Eating a plant-based diet, exercising, controlling weight, not smoking, limiting alcohol intake, and getting enough sleep are all pillars of a healthy lifestyle. They're linked to lower risks of chronic disease and a longer life.
Many other activities contribute to good health, too. Some seem so minor that it's easy to forget about them, especially when you're focused on the big goals of exercising and eating nutritious meals. Use this guide to help you fit more "little things" into your day.
Set a timer and take a break every 30 minutes to do the following activities.
Get up and move. Too much sitting is associated with increased risks for obesity, diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and early death. On the flip side, moving — even just a little — is linked with reduced risks for chronic disease. An activity break doesn't have to be fancy. For example: "Just standing up helps improve how your body uses blood sugar," says I-Min Lee, a senior exercise researcher and a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.
She suggests giving this routine a try every 30 minutes: Stand up, reach your arms to the sky, stretch, and twist your trunk to the left and right. Then walk around to get your heart and lungs working a little harder. You might do a quick household chore (unload a dishwasher, fold a load of laundry), climb up and down the stairs, get the mail, or dance to a favorite song. "Make sure you move your arms and legs. That's good for your muscles, which get tight when you sit too long. And it's good for your posture, which tends to be hunched on a couch and slouched at a desk," Lee says.
Drink a little water. Staying hydrated keeps every cell in your body functioning well. And it takes a concerted effort to make sure you're getting enough fluids (which can come from water, juice, or watery foods like berries or soup). To find out how much fluid your body needs, divide your body weight in pounds by 3. (For instance, a 144-pound person would need 48 ounces of fluids per day, or about six cups.) If you don't want to guzzle a cup of water here or there, just drink an ounce or two every half-hour. You'll ensure that you've met your hydration needs by the end of the day.
Every few hours
It's important to practice some habits every few hours. Schedule them at times when it makes the most sense for your day, such as a break in between two tasks.
Have a snack. "Smaller, more frequent meals can help you keep up your energy, keep your blood sugar levels stable, and increase the variety of foods in your diet," says Liz Moore, a registered dietitian at Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. She recommends having a small snack between a light breakfast and lunch, and then another between a light lunch and dinner.
"It needs to be nutritious. Combine protein and carbohydrates to keep it filling and well balanced," Moore advises. What makes a great snack? Moore recommends half a cup of nonfat Greek yogurt with berries, a handful of nuts, an apple or banana with a spoonful of peanut butter, half a cup of whole-grain cereal with milk, a hard-boiled egg with whole-grain crackers, or even just a small portion of leftovers from your last meal.
Be mindful. Being mindful is being present in the moment and taking in the sights, sounds, smells, and feelings you're experiencing. Practice mindfulness by simply stopping what you're doing and focusing on what your senses pick up. While washing your hands, for example, notice the temperature of the water, how your hands glide over each other, what the soap smells like, how the process makes you feel.
Or go on a brief mindful walk outside, observing the shapes and colors of leaves on the trees, the smell in the air, the sounds of birds, and how it all makes you feel. This process of being mindful is associated with reduced stress and anxiety; improvements in sleep, mood, focus, and concentration; and better management of pain and chronic disease.
Use eye drops. It takes only the blink of an eye to keep your eyes moist — literally. Blinking stimulates the production of tears and oils that lubricate the eye surface. Aging slows tear production, and when you add a lot of electronic screen time to your day — watching TV or looking at a smartphone or computer, which makes us stare more and blink less — we can get dry eyes. The fix is using artificial tears periodically throughout day. The drops don't have to be preservative-free unless you use them more than six times per day.
Once a day
Some activities bring rewards just by doing them once a day. Make time for the following.
Learn something new. Learning strengthens existing brain cell connections (synapses) and makes new ones, which helps keep thinking and memory sharp. The more synapses you build, the better shape you'll be in later, as you start to lose synapses naturally with age. Schedule a time each day to learn something new, whether you watch part of a documentary, listen to a new type of music, read a nonfiction book, or watch an interesting lecture on YouTube (search "university lecture" for endless options). "Write down what you learn and share the information with someone in your life. That reinforces the recording process in the brain and helps you retain the information better," says Dr. Andrew Budson, a neurologist and chief of Cognitive and Behavioral Neurology at the VA Boston Healthcare System.
Chat with someone outside your household. Social connection thoroughly engages the brain. And when you have an enjoyable or meaningful interaction with someone, it increases brain cell connections, boosts mood, reduces isolation and loneliness, and may play a role in reducing the risk for chronic disease and premature death. Try to schedule some sort of social connection at least once per day. It may just be a phone visit with a friend or a chat with a neighbor. "And if it's someone you don't see every day, that's even better," Dr. Budson says, "because it will facilitate new connections in your brain, rather than simply strengthening existing ones."
Meditate. Meditating activates the relaxation response, the antidote to the body's stress response. In the short term, stress temporarily triggers a cascade of physiological changes that prepare us for "fight or flight." If we're always stressed, however, those effects can lead to chronic inflammation, high blood sugar, high blood pressure, and more. Eliciting the relaxation response at least once a day, by meditating for example, helps reduce stress and makes you better at coping with it. There are lots of ways to meditate, such as doing 10 or 15 minutes of deep breathing, yoga, mindfulness, or transcendental meditation.
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