More and more research is showing that the key to lifelong good health is what experts call “lifestyle medicine” — making simple changes in diet, exercise and stress management. To help you turn that knowledge into results, we’ve put together this manageable list of health and wellness action steps.
We asked three experts — a naturopathic physician, a nutritionist, and a personal trainer — to tell us the top five simple-but-significant lifestyle-medicine changes they recommend.
Besides giving you three different takes on how to pick your health battles, this list gives you choices you can make without being whisked off to a reality-show fat farm — or buying a second freezer for those calorie-controlled, pre-portioned frozen meals.
James Rouse, N.D.
Naturopathic physician, triathlete, chef, author and host of TV’s “Optimum Wellness,” health-tip segments featured on NBC affiliates in several major cities.
1. Think positive and focus on gratitude
Research shows a healthy positive attitude helps build a healthier immune system and boosts overall health. Your body believes what you think, so focus on the positive.
2. Eat your vegetables
Shoot for five servings of vegetables a day — raw, steamed, or stir-fried. A diet high in vegetables is associated with a reduced risk of developing cancers of the lung, colon, breast, cervix, esophagus, stomach, bladder, pancreas and ovary. And many of the most powerful phytonutrients are the ones with the boldest colors — such as broccoli, cabbage, carrots, tomatoes, grapes and leafy greens.
3. Set a “5-meal ideal”
What, when and how much you eat can keep both your metabolism and your energy levels steadily elevated, so you’ll have more all-day energy. A “5 meal ideal” will help you manage your weight, keep your cool, maintain your focus and avoid cravings.
4. Exercise daily
Did you know that daily exercise can reduce all of the biomarkers of aging? This includes improving eyesight, normalizing blood pressure, improving lean muscle, lowering cholesterol and improving bone density. If you want to live well and live longer, you must exercise! Studies show that even 10 minutes of exercise makes a difference — so do something! Crank the stereo and dance in your living room. Sign up for swing dancing or ballroom-dancing lessons. Walk to the park with your kids or a neighbor you’d like to catch up with. Jump rope or play hopscotch. Spin a hula hoop. Play water volleyball. Bike to work. Jump on a trampoline. Go for a hike.
5. Get at good night’s sleep
If you have trouble sleeping, try relaxation techniques such as meditation and yoga. Or eat a small bedtime snack of foods shown to help shift the body and mind into sleep mode: whole grain cereal with milk, oatmeal, cherries or chamomile tea. Darken your room more and turn your clock away from you. Write down worries or stressful thoughts to get them out of your head and onto the page. This will help you put them into perspective so you can quit worrying about them.
Christina Reiter, M.S., R.D.
Resident consulting dietitian at the University of Colorado–Boulder Wardenburg Health Center for Nutrition Education and Therapies and former director of the nutrition program at Metropolitan State College of Denver.
1. Check your food ’tude
What we eat and how we feel are linked in very complex ways. A healthy approach to eating is centered on savoring flavor, eating to satisfaction and increasing energy, rather than focusing on weight. Check your balance of low-calorie foods, nutrient-dense foods (providing many nutrients per calorie), and foods that are calorie dense but nutrient poor. Most Americans need to eat more fresh whole foods (in contrast to processed, highly refined foods). Try to add more whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, and legumes into your meals. Pair these carbohydrate-rich foods with a healthy fat or lean protein to extend satisfaction.
2. Eat like a kid
If adding more fruits and vegetables sounds ominous, look to “finger food” versions that preschool kids love — carrot and celery sticks, cherry tomatoes, broccoli florets, grapes, berries and dried fruits. All are nutritional powerhouses packed with antioxidants.
3. Be a picky eater
Limit saturated fats and trans fats, and aim to eat more foods rich in anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids to cut your risk of cardiovascular disease and maybe even improve depressed moods. The equivalent of just 1 gram of EPA/DHA (eicosapentaenoic acid/docosahexaenoic acid) daily is recommended. Eating cold-water oily fish (wild salmon, herring, sardines, trout) two to three times per week will provide both EPA and DHA. Adding up to 2 tablespoons of ground flaxseed and eating meat, milk and cheese from grass-fed animals will provide you with a healthy dose of omega-3s.
4. Use foods over supplements
Supplements are not a substitute for a good diet. Although many health experts recommend taking a multivitamin and mineral supplement that provides 100 to 200 percent of your recommended daily value, each and every supplement should be carefully evaluated for purity and safety. Specific supplements have been associated with toxicity, reactions with medications, competition with other nutrients, and even increased risk of diseases such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes.
5. Get satisfaction
Both eating and physical activity are fun, sensory experiences! In both, aim for pleasure — not pain. Pay attention to the nutritional value of the foods you choose to eat, as well as your sense of satisfaction, relaxation, tension, exhilaration and fatigue when you sit down to eat. Check in with yourself as you eat, rekindling your recognition of hunger, fullness and satisfaction when considering when and how much to eat.
Rick Olderman, M.S., P.T.
A physical therapist and owner of Z-Line Training in Denver, Colo., offering rehabilitation, personal training, Pilates instruction, motivational injury-prevention seminars, employee fitness program development and custom foot orthotics casting.
