Getting healthier isn't as hard as it sounds — here's where to start
Come Jan. 1, we know what we're supposed to do: get healthy. But what does that even mean? And why does it sound so intimidating?
For me, growing up in the '80s, the concept of "health" was inextricably linked to Slim Goodbody — the curly-haired, unitard-wearing man who sang about bodies on PBS. (I was such a fan my mother brought this wee health editor-to-be to see him perform live.) I understood health had to do with trying not to get sick, but even then, knew it was more than that. It involved eating well and exercise and other activities I was less than enthusiastic about.
Flash forward to 2017, and I'm now working full-time in the health journalism space, and I'm still grappling with the concept. Specifically, that knowing about health isn't enough — you have to take action too.
The problem is it's really hard to make meaningful, positive lifestyle changes and so easy to sit on the couch and eat. And unfortunately, reading new studies and ideas and writing about health every day doesn't mean I make the best choices. In fact, the more information that's out there, the more intimidating "getting healthy" can actually be.
Fortunately, I had a chance to visit Hilton Head Health, known locally as H3, in December, where I learned some helpful — and most important realistic — ways to improve my health. It sounds totally obvious, but one of the biggest takeaways from my experience came from the H3 director of education, Bob Wright, who stresses that health and wellness — whether weight loss is a goal or not — is not all or nothing.
For me, this was life-changing. In the past, anytime I had tried to take steps to improve my health, I'd go all in, radically changing my diet and attempting to work out several times a week. When I'd inevitably slip up, I'd immediately give up, assuming there was no way to get back on track. But, as Wright explains, that does not have to be the case. Instead, you can acknowledge what happened, not beat yourself up about it, and try again. And it's probably best to try smaller, more incremental lifestyle changes rather than altering everything at once; that will make it easier to keep up with it.
And that is just the beginning. Here are four small but significant things you can do right now that will help improve your health. The best part is, these are all totally doable, and you can start today. Even if it's just one minor tweak to your daily schedule, that's a step in the right direction.
1. Sleep more & on a regular schedule
Of course we know we need to get more sleep and that it helps with functioning and alertness, but it also has a huge impact on how and what we eat. Wright explains that when we're tired all the time, not only do we lack the energy needed for exercise, but sleep also plays an important role in assisting appetite-regulating hormones.
Specifically, not getting enough sleep decreases levels of the leptin hormone, which is released by fat cells to signal the brain to stop eating as well as an increase in ghrelin — a hormone made in the stomach that signals you to keep eating. In fact, a study published in the journal Appetite found that when overweight adults averaging less than 6.5 hours of sleep each night got an extra 96 minutes of sleep, their craving for sweet and salty junk food decreased by 62 percent.
2. Try a new fruit or vegetable each week
We also know that eating fruits and vegetables is good for us, but probably stick to a set rotation of those we know we like to eat. That's a good start, but there are likely far more plant foods you've never even tried that could easily be added to your regular rotation, Wright says.
But again, rather than trying to change your entire diet overnight, take small steps, like trying a new fruit or vegetable each week and playing around with different ways to prepare it. Chances are you'll find at least a few new options you enjoy, and it will make following the healthy eating plate a little easier.
3. Start "meal planning" with snacks
For me, my best healthy-eating weeks are the ones when I have time to do meal prep for the entire week on Sundays. The problem is that doesn't happen as often as I'd like. Again, meal planning doesn't have to be all-or-nothing, either, and a good place to start is with snacks. Spending the time to make meals ahead for the whole week may not be an option, but planning your snacks for the day — like grabbing an apple or small bag of nuts on your way out the door — is.
"A rule of thumb is to have a fruit or vegetable with every eating occasion, including your snacking," H3 registered dietitian Felicia Spence says. Also, making sure you eat something every three to four hours helps to create a sustainable eating structure, meaning you'll consistently feel satisfied and energized and not get to the point of being so hungry you will eat anything in front of your face.
4. Stand up & sit down 10 times each hour during your workday
Like so many people, I spend most of my day sitting at a desk working. Sure, I get up throughout the day to go the restroom and get snacks and water, but H3 fitness coach Matt Barrack taught me another strategy: standing up and sitting back down 10 times each hour. Sure, your coworkers might look at you strangely in the beginning, but once they understand what's going on, they may want to join you.
It doesn't sound like a lot, but if you set a reminder for yourself once an hour to stand up and sit back down 10 times, over the course of an eight-hour workday, you will have done 80 squats. After a week, you will have done 400 squats, and 1,600 in a month. Will doing this drastically change your health? Probably not, but doing an additional 1,600 squats each month without a ton of effort is definitely a good start.