12 Science-Backed Ways to Feel Better Every Day
Getting healthier is a marathon, not a sprint: It's the result of hundreds of little decisions that we make over the long haul—eating fruits and veggies every day, working out three times a week, choosing chamomile tea over wine (most nights, anyway). But even the healthiest of health nuts long for something quick and easy. To that end, here's a roundup of scientifically proven ways to boost your mental and physical wellness in less time than it takes to read this article.
Smile, Especially if You Don't Feel Like It
There's scientific evidence that smiling can help the body and mind recover from stress. A 2014 study published in the journal Psychological Science, researchers induced stress in 170 students by asking them to perform a dexterity test and then plunge a hand into ice water. When the subjects were made to smile during these tasks, their heart rates returned to normal levels more quickly after they recovered from the stress. They were also better at maintaining positive feelings during the plunge than were those who held neutral expressions. Moreover, scientists observed an even greater drop in heart rate when students broke into a "Duchenne smile" (the type of smile that engages the eyes and the mouth). "Smiling can jump-start the process of happiness," says Jeff Brown, MD, a Harvard psychologist and the author of Chicken Soup for the Soul: Think Positive for Great Health ($8, amazon.com). "When you smile, you trigger a psychological and neurobiological alignment with positive emotions, and that can lead to healthier living."
Take a Real Lunch Break
This tip is two-fold. In general, taking a break in the middle of the day—whether you're working at your office computer or (finally) purging and organizing the garage—increases mood and productivity. Beyond that, taking breaks to refuel with a healthy meal or snack has myriad reported benefits, both immediate and long-lasting. A recent survey conducted by global workplace hygiene brand Tork found that workers who take daily lunch breaks (away from their desks) report higher job satisfaction, willingness to continue working at their company, and likelihood to recommend their employer.
"Refueling with food is the main reason we stop in the middle of the day, and it's important to step away from your desk to do this," says Regina Ragone, MS, RD. Getting away from your desk and to-dos, even just for 20 minutes, can improve your mood, creativity, and energy levels. But it also matters what you eat: Your body needs nutrients from whole foods and wholesome, well-balanced snacks. Ragone recommends a balanced meal that is 50 percent veggies, 25 percent lean protein, and 25 percent whole grains (bonus if you can sneak in some healthy fats, like avocado or olive oil). Some good snacks include veggies, fruit, nuts, and yogurt.
Turn Your Commute Into "You" Time
A commute longer than 22 minutes each way may have a negative impact on your well-being, according to a study in The Scandinavian Journal of Economics. But there are ways you can mitigate those adverse effects without moving. If you're brave enough, try cutting coffee out of your morning routine, since caffeine can worsen stress and increase anxiety, suggests Andrew Weil, MD, the author of Spontaneous Happiness. Also consider using the commute time as a mini break. Find a good podcast, focus on your breathing, or listen to your feel-good playlist.
Get Some "Microexercise"
"Studies show that everything from cognition to the lymphatic system improves if we are more consistently active throughout the day," says David Agus, MD, professor of medicine and engineering at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. "Our bodies were designed to move. Yet we've designed our world to have everything within arm's reach." That means you need to take every chance you get to add extra activity into your day. In fact, research published in the American Journal of Health Promotion suggests that short periods of activity really add up. When researchers analyzed data from more than 6,000 adults, ages 18 to 85, they found that those who got short bouts of exercise (between 1 and 10 minutes) through everyday activities experienced the same benefits, including lower blood pressure and cholesterol, as did those who continuously exercised for 30 minutes.
Snack on Dark Chocolate
In addition to its other documented health benefits, dark chocolate may help sharpen the mind. When participants in a study conducted at Northumbria University, in England, were given a drink containing high levels of cocoa flavanols, they performed significantly better on a math task than they did after having a placebo drink. Why? Researchers say that it's possible that flavanols help improve blood flow to the brain. Even better, science has found evidence for what you suspected all along: Chocolate may help take the edge off stress. When Swiss researchers asked stressed-out people to eat 1.4 ounces of dark chocolate each day, the researchers found that after two weeks, the subjects had lower levels of the stress hormones cortisol and catecholamines.
