By Kaitlyn Price via Prevention
Forget big resolutions—these small actions will pay off in a major way for your health.
You’ve heard the advice: Lose 25 pounds. Improve your relationship with your mother. Give up sugar and wrap your ankle behind your head in yoga class. While these are all laudable goals, they’re pretty ambitious. Reaching too high (especially in a pandemic!) can set you up for disappointment, ensuring that any resolutions will be toast. Let’s not go there. There are lots of small, simple things you can do to make a big impact on your overall health and preserve your peace of mind no matter what 2021 looks like. Embrace the expert-backed strategies here and set yourself up for a better year.
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One or two leafy plants will do the trick. “You don’t want to create a jungle, because visual complexity makes us stressed,” says Sally Augustin, Ph.D., an environmental psychologist who sets up spaces that support well-being and the principal at Design With Science. But having a couple of plants nearby can alleviate stress, boost mental energy, and help you think more creatively, she says.
Need inspiration? Check out these low-maintenance houseplants.
“We’re all home a lot right now and tense for various reasons, and there are so many uncertainties,” says Augustin. Painting a wall just the right shade may help you decompress a bit. “Science shows that colors that are relatively light and not very saturated are relaxing,” she adds, “and a light color makes the space seem a little bigger.” Augustin suggests thinking about a soft color, like sage green, and what it would look like if you mixed it with an equal amount of white. Benjamin Moore’s Pastel Green, Misty Blue, and April Pink are good examples of calming colors.
Find a friend who enjoys the same type of exercise as you do and set a combined goal (such as jogging 600 miles or doing 150 hours of yoga between the two of you), suggests Natalie Dorset, founder of The Laughing Runner coaching in New York City. Each of you is responsible for completing half the goal, and neither of you can claim success unless the other does their share. The key is to hold each other accountable and cheer each other on. Not only will tackling a joint challenge be more fun, but “it can also be a good way to stay connected with a friend,” says Dorset.
“Everyone talks aboutlimiting social media, but what I mean is noticing how you feel before and after engaging with it,” says Kati Morton, LMFT, author of Are U OK? “If you feel worse afterward, consider who you’re following or what you’re doing online and make some changes.” You can also delete your account altogether if it’s driving your anxiety through the roof. (Our minds can handle only so many political arguments and images of fake-perfect lives.) If social media leaves you feeling connected and amused, keep scrolling—as long as you are also staying present in your real life.
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Many of us put off doctor’s appointments last year because of the pandemic, but most primary care offices have developed precautions so patients can be safely seen in person, and some offer virtual visits so you can talk to your doc from the comfort of your couch, says Anita Skariah, D.O., a primary care physician at UNC Health. She notes that people with underlying conditions such as hypertension and uncontrolled diabetes may have a harder course with COVID-19. “Aside from masking, social distancing, and frequent handwashing, another line of defense is keeping chronic conditions under good control,” adds Dr. Skariah. “This may prevent our bodies from becoming overwhelmed if we should encounter the COVID-19 virus.
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While you’re giving the rest ofyour life a fresh start, rethink your skin. “Establish and commit toa skincare regimen,” says Yolanda Lenzy, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist and licensed cosmetologist in Chicopee, MA. It doesn’t have to be complicated. Dr. Lenzy says you need just three staples: a broad-spectrum sunscreen, a retinoid to reduce signs of aging and minimize breakouts, and an antioxidant such as a vitamin C serum to limit the production of free radicals caused by sun exposure.
7 . Plan just three dinners for the week
Three is the magic number—just enough to give you a sense of control, but not so many as to make you nuts when plans change throughout the week. “Keep it simple and flexible,” says Lauren O’Connor, R.D.N., the owner of Nutri Savvy Health. She suggests buying ingredients for three or four meals; then, as the week progresses, you can make your daily dinner decision accordingly.
Get dinner on the table in a jiffy with one of these easy sheet-pan dinners.
8 . Sleep separately
No need to decamp to the guest room. But if you or your bed partner move around a lot, it might help to get a bigger mattress and separate coverings, suggests Fariha Abbasi-Feinberg, M.D., medical director of sleep medicine at Millennium Physician Group in Fort Myers, FL. You also want to evaluate the overall comfort of your bed. “You need to create a soothing sleep environment,” says Dr. Abbasi-Feinberg. “The texture of the sheets and the material of the comforter matter too.”
If you or your partner is a hot sleeper, check out these cooling sheets.
9 . Make simple food swaps
Eating healthier isn’t about overhauling your diet and kissing everything you love goodbye. Some of O’Connor’s favorite substitutions: Useplain low-fat Greek yogurt in place of sour cream on burritos, spread avocado on sandwiches instead of mayo, swap in a sprinkling of nuts instead of croutons (pistachios and walnuts are great choices for both taste and nutrition), and blend a frozen banana with1⁄2 cup of berries asan alternative to ice cream.
10 . Seek out inspiration on your TV
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Stuck in an exercise rut or working toward abig goal (such as a virtual 5K)? Set aside some time to check out Netflix’s Rising Phoenix or the new unscripted series The Pack on Amazon Prime Video. “Watch a documentary or movie about someone who overcomes a challenge—like training for a first marathon or recovering from an injury,” says Dorset. “You will be inspired to get out there, and if you hit a rough patch, you’ll be able to draw on that motivation to get through it.”
