Healthy Living: 8 Steps to Take Today
Healthy living is within your reach, starting today. Sure, healthy living is a long-term commitment, not a flash-in-the-pan fad. But there are steps you can take right now that will make today healthier than yesterday and pave the way for healthy living tomorrow, too.
Here's your checklist of practical healthy living tips that are ready to go. Let's get started.
Healthy Living Step No. 1: Take stock.
Your first step toward healthy living is to get a handle on your health status right now. Here's your to-do list:
- Make appointments with your doctor and dentist. Catch up on your routine screening and immunizations, and take the opportunity to ask your doctor any questions you might have.
- Gauge your girth. Measure your height and weight to check your BMI, and measure your waist circumference to see if you're overweight and if your waistline is putting your health at risk.
- Assess your activity. How much physical activity do you get in a typical week? How intense is that activity? How much variety do you get in your activity, and how much do you enjoy it? The CDC recommends that adults get at least two and a half hours per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or one hour and 15 minutes per week of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity, plus muscle-strengthening activities at least two days per week.
- Keep a food diary. Write down everything you eat for a day -- and no fair skipping the items you're embarrassed about. "The idea is to write it down ... without judgment," says Kathianne Sellers Williams, MEd, RD, LD, a nutritionist, wellness coach, and personal trainer with Cafe Physique in Atlanta. "You can't change what you're not aware of or don't acknowledge."
- Check your mood and energy. Healthy living includes emotional wellness and adequate rest. How has your mood been lately? Are you experiencing any symptoms of depression or anxiety? Do you usually sleep well for seven to eight hours a night?
- Consider your social network. How strong are your connections with family and friends? Are you plugged in with social or spiritual groups that enrich your life? "People have a fundamental need for positive and lasting relationships," C. Nathan DeWall, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky, tells WebMD.
If you're not thrilled with the answers to some of those questions, remember that the point is to figure out where you are today so you can set your healthy living goals. It's not about being "good" or "bad," "right" or "wrong."
Healthy Living Step No. 2: Put out fires.
If you know that you have chronic health problems, whether it's heart disease, diabetes, depression, arthritis, or other conditions, treatment is an obvious priority for healthy living. The same goes for risky behaviors, such as smoking, and addictions of any kind.
Addressing these issues typically isn't a do-it-yourself task. Partner with your doctor. Make the phone call today to schedule that appointment.
Healthy Living Step No. 3 Move more.
Here are Williams' top tips for increasing physical activity:
- Make it fun. Go on a hike, walk with friends, take a bellydancing or karate class, or whatever you enjoy. "There's no need to stick to cardio equipment in the gym if you're dreading it and you don't like it," Williams says. "Find something that's fun."
- Keep track of it. Make a note of your physical activity in your date book or calendar. "Put big Xs on the days that you exercise," Williams says. "Keep a visual record that you look at frequently" as a reminder and motivator.
- Set a weekly goal for activity. To build your confidence, "make the first goal so easy that you say, 'I know I can do that,'" Williams suggests. She recommends weekly goals because if you set a daily goal and miss a day, you might get discouraged; weekly goals give you more day-to-day flexibility. And at the end of the week, reward yourself with a visual reminder of your accomplishment, such as buying flowers for yourself.
- Work activity into your day. "Ten percent of something is better than 100% of nothing. So even if you have 10 minutes, it's better than zero minutes," Williams says. She suggests taking a 10-minute walk before lunch or walking up and down the stairs when you're feeling drained and tired.
Other ideas include wearing a pedometer to track how many steps you take per day (health experts recommend shooting for 10,000 steps per day) and working with a personal trainer (double up with a friend to lower the cost) to create an exercise routine.
If you're curious about how many calories you're burning, try using WebMD's Fit-o-Meter, a fitness and exercise calorie calculator. But of course, physical activity is for everyone, whether you're trying to lose weight or not.
Healthy Living Step No. 4: Upgrade your diet.
Williams, a nutritionist for a dozen years, says her diet advice isn't about eating certain foods and avoiding others as much as it is about awareness and choices. Here are her pointers:
- Replace "I should" with "I choose." So instead of "I should be eating more fruits and vegetables," it's "I choose to eat more fruits and vegetables" or "I choose not to," because it's more powerful language," Williams says. "It shows that you're in control, you're making the choice. So if you choose to or you choose not to, you make the choice and you move on."
- Skip the guilt. "Usually, whenever someone feels guilty about something, it feeds right back to the behavior that they're trying to get rid of," Williams says. "So if someone is an emotional eater and they say, 'I know I shouldn't be doing this," it implies more guilt and judgment on themselves, they feel worse, and then they end up eating to comfort themselves."
- Choose to plan. Stock your pantry with healthy fare and bring healthy snacks with you so you're prepared when you get hungry. "When we're really hungry, our physiology kicks in and that's when we're craving the hamburger and fries; we're not craving a salad," Williams says.
- Slow down and savor your food. Don't watch TV, work, or drive while you're eating. "A lot of people tell me, 'My problem is that I really like food,' but I think that's a really good thing," Williams says. "If you really enjoy food, sit down and enjoy your meal. You're much more likely to feel psychologically satisfied if you don't multitask while you're eating."
- Shoot for five to nine daily servings of varied fruits and vegetables. Cover the rainbow of fruit and vegetable colors to get a good mix of nutrients. "If you're not getting the rainbow, you're probably not getting all the nutrients that you need," Williams says.
