she doesn’t care about you; your partner hasn’t made a move in a long time - he/she isn’t attracted to you anymore. Why do we do this!? It’s awful and usually results in lose-lose scenarios. But what if the guy who cut you off just got a call his daughter was rushed to the hospital; and what if your friend has been dealing with depression that you had no idea about; and what if your partner knew you were stressed and didn’t want to put more pressure on you. The truth is we don’t know why anyone does what they do, so we might as well give them the benefit of the doubt. Doing so means you don’t have to get so worked up (which has physiological and psychological implications), you are more likely to shift your focus to something else more productive (or rewarding), and you start to cultivate a mindset of being open and empathetic.
Putting this into practice
While some of these may seem super simple and others may seem excruciatingly hard, the key here is to just start implementing some of them. The truth is that many people opt for quick fixes that are often extreme and unsustainable while overlooking the simpler but slower options because, well, they are slower and take time. In our fast-paced, instant gratification society, it’s hard to embrace a strategy that is slow and simple. We get it. But it really is the best way to look and feel great, and optimize your health. It’s also the most sustainable way. The key here is to take one tiny step at a time. Start slow. Progress - no matter how small - over perfection. In the words of Albert Einstein, “compounding is the greatest mathematical discovery of all time.” While small, these changes, when done consistently over time, are life changing.