Many people start off the New Year with a general desire to improve their health. But being “more healthy” can include an almost endless list of changes, leaving people unsure of where to begin. Furthermore, there is a perception that you have to implement all of the changes simultaneously or follow a complicated diet or exercise program in order to see results.
But it doesn't need to be this way. Fortunately, there are a few simple guidelines that have the potential to lead to significant improvements in health, fitness, and well-being. These are things you can implement right now, and the more you do, the bigger the benefits.
1. Eat smart
Healthy eating isn't necessarily about eating less or avoiding certain foods, it's about making smart choices when you shop, cook, or eat out. Many problems with the typical American diet probably have to do with the fact that we tend to eat heavily processed, calorie-dense foods. The major difference between what we eat now and what most people ate before the current obesity epidemic is the processing our food undergoes.
You can eat smart by focusing on eating real food – fresh and minimally-processed plants and animals – instead of the processed and prepackaged food that is so common in restaurants and in meals we eat at home. That isn't to say that all processed food is necessarily unhealthy, but it would be wise to shift the balance toward more real food.
You can do this right now by having a piece of fresh fruit, some nuts, or vegetables for a snack. Later, you can make most of your food purchases from the perimeter of the grocery store, not from the aisles in the middle.
2. Move more
Most people spend too much time sitting and not enough time moving. In fact, the amount of time someone sits during the day has nearly as much impact on their health as their exercise habits. So, step one is to sit less.
Next, move more, which means just that – finding ways to be active during the day. This includes simple things like standing rather than sitting when you talk on the phone, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, and getting up off the couch during commercials. It also includes dedicating time every day for structured exercise or other activity like yard work, house work, or taking the dog for a walk. Every little bit helps, but aim for a minimum of 30 minutes per day.
Right now you are probably sitting, so stand up and stretch or move around a little. Later, go for a walk or do something active around your house.
3. Chill out
With so much emphasis placed on diet and exercise, the health effects of stress are often overlooked. Chronic stress can have serious emotional, psychological, and physiological effects that lead to or exacerbate many health problems. While it is impossible to avoid all stress in life, minimizing stressors and managing the way you respond to stress can have important benefits.
Exercise is one good way to manage your feelings of stress as well as the effects it has on your body. Yoga has long been recommended to help reduce and control stress, but all types of exercise can help. Managing time better, including getting enough sleep, is helpful for many people.
Right now you can close your eyes and take a few deep breaths to relax. Later, spend some time doing something you enjoy.
So, if you are feeling overwhelmed by complicated and confusing health recommendations, keep it simple: eat smart, move more and chill out!
Brian Parr, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Exercise and Sports Science at USC Aiken where he teaches courses in exercise physiology, nutrition and health behavior.