5-minute fixes for better health

Taking on a new health regimen can be daunting. Accomplishing smaller tasks that contribute to health may be easier to achieve.

Published: December, 2018

You know what you're supposed to do: exercise daily, ditch junk food, get more sleep, and stay vigilant about every aspect of your health. It's a nonstop commitment that seems like a major undertaking if you've fallen behind. But putting off a healthy lifestyle increases the risk for developing chronic disease and jeopardizes your independence.

Rather than identifying big ways to improve your health, and then procrastinating, focus on small tasks that won't overwhelm you. Try a quick fix once in a while — or all the time if it applies. The more you do, the better you'll feel.

Exercise more

If scheduling a big workout is daunting, put a simple five-minute workout on your to-do list: march in place, do some leg lifts, and do biceps curls with a couple of soup cans.

Try exercising throughout the day, during daily activities. For example, don't just walk across your house, dance across — step lively and move your arms around. When you brush your teeth, suck in your lower gut for 30 seconds, which activates your abdominal muscles and helps strengthen them. Or make it a habit to stand up "twice" — each time you stand up, sit back down and then get back up. This helps strengthen your legs, abdominals, and hip muscles.

"Doing something rather than nothing, even small bursts of activity like walking up a few flights of stairs or starting off the day with several minutes of calisthenics, leads to measurable health benefits. No one should ever think that an effort to move is not enough to count," says Dr. Aaron Baggish, director of the Cardiovascular Performance Program at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital.

Reduce your fall risk

Falls are a top cause of injury and death once we hit age 65. But a few five-minute fixes at home can help reduce your fall risk. For example, hunt through your house for loose rugs, floor clutter, electrical cords, and other fall hazards that you can remove; keep pathways lighted by adding night lights throughout your home or replacing burned-out light bulbs; or rearrange a kitchen cabinet, moving items you use frequently, like plates, cups, and pantry staples, to the lowest shelf. That way you won't need to reach up high, which may cause you to lose your balance.

Get more sleep

Getting too little sleep (less than seven hours per night) is associated with fuzzy thinking, a higher fall risk, and irritability, according to sleep expert Dr. Lawrence Epstein, an instructor in medicine at Harvard Medical School. Inadequate sleep is also a risk factor for obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, and even premature death.

What quick fixes can help improve sleep? "Take a few minutes to come up with a daily sleep schedule, and figure out how to stick to it. Going to sleep and waking up at the same time each day anchors your circadian rhythm, the body's way of regulating when you get tired and when you naturally wake up," Dr. Epstein says. Other fixes: go to bed five minutes earlier each night if you need more sleep, or spend five minutes reading, meditating, or doing yoga to calm your body before bed.

Challenge your brain

Challenge your brain in five minutes by doing something new. This encourages new brain cell connections, which can help protect your memory and thinking skills. "Use a free app on your smartphone that teaches you new words in English or, better, a new language; use a free app to listen to a new kind of music; take a new route to get where you need to go; or watch a short educational video online about a subject that's new to you," suggests Dr. Joel -Salinas, a neurologist at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital.

Stay connected

Socializing wards off loneliness and isolation, which are associated with declining thinking skills, depression, heart attack, stroke, and early death. Take five minutes to stay connected each day: call a friend, use a smartphone or computer app to video chat with a loved one, or strike up a conversation with workers in the grocery store (at the meat, seafood, or bakery counters). Or take five minutes to call a friend and plan a longer visit soon — lunch, a movie, or a walk.

Protect your skin

Rough, dry, thin skin is prone to tears, infection, and wounds that are hard to heal. These risks can be reduced by rebuilding the skin's moisture barrier (with an oil-based cream that's so thick it comes in a jar). Moisturizing is most effective after a shower or bath. Keep moisturizer handy and slather it on after you've patted your skin dry. Shortcut: alternate between moisturizing your arms and trunk one day, your legs and feet the next.

Do some spring cleaning

Remove items in your cabinets that may pose a risk to health. Toss expired supplements or medications (find out if they are still safe to use by checking with your pharmacist); place them in a sealed plastic bag before throwing them away. Pitch foods in the fridge that have spoiled or are long past their use-by date. Get rid of junk foods (chips, cookies, and other processed foods).


Finally, take five minutes to meditate. It's a great stress reliever that helps lower blood pressure, decrease pain, and ease depression. You can even meditate throughout the day. "Spend five minutes sitting quietly, focusing on breathing. When thoughts come to mind, decide to come back to them later," says Dr. Anthony Weiner, director of outpatient geriatric psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital.

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