Improving your health can often feel like a daunting task, especially when you don’t know where to start. There’s an abundance of diet and exercise plans out there, all with different approaches that claim to be the best. The sheer amount of choices are overwhelming and can make you want to give up before even taking the first step. However, there are a few actions you can take for your overall wellness that have nothing to do with dieting or intense workout plans. It may surprise you how much your physical and mental health are impacted by small things like fresh air or phoning a friend. So before you invest in a Peloton bike that you use for a week and promptly leave to collect dust, check out these simple steps for a healthier you!
1. Ditch the crosswords, go for a walk with a friend instead
You could argue that a wellness-driven lifestyle starts with your brain. Your brain is the center of, well, everything, so why not exercise it like the rest of your body? Luckily the brain is elastic, and can always be stretched or exercised to create new pathways. There’s a reason why crosswords and brain games are so popular, but they may not be helping in the way that you think! According to Dr. Sanjay Gupta, neurosurgeon and chief medical correspondent for CNN, improving your brain function doesn’t just mean attempting Sunday’s edition of the New York Times crossword. Sure, crosswords can be great for keeping the pathways you’ve already made in your brain strong, but you won’t make any new connections. Instead, Gupta recommends taking a brisk walk with a good friend while talking about your problems. The combination of nature, physical activity, and meaningful conversation stimulates your brain on multiple levels— which is why it’s such a good workout! It will also trick you into actually exercising, mainly because you’ll be too concentrated on the conversation to talk yourself out of it.
2. Get 8 hours, because sleep dictates your diet
We might take it for granted, but getting a good night’s sleep is one of the most important decisions you can make for your wellness. Lack of sleep (less than seven to nine hours a night) has been linked to weight gain among many other health issues, such as cardiovascular disease. Not getting enough shut eye can render your diet and exercise regimes ineffective, or dramatically slow down the results. According to one study, a group of sleep-deprived adults experienced 55% less fat loss than that of a group who got regular amounts of sleep— even though they were all on the same diet. This is most likely due to a change in your hormones, which can really go haywire without proper sleep. Levels of the hormones that regulate hunger and satisfaction, ghrelin and leptin, are especially effected. As reported by an article from Harvard’s school of public health, “Ghrelin levels rise while leptin levels drop with lack of sleep; this can cause higher calories to be consumed due to experiencing strong hunger at the same time that one feels less satiated after eating.” What’s more, sleep deprivation can trigger the reward center in your brain that makes you crave tasty junk food. So not only are you eating more, but you’re eating more of the wrong thing. I could go on about the effects of sleep, as it has such a direct impact on our health. But you get the gist: take that nap!
3. Adopt a furry friend
If you have the means (and the space) consider adopting a pet! Taking care of a living being is rewarding, gives you purpose, and just plain makes you happy. Research suggests that “people who have pets tend to have lower blood pressure, heart rate and heart-disease risk than those who don’t.” This is particularly true if you are single or live alone— a little company can make a huge difference in your mental state. It can also inadvertently jumpstart your exercise routine! Focusing on giving your dog its best life will shift the pressure off of you, making it so much easier to get out there and start moving. It can be easy to neglect our own health, but add another living soul to the equation and it’ll be hard to keep putting it off.
4. Go on an active vacation
This one really hits two birds with one stone. Vacationing, or simply taking time off to unplug, is a surefire way to improve your mental state. And of course, exercise is a widely accepted method of reducing anxiety and stress. Too much of the stress-causing hormone, cortisol, can wreak havoc on our minds and bodies. Chronic stress is linked to depression, anxiety, heart disease, sleep problems, and weight gain. Consciously making the effort to keep your stress levels in check is so important to living a balanced life. If your cortisol levels are constantly spiking, it likely won’t matter what else you are doing to pursue wellness. Going on an active vacation can improve your physical and mental state, while taking the boredom out of traditional exercise. This doesn’t mean you need to go climb a mountain— walking around a city or exploring a museum will work wonders. You’ll get culture and endorphins.
5. Make time for friends
It’s been proven that communities across the world who have rich social lives also have the healthiest brains— and tend to be happier. Getting to the root of why social interactions have such an impact is less clear, but doctors who study this say “the mechanism probably has something to do with an increase in hormones such as oxytocin that are triggered by social bonding, a decrease in hormones related to stress, and intellectual stimulation.” It’s easy for socializing to take a back seat to things that seem more important in the moment. But nothing is more important than your health, and that is solid justification for putting everything aside to see your friends.
6. Make helping others a habit
It’s been scientifically proven that when we help others, we feel better. According to research collected by the New York Times, “studies show that volunteering, donating money, or even just thinking about donating money can release feel-good brain chemicals.” These are the same chemicals that are triggered when we eat a slice of cake, so basically helping other people can give you a sugar high. It’s no surprise that volunteering can help with anxiety, depression, and stress, all factors that impact our ability to make healthy lifestyle choices! So next time you’re feeling blue and unmotivated, consider planning a day of volunteering. And if you’re really looking for a boost, plan it with friends! It’s the perfect recipe for releasing those all-important brain chemicals.
I hope these tips gave you something to think about, and made the idea of living a healthier lifestyle a bit less daunting. The truth is that while eating healthy and exercising are very important, there are many other factors that impact our wellness. Our bodies are interconnected systems, and what affects one area can ricochet throughout the rest. So, if making healthier choices feels overwhelming to you, start by implementing one of these steps. You never know where one small action might lead.