Use "If...Then…" Statements to Stay Positive
Just two syllables—if and then—can help you keep it together, even when your sister pushes your buttons or your boss is frustrating you. According to research from the University of Winnipeg, in Manitoba, reframing thoughts about a situation with "if" and "then" statements may help you manage fear, sadness, fatigue, self-doubt, or even disgust. Try this: Think of a challenge you're facing. That's your "if" clause (example: "If I'm under the gun on a deadline…"). Then decide what kind of positive response you would like to have. That's your "then" clause ("…then I will keep a cool head"). Put them together and that's what you should say to yourself to make stressful circumstances seem more manageable. It's the perfect create-your-own-mantra formula.
Have Perspective on Social Media
You love your friends—but maybe just a little bit less when they're cruising the Adriatic without you. Researchers at the IE Business School in Madrid found that Facebook can make you feel bad about yourself, even if you're not conscious of it. People in the study who had large friend networks tended to evaluate their lives more negatively right after they spent time on the site, as opposed to people who hadn't recently logged on. "It's natural to compare our lives with those of others, but people tend to post disproportionately positive updates and neglect the not-so-glamorous aspects of their lives," says study leader Dilney Goncalves, PhD, an assistant professor of marketing at IE Business School. Also, the more friends you have, the more of those impossibly perfect updates you'll probably see. So as a reality check, tell yourself that everyone has problems and that you may be overestimating how happy other people truly are. Goncalves says that this simple reminder can help eliminate the negative effects that Facebook may have on life satisfaction.
Eat Strawberries and Blueberries
Snacking on a mix of strawberries and blueberries may lower your risk of a heart attack. In a study published in the journal Circulation, researchers found that women between the ages of 25 and 42 who ate three or more servings a week reduced their risk of the number-one killer by 34 percent, compared with women who ate them once a month or less. Here's another reason to smile: Strawberries may make your teeth whiter. They contain malic acid, which acts as a natural astringent, removing surface stains from teeth and lightening mild discoloration.
Take a Walk Outside
A walk outside is more than just exercise: Research from the University of Michigan has found that being in nature can improve cognitive function. In one study, an hour-long trek in a woody park improved subjects' performances on memory and attention tests by as much as 20 percent, compared with a walk in an urban environment. Furthermore, some Japanese research shows that a day spent in the forest can improve immune function and decrease concentrations of adrenaline and cortisol for as long as a week.
Relax in a Magnesium Bath
Take a bath with Epsom salts. They're rich in magnesium, which is the fourth most abundant mineral in the body and a natural muscle relaxant, says Mark Hyman, MD, founder of the UltraWellness Center. Magnesium also seems to have a soothing effect on the nervous system; studies indicate that the mineral can help lower anxiety and improve sleep. Hyman's formula: Put 10 drops of lavender oil (also shown to help promote a state of calm) in 2 cups of Epsom salts. Add to warm water and soak in it for 20 minutes.
Stop Looking at Screens an Hour Before Bed
Curling up with a book on your tablet is the perfect way to end a busy day, right? Not if you want to sleep well, experts warn. The short wavelengths of light emitted by electronics can help suppress melatonin, the hormone that signals your body that it's night and time to sleep. "An hour or two before going to bed, switch off all electronic devices," says Frank Lipman, MD, the founder and the director of the Eleven Eleven Wellness Center, in New York City. It's possible that the closer you hold a device to your face, the more likely it is that the emitted light can interfere with your sleep, which is why tablets may be especially disruptive. And research published in the Journal of Applied Ergonomics found that spending two hours or more in front of a backlit display can suppress melatonin production by about 22 percent. What to do with the time after you unplug? Take a bath, read a (real) book, right in a journal, meditate, do light stretches—anything but scroll social media.
Eat Smart to Avoid Migraines
Watching what you eat could diminish your risk of a migraine, says Keri Gans, RD, the author of The Small Change Diet: "Many people know that aged cheeses and red wines trigger migraines," Gans says. "But the substances in some fruits—tyramine in citrus and tannin in red-skinned apples—can trigger them as well." You don't have to go fruit-free. Just stick to those outside the citrus family, and consider staying away from cranberries, persimmons, and mangoes, which also contain tannins. Or at least don't eat them until they're ripe. "The more fruit ripens, the lower the tannin levels become," Gans says.