11 Kick yourself out of the house
The natural light you get outdoors can help you de-stress, especially if you’ve been staring at artificial light emitted from computer screens, says Dr. Skariah. “If your kids are at home with you doing remote learning, go outside with them for 10 to 15 minutes during their lunch breaks,” she says. “Take a short walk or just soak up some fresh air and sunshine. You will all feel recharged and ready for the afternoon.” In cold weather it can be especially difficult to drag yourself outside, but a few minutes in nature can turn your day around.
12 . Take stock of your supplements
Write down everything you’re taking and bring the list to your next doctor visit. Supplements may make unsubstantiated claims and are not well regulated, so you could be buying something that won’t work or taking more than you need. For instance, mega doses of biotin are not effective for treating most forms of hair loss and can negatively affect blood work, says Dr. Lenzy.
13 . Place an audio call
Phoning a friend might sound like a no-brainer, but new research shows that phone calls create stronger bonds between people than texts and emails. In a time when we are physically distanced from others, "it's vital that we connect with people we love and support," says Morton. "Make time each week to connect with these people on the phone, on Zoom, or in person. Doing so will calm your nervous system."
14 . Make your workouts more comfortable
As many of us continue to avoid the gym because of COVID-19 worries, it’s essential to have the right equipment for outdoor exercise. “The first winter I ran outside, I was so shocked at how cold my toes got,” says Dorset. “It took a while before I realized that some shoes let in less air and moisture and that having shoes that kept out the cold and had good traction would make the run more enjoyable.” Look for winterized sneakers or trail shoes. “The most important features are things that are going to keep your feet dry, such as a special material like Gore-Tex or inner and outer layers, and things that provide traction, such as good lugs or built-in spikes,” Dorset advises.
For more tips on how to select the right gear for outdoor winter workouts, check out this guide.
15 . Check your lightbulbs
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Sitting in warm light is a really good way to relax and decompress, says Augustin. She suggests that you look at your bulbs and, if they give off a glow that’s harsh, cool, and bright, pick up some that are labeled “warm” the next time you’re at the grocery store. If you have a fireplace or candles, the light from those will be helpful too.
16 . Pair old habits with new ones
When you’re trying to start a new behavior, incorporating it into something you already do might make it more automatic. For instance, if you’re doing cardio workouts, include 10 minutes of weight training as part of the regimen, focusing on different muscle
groups each time, Dr. Skariah suggests. If you make your lunch daily, consider it incomplete until you’ve plopped a serving of vegetables onto your plate. Or, add a few minutes of meditation or reflection to your wind-down period at the end of the evening. “Most of us are creatures of habit and enjoy structure and routine,” says Dr. Skariah. “If your brain is already trained for a specific habit and you add something to it, you’ll be more likely to adopt that change quickly.”
17 . Spill it to your doctor
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You’ve likely gone through a lot of emotional ups and downs since your last general checkup, and that can impact your mental and physical health in ways you may not realize. “Your primarycare provider is a good resource for helping you navigate this very challenging season,” says Dr. Skariah. “They may offer tips on how to replenish your physical self as well as your spiritual self.” They should also be able to refer you to a therapist if you could use that support.
18 . Buy versatile produce
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O’Connor recommends keeping on hand three to five fresh vegetables that can be used in multiple ways. Zucchini, broccoli, carrots, bell peppers, mushrooms, and leafy greens are all winners. “You can mix and match everything in salads, sandwiches, wraps, stir-fries, and more,” she says. It’s smart to throw in some frozen produce as well. “Frozen fruits and veggies are picked at the peak of ripeness and nutritional quality so that the flavor and texture are at their best when you’re ready to eat them,” O’Connor adds. “This will let you get your fruits and veggies even when you’re out of fresh options."
19 . Don't forget about your core
“If you want to improve your fitness, training your core is essential,” says Ridge Davis, a certified personal trainer in Los Angeles. “A weak core is often the culprit in lower back injuries, and even advanced fitness enthusiasts neglect it. However, building core muscles can help you feel stronger in all your daily activities.” He suggests doing five rounds of a 30-second forearm plank, 20 crunches, and 10 Superman raises a few times a day.
When you're ready, take things up a notch with this 30-day ab challenge.
20 . Be picky
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Between virtual board meetings, chauffeuring your kid, and grocery shopping for elderly parents, it’s easy to overcommit. “When you say yes or no to an invitation or request, take a moment to reflect on whether it moves you closer to who and where you want to be in your life or away from what’s most important to you,” says Trish Leonard-Curtin, Psy.D., a psychologist and coauthor of The Power of Small: Making Tiny Changes When Everything Feels Too Much. Remember, you’re not a machine, and you may not be able to do everything you want to, and that’s OK.
21 . Track your downtime too
You may be counting your steps already, but it turns outthat the time we’re inactive is just as important. “The new year is a time when people reignite their motivation and goals for fitness, which often leads to burnout because there is a lack of motivation to properly recover,” says Davis. He recommends using a fitness tracker like Whoop ($30 per month, whoop.com) to ensure that you’re getting enough zzz’s for all your virtual Zumba and spin classes. “A lack of recovery can lead to overuse injuries and increase cortisol levels,” he adds.