There are things we all know we should do to improve our health. Things that really should be habits if we want to be as healthy as possible. But life is busy and old habits are hard to break.
This a list of my top ten tips for better health. I try to practice each of these every day because I know I will be better for it tomorrow. Sometimes I don’t get to all of them and that is alright. Sometimes I do all of these plus a few more and that is a bonus.
These ten little actions, or non-actions, are habits for me now, part of the daily routine that I miss when events keep me from doing them, but it was a long struggle to get to this point and I won’t try to convince anyone it was easy. I will give you what I learned along the way about making changes.
Most of us need to reach some kind of line we are just not willing to cross before deciding to change. Some of us are luckier, see the writing on the wall and make decisions before reaching our line. The line I did not want to cross was an accumulation of symptoms called “normal aging”. I had a less strenuous job and gained weight, I was less active in general and my joints were often sore and stiff, I was not sleeping as well and I got out of breath on hikes that should have been easy. I wanted to get off this road and onto a better one. I wanted to feel good again.
The hardest part isn’t deciding to change but being able to change. The solution is to just start doing something every day, or every other day, or twice a week. Just do it regularly. It might be awful for the first few weeks, but then it becomes not so bad for a while and then it is just a new habit. Tackle these health tips one at a time in this way, over the course of a year or two, and all of a sudden you realize you feel better.
Almost everyone has enough will-power to do something new, or not do an existing action, for the first few weeks. Never forget that learning new habits is like learning any other new skill – you make a lot of mistakes at first. It is alright to screw it up as long as you keep trying. The longer you keep trying, the better at it you will get and the less often you will screw it up. By the time you don’t have to think about it any more you are hardly screwing up at all and it doesn’t matter when you do.
Don’t beat yourself up when you fall off the wagon. Nobody has perfect will-power or the ability to just stop an old habit. There is no reason to feel guilt or shame – it is just another learning opportunity. Look at what you have accomplished.
Did you go three days without the “old” behavior before it happened? When was the last time you went that long without doing it? Has it been too long to remember? That is a major step forward. Can you go four or five days next time? Try to find out. But even if it is only another three days you are still advancing forward, still eliminating the old behavior most of the time, still getting your body and your mind used to not doing it. The key is not to just give up totally because of minor stumbles, to not turn these minor stumbles into failures.
Remember, if your goal is to eliminate a habit that is bad for your health, not doing it three days out of four is much better than doing it four days out of four. And every day not doing it will make it easier to keep not doing it. And every time we do it again is another reminder about why we want to stop doing it. So keep trying. You have not failed until you stop trying.
Here they are: my top ten tips for better health, in no particular order.
1.) Get outside for a little while. Get some sun on your skin if possible. Go out in the rain if you need to. Sun on our skin, even through clouds, produces vitamin-D. This vitamin is critical for a variety of bodily functions and also has strong anti-inflammatory actions. Fresh air just feels good, even when too hot or too cold, after hours inside a building or vehicle. Being able to see long distances is good for the mind and the mood after spending long periods in small rooms with limited views.
2.) Move. Even a little. Walk, swim, bike, run, jog, lift weights, do push-ups, do body-weight squats, do pull-ups. Do something. Do anything. Just move. And try to move every day. You will feel better. You will sleep better. You will not want to eat as much.
3.) Cook real food and eat it. If you are a lousy cook and the food you cook tastes terrible, practice more. Ask a friend or relative that is a good cook to tutor you and pay attention. Ask for easy recipe recommendations. Find cooking tips on-line or at the library. If you want to eat healthier food to get a healthier body, you have to cook at least most of the time.
Warming up something frozen or out of a can from the store doesn’t count, even if it is “all natural” or “organic”. Boiling noodles with an included “flavor packet” doesn’t count. Baking pre-made fish sticks or french fries or chicken nuggets doesn’t count. Biscuits or a cake or a loaf of bread from boxed mixes don’t count. That is not cooking and it is not real food and it will not make you healthier.
Use real, whole vegetables and fruits. Buy whole chickens or at least chicken parts that still have the bones and skin. Buy meat with bones and fish with skin. Get your grains and dried beans and nuts from the bulk section: it is cheaper, you can get just the amount you want and there are no “extra” unwanted ingredients. This is the path to whole food health.
4.) Stop eating so many simple carbs. Refined sugar, white wheat flour, white rice, high-fructose corn syrup and the like cause health problems when they are a regular part of the diet. These highly refined simple carbohydrates are the underlying cause of high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, obesity and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. They cause huge spikes of blood glucose followed by huge spikes of insulin. They do no trigger the “fullness” response that lets us know when we have had enough to eat. They take the place of the whole foods they are refined from, but without any of the beneficial nutrients and fiber.
Whole wheat, whole brown rice, whole kernel corn, sugar cane and beets are all healthy whole foods. Whole grains have been proven to extend life, reduce incidence of chronic diseases and reduce incidence of some cancers. Beets, even sugar beets, have many health benefits and are a great vegetable. This is no longer the case when they are stripped of all vitamins and minerals, reduced to simple starch and sugar that is nothing but empty calories.
5.) Get a dose of nature. Sit by a creek or river and listen to the water burble past. Stand on a beach wan watch the waves roll in. Stroll through a park with grass and trees. Hike in the forest or along a desert arroyo. Take advantage of whatever is easily available where you live to get a little dose of nature as often as possible. It has proven health benefits. No one is sure why yet, but being out in nature is good for us. One thing I stopped doing a long time ago is arguing with proven results. I just try to do what works, knowing why is a bonus.
6.) Brush your teeth. And floss. Twice per day for both is good. It is not just about preventing cavities. It is not just about healthy gums. Brushing and flossing has a wide range of health benefits for the whole body.
7.) Drink tea and coffee. Two to three cups each per day seems to be ideal. It doesn’t matter what kind of tea or coffee. Both beverages are packed with antioxidant compounds. Both show protective properties against inflammatory conditions and some cancers. I usually have coffee in the morning, green and black tea in the early afternoon and switch to herbal teas like rooibos, mint and chamomile in the evening. Try to go light on the honey or other sweeteners.
8.) Eat fruit. Eat fruit instead of drinking fruit juice – you will avoid the insulin spike that causes so many health problems. Eat fruit instead of cake or pudding for dessert. People that eat the most whole fruit live longest and have the fewest chronic diseases and cancers. That motivates me. I eat a lot more fruit now than I did ten years ago and feel a lot better for it.
9.) Meditate. Meditate even if you really suck at it. Meditate for 10-15 minutes per day. It works. Even if you really suck at it. It gets better. It gets easier. You start feeling a lot calmer and more in control. You start being less anxious, less judgmental and more focused. Just keep trying for 10-15 minutes every day. It is worth it. People who meditate regularly die a lot less often than those who never meditate.
10.) Grow something. It can be a plant or a pet. Having something to take care of, something that relies on us, is good for our health. And whether it is a garden, a few potted herb plants or a puppy, it ensures that we are a little more active each day, that we get outside a little more.
Those are my top ten tips for better health. There are many more things you can do to improve your health in addition to following these tips. But these ten will give you a really good start. And the beginning is almost always the hardest part.