Healthy Living Step No. 5: Manage stress.
As a wellness coach trained in stress management, Williams recommends making two different plans to handle stress.
- Routine maintenance: Develop positive coping skills, such as meditation and visualization, and look for activities, such as yoga or exercise, to keep your baseline stress level in check.
- Breakthrough stress: Find ways to handle stressful situations that flare up without warning. For instance, Williams says that after a stressful meeting at work, you might run up and down the stairs a few times to burn off anger, or retreat to a bathroom stall to take a few deep breaths and refocus.
Williams also shares three other stress management tips that you can start using immediately:
- Check your perspective. Ask yourself, "Will this matter to me a year from now?" If not, why are you getting so wound up?
- Volunteer. Helping to meet other peoples' needs may make your own problems seem smaller.
- Keep a gratitude journal. Write down the positive people, events, and things that you're thankful for. "It really switches the focus to, 'Wow, look how much I have," Williams says. "Most stress is caused by wishing things were different than they are now."
- Breathe. One of the breathing exercises that Williams recommends is to count your breaths for a minute, and then try to cut that number of breaths in half for the next minute.
Healthy Living StepNo. 6: Sleep better.
If you have trouble sleeping, try these tips from sleep medicine specialist Lisa Shives, MD, medical director of Northshore Sleep Medicine in Evanston, Ill.
- No TV or computer two hours before bedtime. It's not just because the TV and computer are stimulating; it's also because of their light. "We're very sensitive to the cue that light gives you that it's time to be up and about," Shives says. She recommends light, calming reading lit by a lamp that doesn't shine directly into your eyes.
- No heavy exercise close to bedtime. Light stretching is OK, but vigorous activity will heat up your body's core temperature, which makes it harder to sleep. "If you're working up a sweat, you're working too hard right before bed," Shives says.
- Take a hot bath. That will heat up your core body temperature, but when you get out of the bath, your core temperature will fall, which may help you get to sleep. Plus, the bath "relaxes you mentally," Shives says. She adds that having a hot, noncaffeinated drink, such as chamomile tea, may also help.
- Set a regular sleep schedule. When Shives treats insomnia patients, she tells them that although they can't make themselves fall asleep, they can make themselves get up at a certain time the next morning. And though they may be tired at first, if they don't nap, they may start sleeping better during the following nights. "We're going to get nowhere if they take big naps during the day and keep a very erratic sleep schedule; it's chaos then," Shives says.
- Don't count on weekend catch-up sleep. If you have chronic sleep problems, you probably can't make up for that on the weekends. But if you generally sleep well and have a rough week, go ahead and sleep in on the weekend. "I actually think that's good for the body," Shives says.
- Don't ignore chronic sleep problems. "Don't let sleep troubles linger for months or years. Get to a sleep specialist earlier rather than later, before bad habits set in," Shives says.
- Prioritize good sleep. "This is as important as diet and exercise," Shives says. She says that in our society, "we disdain sleep, we admire energy and hard work and [have] this notion that sleep is just something that gets in the way."
Healthy Living Step No. 7: Improve your relationships.
Healthy living isn't just about your personal habits for, say, diet and activity. It's also about your connections with other people -- your social network.
DeWall, the University of Kentucky social psychologist, offers these tips for broadening your social network:
- Look for people like you. The details of their lives don't have to match yours, but look for a similar level of openness. "What really is important in terms of promoting relationship well-being is that you share a similar level of comfort in getting close to people," DeWall says. For instance, he says that someone who needs a lot of reassurance might not find the best relationship with someone who's more standoffish. "Feel people out in terms of, 'Does this person seem like me in terms of wanting to be close to other people?'" DeWall suggests.
- Spend time with people. "There's this emphasis in our culture that you need to be very independent -- an army of one, you can get along on your own," DeWall says. "Most people don't know their neighbors as much as they did 50 or 60 years ago."
- Build both virtual and face-to-face relationships. DeWall isn't against having online connections to other people. "But I think long term, having all of your relationships online or virtual ... would probably be something that wouldn't be as beneficial as having a mix" of having virtual and in-person relationships.
- If a close relationship is painful, get help. "Some of my work and some work that other people are doing suggest that ... when you feel rejected by someone, that your body actually registers it as pain. So if I'm in a relationship that's really causing me a lot of pain, then we need to do something, we need to go and seek help," DeWall says.
Healthy Living Step No. 8: Challenge your mind.
Participating in mentally stimulating activities, especially activities that involve other people, may be good for the brain.
There's no downside to including brain-challenging activities as part of your healthy living, unless "you spent $400 on some computer program that makes all sorts of wild claims about brain health," says David Knopman, MD, a neurologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.
Knopman explains that brain fitness is influenced by many factors, including education and opportunities for mentally stimulating activities starting in childhood, and also by the presence or absence of depression, diabetes, smoking, high blood pressure, and other risks.
Observational studies have shown that people who engage in mentally stimulating activities may be less likely to develop dementia. But Knopman notes that such studies don't prove cause and effect, so it's not clear if mentally stimulating activities protect against dementia or whether people with healthier brains are drawn to those activities in the first place.
That said, Knopman says, "I think that socially engaging activities are particularly important, and that's why I'm somewhat skeptical about the various commercial entities that seek to sell computer games to stimulate the brain. ... If that's done to the exclusion of socially engaging activity, it's probably counterproductive."