Harvard Women's Health Watch

3 trends worth tapping into

Activity trackers, farmers' markets, and mindfulness aren't just passing fancies. They can help you develop beneficial health habits.

farmers market
Image: julia514/iStock

The word "trendy" has come to refer to a fad or fashion that may have little lasting value, so it can be a turn-off, especially when applied to health practices. But trends can also have lasting health benefits—for example, the trends toward making public places smoke-free or adding calorie counts to fast-food menus. There is increasing evidence that the three trends below fall into the "beneficial" category.

1. Wearing activity trackers

Exercise is as close to a "magic bullet" as anything medicine has to offer. Physical activity has been linked to a lower risk of heart attack, stroke, diabetes, many cancers, osteoporosis, and dementia. "If a pill could have such diverse benefits, everyone would be clamoring for it," says Dr. JoAnn Manson, chief of preventive medicine at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital. "Most of us are well aware that we need the equivalent of 30 minutes of moderate physical activity on most days, but many of us lack the motivation to get moving."

More than 13 million wearable activity trackers—which record the number of steps taken and minutes of activity a day—were sold in the United States in 2015. They have been marketed as a solution to inertia, and in this case, the marketers may be right. A steady stream of research shows that the small devices—worn on the wrist or clipped to clothing—actually encourage people to become more active. In study after study, women 50 or older who were given activity trackers to wear not only significantly increased the number of steps they took daily and the minutes they spent in moderate to vigorous activity, but also expressed an interest in using the trackers and increasing their goals after the studies ended.

The key to the devices' success seems to be in the continual stream of feedback that users can access on their smartphones, tablets, or computers. Many also enjoyed competing against themselves, friends, or others in their age groups. "Getting this type of feedback is empowering and helps to change behavior," Dr. Manson says. To tap into this trend, expect to pay about $100 for a device that logs steps, miles, active minutes, and sleep time.

2. Shopping at farmers' markets

In the last 30 years, farmers' markets have moved from the sides of rural roads to the centers of major cities and everywhere in between. Although it may be coincidental, farmers' markets are tailor-made for people who are serious about following the 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which advise a gradual shift to a plant-based diet centered around vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. In one recent study conducted by researchers at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, when people began to shop at inner-city farmers' markets, they also consumed less sugary soda and more vegetables than they had previously. Farmers' markets offer several other advantages over supermarkets:

  • Freshness. Just-picked produce is at its peak in flavor and nutrition.

  • Variety. You may find some fruits or vegetables you haven't seen before or new versions of old standards.

  • Information. Because the people who sell the produce are likely to have had a hand in growing it, they should be able to tell you the kind of farming methods used and offer suggestions on preparing the food.

  • Samples. If you're wondering if the cherries are sweet or tart or if the apples are crisp, ask for a sample. Most vendors are happy to comply.

  • Sustainability. Eating locally or regionally grown produce means less energy is expended bringing it to your table. And supporting regional agriculture is good for your community.

You can find a farmers' market near you by going to the U.S. Department of Agriculture website using the link at www.health.harvard.edu/farmers.

3. Practicing mindfulness

Elements of a Buddhist meditative practice have been incorporated in techniques that enable people to employ mindfulness in their daily lives. In concept, mindfulness is simple—concentrating on the present moment and processing it nonjudgmentally. By focusing on the here and now, many people find that they are less likely to get caught up in worries about the future or regrets for the past, and are better able to form deep connections with others.

Mindfulness techniques have been shown to help relieve stress, anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and eating disorders. "They may also be helpful in treating chronic pain, improving sleep, and lowering blood pressure," Dr. Manson says.