Small changes for all 365 days of the new year.
We all know that health is a lifelong work in progress. But even though you can never check wellness off your list of resolutions—Darn it!—you can accomplish small things every day to feel good and fend off problems. Experts say these day-to-day habits add up.
They Go to Bed by 10.
It’s a given that not getting enough sleep can seriously hurt your health (it increases your risk for cardiovascular disease, for starters) but it could also matter when you clock those seven or eight hours. “The recent literature suggests that the optimal healing time for sleep is between 10 p.m. and midnight,” says Aunna Herbst, a doctor of osteopathic medicine at Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Functional Medicine. Hitting the sack early has major benefits, she says: think better healing and immunity and less free radical damage and inflammation.
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They Breathe Deeply.
Meditation or deep breathing—free of technology or other interruptions—can do more than just center you. “It’s been shown to lower flight or flight hormones,” Dr. Herbst says. That decreases anxiety, regulates blood sugar and helps your immune system, she says. You don’t have to follow any specific breathing pattern or practice, but to optimize the habit, schedule at least 10 minutes of daily meditation between 1 and 3 p.m. That’s when hormones that control our sleep/wake cycle often dip.
They Connect With Other People.
People in good relationships live longer, feel happier, and are healthier overall, Herbst says. (One study found that having social ties had as much benefit to a person’s risk of death as quitting smoking.) And spending time with friends and family can help you relieve stress, another important piece of health. So prioritize that dinner party. “Anything that allows you to use your creative side... and gives you a sense of community and connection is huge,” Dr. Herbst says.
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They Eat Nuts.
Snacking on a handful of any nut (raw or roasted) five or more times a week slashes your risk of dying from cardiovascular disease—along with a long list of other benefits, says Ann Kulze, M.D., a physician and health coach. “Nuts are a standout food for weight control, improving metabolic health, vision protection, and brain health,” Dr. Kulze says. “When you look at their makeup, it’s no big surprise. They’re chock full of critically important nutrients, healthy fats, vital vitamins and minerals, and super potent anti-inflammatory phytochemicals.”
They're Strategic About Sitting.
You know you need to exercise to stay healthy, but hitting the gym regularly isn’t enough if you’re also spending long stretches in a desk chair or on the couch: “When you’re sitting for prolonged periods of time, you’re damaging your body,” Dr. Kulze says. But you don’t have to quit your day job—just make sure to do some light activity for two to three minutes (walking to a co-worker’s office or doing a set of jumping jacks, for example) every hour that you’re sitting to counteract the negative effects.
Consider this an excuse to catch up on the comedy in your Netflix queue. “When you have a good belly laugh, you actually burn some calories, and you get happier,” says Judy Simon, R.D., a registered dietitian nutritionist and a clinical instructor at the University of Washington. Laughter can relieve stress and give you an endorphin rush, she says. In fact, a small 2014 study of elderly people found that watching a funny video decreased stress hormones and improved memory.
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Cutting back on delivery dinners and fast-casual lunches and eating mostly home-cooked meals can help you lose or maintain your weight and avoid chronic diseases. It's easy to guess why: you can sneak in extra fruits and vegetables and control portions when you’re the one in the kitchen. “In the short term, it can help fuel people better so they’re getting nutrients that they need," Simon says. "They can have a healthy quality of life now and reduce their risk for many types of cancer, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure.” When life gets too busy to think about cooking, meal planning, meal delivery services, and grocery deliveries can all help, Simon says.
They Get Outside.
Spending time outdoors provides vitamin D—crucial for strong bones and mental health—and gets you moving. Strolling through the woods or a park instead of down a city block could be even better for you. A 2015 study found that people who took a walk through nature had fewer negative thoughts and less activity in the area of the brain linked to mental illness risk compared with those who walked down a busy street. “Go outside,” Simon says. “It’s so good for your mood. Having the connection with nature and something bigger than ourselves, [experiencing] the wonder of it, helps release stress.”