This is less complicated than you’ve been told
The keys to good health are straightforward. They take work, but probably less than you think. Why can the pursuit of health and wellness seem overwhelming? Because experts, commentators and media have led us to believe that the changes we need to make should be complicated, difficult, and expensive. This is false. Just like it would be ridiculous to expect every meal you eat needs to be worthy of a five star restaurant, it’s ridiculous to expect that you have to devote a large amount of time, energy, and money to taking care of your body and mind. Yes, we all need to do basic maintenance on ourselves, but our bodies are incredible, resilient, healing machines.
Where do I start?
Pick one thing from the list below that either sounds easy or intriguing. If you have a pattern of making a health change and then dropping it after a certain amount of time, you may believe that change isn’t possible. That belief is false. Change is possible. We know how to start new things, but we sometimes lack the knowledge on how to keep going long enough to make the change permanent. Establishing a new habit is a skill that can be learned. If you don’t have a lot of practice at maintaining a healthy habit, start with something easy.
How to I start?
Pick one small, specific change and stick to that for a minimum of several weeks. You might have heard the expression, “Knowing is half the battle.” It took me a long time to figure out that statement is false. Knowing is the first step, and it’s a relatively easy one. It can feel so important and exciting that it’s actually easy to get trapped in a cycle of starting new things and quickly abandoning them. The truth is that the “battle” is made up almost entirely of repetition and practice.
The good news is that if you break things down into small steps, practice and repetition are easy most of the time. The even better news is that once you’ve stuck with something long enough that it becomes a habit, it no longer requires much effort to maintain. You continue to reap the rewards of that habit for the rest of your life.
What is the most important ingredient to success?
Enjoyment. Don’t get me wrong. Going for a walk in the middle of January in Wisconsin may not feel enjoyable in the moment, just like passing up on a few cookies may not feel enjoyable either. Making a change involves work, and work can be rewarding or discouraging, depending on the day. Instead, pay attention to how you feel later in the day after taking that walk or deciding to eat an apple instead of a bowl of cookies. What is your mood like? How does your body feel? If you skipped the walk, or decided to indulge in the cookies, that’s absolutely fine. Simply pay attention to how your body and mind feels. In the long run, we stick to the things that make us feel better if we take a few moments to recognize their impact.
What do I do when I have a setback?
Celebrate! Setbacks are an essential part of the learning process. You can’t succeed without them. So smile, pat yourself on the back, and realize this setback means you’re making progress and are about to level up. If it’s a small setback, start again and don’t worry about it. If it’s a large setback and you feel blocked or are thinking about quitting, watch this video on habits from acclaimed therapist Dr. David Burns.
When can I add another habit?
You can consider a habit firmly established when you’ve gone through the cycle of setback and recommitment enough times that you pick the habit back up quickly for two reasons: you miss it because it makes you feel good, and it’s easy to start again because you know that setbacks are to be expected and they no longer make you doubt yourself.
Leah’s Top 4 Health Habits for Health and Happiness
These are based on my personal experience, as well as fifteen years working with thousands of patients. When things get really busy and stressful and I drop all of my healthy habits, which happens several times a year, the habits below are the first things I pick back up. They’re easy and help me get on track—that’s why I come back to them and why I recommend them to others. They may seem small, but they’ve been the key to helping me grow to place where I’m happier and healthier in my 40s than I was in my 20s.
- Do 5 minutes of box breathing a day for greater mental and emotional resiliency. Within a week of practice, you’ll be less irritable and reactive. Put it on your daily to do list, set a timer on your phone, and keep at it.
- Take a 10 minute walk. If you have physical limitations right now that make ten minutes too difficult, split it into 5 minutes twice a day. Our bodies need 20-30 minutes of movement a day for optimal health. More than that is for vanity or performance. There is nothing wrong with wanting to look good or push yourself physically, but those goals don’t have anything to do with health. Daily movement greatly reduces the risk of every chronic health disease, and improves your mood. After you finish your walk, notice how you feel in that moment, both mentally and physically. If you feel calmer, more relaxed, or energized, you’re more likely to make this a habit.
- Prioritize sleep. Our bodies and minds heal while we sleep. Better sleep leads to a better mood, better decision-making, more energy, even a stronger libido. The best plan for addressing sleep hygiene is the following: make sure your room is cold, quiet and dark. Sometimes that means putting an alarm clock in a drawer to block the light, using a sleeping mask or ear plugs, putting a bothersome pet in the basement for the night, or even sleeping in another bed if you have a partner who snores loudly. Stop browsing your phone by 8pm, don’t drink any alcohol later than dinner, and don’t drink any caffeine later than lunch. If you have difficulties prioritizing sleep, make time for an additional 20 minutes for two weeks and see how you feel. Most people are amazed by the difference. If you’re having issues with insomnia, let me know and we can discuss strategies for healthy sleep in greater detail.
- Pack a lunch. Cutting back on sugar and processed carbs will decrease chronic, low-level inflammation in your body. If you have low energy, headaches, joint pain, menstrual pain, skin issues, or digestive complaints, this will help. Why lunch? It’s easier to fix than dinner, particularly if you’re cooking dinner for a family. It’s an easy place to add fruit and vegetables to your diet. Plus, if you eat well at lunch, you’re less likely to be so hungry by dinner time that you pick up fast food.
One last piece of advice—managing multiple healthy habits
As you move to the next health habit, expect to have less time for the other habits you’ve established. No one can do everything; luckily we don’t need to. When I started my box breathing habit, I wrote it down on my to do list every day and managed to follow through on it most days. At this point, it’s one of several habits that I use to manage my stress level and mood. Some weeks I focus more on my diet, sometimes on sleep—it depends on the specific circumstances of that week, how well I’m feeling, whether I’m on top of things or picking myself up after being thrown off balance by life. The point is, you don’t need to be perfect to be healthy and happy. Celebrate your wins, and keep trying. It makes a difference.