January is a wonderful time to reflect on the past year and make decisions about the upcoming year. We can make choices about which behaviors to concentrate on changing to optimize our health and our happiness.
1. Invest in a reusable 32oz cup. Fill and drink it twice a day with filtered tap water.
Most Americans need to drink more water. They are walking around dehydrated all the time. Every cell in your body requires water. When we are chronically dehydrated, our tissues (such as spinal discs and ligaments) dry out and become more brittle and prone to injury. If we wait until we are thirsty before we drink, we are already in 1L water deficit.
2. Walk for 10 minutes after every meal.
When you walk after eating, you improve the ability of insulin to lower your blood sugar by pumping fresh oxygenated blood to your muscles. The delivery of glucose to the cells which use it for energy becomes possible when insulin allows the entry of glucose out of the blood stream and into the cells that need it. A 10 minute walk after eating also helps your intestinal tract mobilize the food boluses which improves digestion.
3. Eat more fresh, organic vegetables.
Vegetables are the most important source of antioxidants, vitamins, and fiber in your diet. Truthfully, we all need to eat more vegetables. A diet high in vegetables has been linked to longevity and a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer. Juicing is one way to get the antioxidants, but it eliminates the fiber you need for a smoothly working digestive tract. In my own quest to eat more fresh vegetables, I have found it very useful to cut the veggies into sticks and dip them into dry spice blends. My favorite spice blends right now are Penzey’s Murals of Flavor (a salt-free blend that includes shallots and lemon peel) and Penzey’s Pizza seasoning (a distinct fennel flavor I love). I find it very satisfying to snack on veggies this way rather than crackers or chips. Another trick I use to get more vegetables in my family’s diet is to add pureed fresh spinach to smoothies and in place of water in recipes.
4. Eat less processed food.
When I see the professionally marketed boxes and bags of processed food in the grocery, it looks appetizing on the cover. But, once you look at the ingredients of food that comes in a box or a bag, you see some very unappetizing, sometimes revolting truths. The chemicals and preservatives and empty, possibly toxic, calories that lie within are tasty due to their fat, sugar, and salt content. But, they are terrible for your health. Try to choose foods with the fewest ingredients possible and those that are closest to the natural state. Choose whole grains where you can still identify the grain by looking at the product, rather than refined, bleached flours. If you don’t keep junk food in your home, then you will be much less likely to eat it. Out of sight, out of mind. If you have a junk food that you want to indulge in, then have one encounter with it away from home, and don’t bring the leftovers with you.
5. Prioritize exercise. Identify 3 priming songs.
The American College of Sports Medicine says that if you want to reap the cardiovascular and health benefits of exercise, you need to find the time to do moderate exercise 150 min/week. Another way to put it would be to exercise for at least 30 min a day, five days a week. The exercise you do should ideally be a mix of aerobic exercise, resistance training, balance training, and stretching. Regular exercise has been proven to help treat anxiety, depression, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
The best way to make sure you exercise enough is to make it fun so that you look forward to it. If you are not currently exercising on a regular basis, then you need to look at your schedule and see where you can fit it in, and actually write it on your calendar. Identify 3 priming songs. Priming songs are songs that when you hear them, you just want to get up and dance or move your body. Put these songs on your listening device, and use them to get your mind and body ready and geared up for exercise. I find my priming songs to be incredibly powerful motivators, especially on cloudy days when I am less likely to want to exercise.
6. Sit less. Move more.
The human body was not designed to be as sedentary as the typical American regimen has become. Our hip flexors are shortening from sitting all day, and our low back is straining from the slumped posture that prolonged sitting encourages. We will feel better and more energized if we move more and sit less.
Build tiny bouts of increased joint range of motion and body-weight strengthening into your daily life. For example, while you are filling your car with gas or waiting in line, you could use those few minutes to do heel raises, leg extensions (barely placing your straight leg behind you until you feel your buttock muscle engage in contraction), or stretching your arms over head. For every hour that you spend sitting, you should get up and move for at least 10 minutes. Take your large joints through their entire range of motion a few times a day. Stretch your hamstrings. Feel the improved blood flow and the release of tension that comes with regular movement of your muscles and skeleton.
7. Eat smaller portions.
As we age, our caloric requirements go down. This is because our lean body mass decreases and our metabolic rate slows down. These natural effects of aging can be mitigated by decreasing our caloric intake to match the decreased caloric need. Low calorie diets have been associated with longevity. If you eat more calories than you burn, then you gain weight. The American food portions are often grotesquely large. There is no need to go around feeling hungry, since you can always eat more fresh vegetables.
8. Protect your skin barrier.
Our skin is an important part of our immune system. It is the barrier between our organs and the outside world. Every part of our internal anatomy is connected to our skin by just a few degrees of separation because our skin involutes to our internal body at our eyes, ears, nose, mouth, urethra, and anus. As we age, our skin becomes less hydrated and less elastic, making it easier to get micro fissures in the skin. This can disrupt the natural, protective, healthy bacteria that live helpfully on our skin but should not contact our internal micro biome. To protect your skin barrier, I recommend using a mild, dermatologist-recommended bar soap, like Dove, in your warm (not hot) shower. Avoid harsh, anti-bacterial soaps unless you are cleansing your hands after contacting germs. Women should avoid using soap on their vagina, as it disrupts the natural, healthy flora – just use water. I also feel it is important to add moisture to your skin daily with a mild, dermatologist-recommended, unscented, daily moisturizer, preferably paraben-free. Frequent hand-washing can help keep us healthy, but hands should be thoroughly dried afterwards, and a moisturizer applied. As we age, our feet require more attention to keep the skin healthy and free of fungus, dry skin, and cracks. Get a professional pedicure monthly or do it yourself to eradicate the thick, dry skin, and use a moisturizing ointment on the soles of your feet every night to prevent the re-accumulation of keratin. Ointments I use daily on my hands include Un-petroleum by Alba Botanica and Organic Healing Balm by Honest Company. I use these products on my children as well.
9. Improve your sleep habits.
While we are sleeping, our bodies and minds enjoy a restorative period during which our metabolic processes are able to recuperate. Plenty of scientific literature has shown the benefits of getting 8 hours of sleep a night. Sleep is not wasted time, but rather an investment in your health and well-being. Make sure you have a comfortable sleep environment, an ergonomic sleep position (don’t sleep on your stomach), and a routine that helps your mind and body wind down for sleep. Getting regular exercise and setting aside time to meditate during the day can help you achieve better sleep at night, readying your mind and body for their nightly reward, restful , rejuvenating sleep.
10. Find gratitude. Choose happiness.
We all live with some level of stress, yet we can identify others who are enduring much more stress than we. When we remember there are other humans living in extreme poverty, or as prisoners of war, or as human slaves, or with a life cut short by disease, we should use these remembrances to help ourselves find gratitude amidst our own life stressors. We are kindred to all the humans on Earth, and we are born into environments beyond our control. What we can control is how we respond to our situation. Finding gratitude and not taking our life for granted is key to choosing happiness. Happiness is a choice, and we can all choose it anew every day.