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There’s no denying that health and happiness go hand in hand—those who practice healthy habits like eating well, exercising regularly and getting enough sleep tend to live happier, more fulfilling lives.
While diet and exercise are core components of a healthy lifestyle, there are many more habits that can significantly improve your overall wellbeing. And as with building any habits, consistency is everything.
We spoke to some of the top health experts to find out their secrets to success—here’s what to know.
1. Breathe and meditate
There are many well-known benefits of meditation and breathwork ranging from lower levels of stress, anxiety and depression to enhanced focus and energy. “There are no rules to meditation or deep breathing, says Serena Poon, CN, CHC, CHN. “It is more about creating the space to connect to your breath and your higher self than it is about any one specific practice.”
Poon recommends trying a few different methodologies and deepen a practice that works best for you. To start, she suggests the 4-4-4 breath, a simple breathing exercise that you can do from anywhere.
How to do it:
- Find a comfortable seat, sit up tall, close or soften your eyes
- Inhale deeply through your nose for four counts
- Hold the breath for four counts
- Exhale for four counts.
- Repeat for up to 20 minutes.
This breathing exercise can often reduce stress and anxiety almost instantly!
2. Improve your sleep hygiene
If you consistently don’t get enough sleep, the rest of your health will suffer: Lower energy, higher stress levels, a weaker immune system and the list goes on.
“Some of the most impactful interventions to promote better sleep health may also be the toughest at first, says Dr. Vernon Williams, MD, sports neurologist, pain management specialist, and founding director of the Center for Sports Neurology and Pain Medicine at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles. “An important one is to get rid of bedroom distractions. Think smartphones, tablets, televisions and other bright light sources that can disrupt your brain’s sleep signals.”
But creating better sleep habits requires more than improving your bedtime routine.
“Another great way to promote better sleep is to get enough exposure to sunlight during the day, especially during the early morning hours if possible,” Dr. Williams explains. “This has to do with your brain’s sleep-wake ‘clock’ and is a frequently overlooked factor in getting better sleep since our society is spending less and less time outside these days.”
In addition, finding ways to help your brain unwind before bed and throughout the day is crucial, Dr. Williams adds. Mindfulness meditation, light yoga or taking a warm bath can all help.
3. Prepare your meals at home
Limit takeout and restaurant food. Research shows it’s higher in calories, saturated fat, sugar, cholesterol, and sodium, all of which can negatively impact your health and longevity.
In fact, 92% of restaurant meals exceeded the normal calorie requirements for a single meal. It’s true!
“Cooking your meals at home allows you to control what goes into your food, helping to limit excess calories, fat, sugar, and sodium,” says Dr. Gil Blander, PhD, founder and chief science officer of InsideTracker. “When cooking at home, I try to incorporate whole foods as much as possible, including whole grains, beans, lean meats, fruit, and vegetables. I have take out or restaurant food only once or twice per week, and aim to cook the rest of my meals at home.”
The takeaway: Getting into the habit of home cooking on a regular basis can positively affect your overall health and longevity.
4. Watch your portions
Dr. Lisa R Young, PhD, RDN , author of Finally Full, Finally Slim, and nutritionist in private practice explains that you don’t have to weigh and measure everything you eat, but you should be aware of how much you are eating.
For example, when pouring cereal, many people pour three cups into a bowl instead of the recommended one cup. And, eat mindfully and pay attention to hunger levels.
5. Have a consistent workout plan
Caught up in the business of daily life, many people make excuses to avoid exercising during the week and “save it” for the weekend. But that strategy isn’t effective.
“It is much more beneficial to your body to exercise for thirty minutes daily than to cram it all in over the weekend,” says Dr. Bert Mandelbaum, MD, sports medicine specialist and orthopedic surgeon at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles, CA and author of The Win Within: Capturing Your Victorious Spirit.
Also, keep in mind that you can be physically active without doing a traditional workout.
“Don’t forget that simple things like walking the dog, raking leaves, or taking the stairs instead of the elevator all count as exercise, says Dr. Mandelbaum. “If you just don’t have the time for thirty minutes all together, break it up into two 15 minute sets a day. Getting some sort of daily exercise is healthier on your body than pulling a ‘weekend warrior,’ reduces the risk of injury, and will also make it possible to actually improve your fitness level as you build it up more every day.”
6. Take probiotics and prebiotics
The balance of your gut microbiome is essential for your digestive health, brain health and immune function. When it’s out of balance, you run the risk of developing health problems that manifest in the form of mild symptoms (like gas or cramps) to more severe conditions such as obesity, heart disease, anxiety and depression.
“Along with a vegetable-rich diet and healthy lifestyle, adding probiotics and prebiotics can help keep your microbiome happy,” Poon explains. “Probiotics are ‘good’ bacteria that help maintain balance. Prebiotics are dietary fiber that fuel probiotics.”
Make sure to purchase high-quality prebiotics and probiotics from a brand you can trust. Poon recommends Just Add Water, a nutrient-dense, bioavailable supplement.
7. Practice intermittent fasting
Intermittent fasting (IF) encourages eating only within a defined time interval, usually an 8-hour window each day, and can be thought of as extending the normal overnight fast that occurs naturally with sleep.
Dr. Blander provides this example: with an 8-hour feeding window, food is only consumed between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m., followed by a 16 hour fasting period. Intermittent fasting focuses less on the types of foods consumed and more on confining overall daily caloric intake to a set window of time. Therefore, people who participate in intermittent fasting don’t need to change their food choices, only when they begin and end their day of eating. Of course, choosing healthier options will have additional benefits.
Intermittent fasting can improve many metabolic biomarkers associated with overall health and longevity, including blood glucose, LDL (bad) cholesterol, and triglycerides.
“From our own data, we found that lower levels of all three of these biomarkers are associated with younger age,” says Dr. Blander. “Intermittent fasting trials have been shown to reduce fasting blood glucose by 10-27% when conducted for as little as four weeks. LDL cholesterol and triglycerides also respond favorably to intermittent fasting
with reductions ranging from 9-37% and 4-37%, respectively.”
Intermittent fasting has also been associated with weight loss, especially when the feeding window occurs earlier in the day, Dr. Blander adds. Here’s why:
First, many Americans tend to eat more calories towards the end of the day; so, restricting food intake at night helps reduce overall calories. Second, because of our circadian rhythm and metabolic slowing, calories consumed at night may have more of a negative impact on weight compared to calories consumed in the morning. In the recent UCSF study, participants were asked to follow a feeding window between 12 pm-8 pm and saw no weight loss. This may indicate that 8 pm is too late to see significant reductions in weight with intermittent fasting. In short, consuming the majority of your calories earlier in the day is associated with greater weight loss and lower body weight.
Many trendy diets focus on reducing or eliminating certain foods or food groups, while intermittent fasting allows individuals to enjoy all foods, giving them freedom with their food choices. Intermittent fasting is not for everyone though. IF is not recommended for individuals who are underweight, under 18 years old, pregnant or breastfeeding, have a history or currently struggle with eating disorders, and those with diabetes, Dr. Blander states.
8. Tune in to your inner cues
Ask yourself: Am I actually hungry?
“Try to tune into your internal feelings of hunger too, and eat when hungry,” Dr. Young recommends. “If you have the urge to eat, ask yourself if you are hungry or bored.”
Eating mindfully is crucial to healthy living. To eat mindfully, you need to eat with intention. It’s being aware of what’s going into your body and consciously choosing foods that will energize and nourish you.
9. Eat lots of vegetables and fruits and avoid inflammatory foods
If you make one dietary shift to improve your health right now, Poon recommends increasing your consumption of vegetables and fruits.
Why? Because “fresh produce delivers phytonutrients, antioxidants and fiber to the body, improving health and protecting your body from disease,” Poon explains. To ensure your body absorbs the maximum amount of nutrients from fruits and veggies, it’s also important to remove inflammatory foods from your diet.
Chronic inflammation is one of the leading causes of disease and can lead to an array of health conditions, from sleep problems, weight gain and fatigue to more serious diseases such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, obesity, and diabetes.
Inflammatory foods include processed foods, especially processed meat, added sugar, trans fat, refined grains, added sugar, and too many omega-6 fatty acids. Food allergies and sensitivities can also lead to inflammation, Poon adds.
10. Create structure
The pandemic forced many of us to adapt to a new way of living. With work from home life, creating structure in our diet was the hardest part.
“One of the most difficult parts with eating healthy long term is the lack of structure, especially now,” says Dr. Young. “So, I urge people to create a structure—plan when, what and how much you are going to eat, and try to stick to it as best as possible.”