1. Give yourself a break
“I spend countless hours doing cardio and never seem to lose that last 10 pounds!” is a common complaint I hear from clients. Give yourself permission to shorten your workout. Believe it or not, overtraining could be the problem. Your body can plateau if not given adequate rest to restore itself, ultimately leading to a decline in performance. Fatigue, moodiness, lack of enthusiasm, depression and increased cortisol (the “stress” hormone) are some hallmarks of overtraining syndrome. Creating a periodization program — breaking up your routine into various training modes — can help prevent overtraining by building rest phases into your regimen. For example, you might weight train on Monday and Wednesday, cycle on Tuesday and Thursday, run on Friday and rest on Saturday and Sunday. You can also help balance your program by simply incorporating more variety.
2. Think small
Often the biggest deterrent to improving health is feeling overwhelmed by all the available advice and research. Try to focus first on one small, seemingly inconsequential, unhealthy habit and turn it into a healthy, positive habit. If you’re in the habit of eating as soon as you get home at night, instead keep walking shoes in the garage or entryway and take a quick spin around the block before going inside. If you have a can of soda at lunchtime every day, have a glass of water two days a week instead. Starting with small, painless changes helps establish the mentality that healthy change is not necessarily painful change. It’s easy to build from here by adding more healthy substitutions.
3. Keep good company
You can do all the right things — but if you have personal relationships with people who have unhealthy habits, it is often an uphill battle. The healthiest people are those who have relationships with other healthy people. Get your family or friends involved with you when you walk or plan healthier meals. Making healthy changes with a loved one can bring you closer together as well as motivate you.
4. Make a list … and check it twice
Take a few minutes and write down all the reasons you can’t begin an exercise program. Then look at the basis of each reason. For instance, if you wrote, “No time” as one of your reasons, then perhaps that’s based on a belief that an exercise program takes a lot of time. Starting with even five minutes a day will have a positive effect because you will have created a healthy habit where one didn’t exist before, and that’s a powerful mental adjustment. A closer look at your list will expose those false beliefs hiding behind each excuse.
5. Sign up for an event
Let’s face it, exercising just for the sake of exercising or losing weight can get boring. Spice things up by signing up for an event like a run/walk race or a cycling ride where you can be part of a team. Doing so gives your workouts a new purpose, and it’s fun to be around others who are exercising just like you — not to mention that most events benefit nonprofit organizations, which doubles your feel-good high.
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Growing your own vegetable garden can do more than provide tasty produce—gardening can improve health, save money and even boost mood.
Community gardens, backyard plots, and even window boxes are gaining in popularity, and tomatoes are among the first seeds new gardeners plant. Whole generations of Americans have never eaten homegrown tomatoes—never experienced the beefy taste, the grassy aroma, the juiciness, and the silken texture of tomatoes right off the vine.
And the experience of eating your first fresh-picked tomato can be sublime. “I’ve had people tell me it was the best tomato they’ve ever eaten, and they’re probably right,” says Jeff Moyer, farm director of the Rodale Institute. It can even be life changing, sending you hunting for new healthy recipes (though we’ve got six tasty ones right here!) and boosting your veggie intake. These six women are proof that gardening can make you happier and healthier.
Gardening can save your…waistline
Michele Owens, 51, Saratoga Springs, NY
Michele Owens is in good shape chiefly because she gardens. Although she runs for exercise in the winter, she finds the sport to be mind numbing and probably would have given up on it by now if she had to do it year-round. And Owens says she’d never go to the gym to lift weights. “I’m bored to tears at the gym, but I’m never bored gardening, and I’ve been doing it for twenty years,” she says. “It’s a really complete form of exercise attached to a huge sense of accomplishment.” Every April, when Owens trades her running shoes for garden boots and starts mulching and planting, she inevitably drops 5 pounds, and the weight loss lasts all summer long. As her crops ripen, they require less work. But on April and May weekends, she’s in her 1,900-square-foot garden for up to 5 hours a day—hauling more weight and doing more squats than she’d ever do at the gym.
Gardening can save your health
Hope Anderson, 35, Grand Island, NE
Hope Anderson hated tomatoes before she planted some herself. “Now I eat them right off the vine, they’re so sweet,” she says. She started her vegetable garden last summer, in part to make sure that she and her family ate a varied, healthy diet. And it’s working. Anderson has even caught her three kids sneaking tomatoes right out of the garden (just like their mother!). This spring, they begged to pick out their own seeds and eagerly helped Mom plant seedlings. Son Bretton, 11, chose carrots, while his younger brother, Bradley, 10, went for watermelon. Their sister, Mystic-Sage, 6, will be planting her own row of corn. Anderson added kohlrabi, pumpkins, asparagus, strawberries, cucumbers, and lettuces to the mix. And, of course, Roma and cherry tomatoes—lots of them. (Toss ’em all in our spring food recipes.)
MORE: Easy Tips for Pain-Free Gardening
Gardening can save your…planet
Anita Ferry, 50, Los Angeles, CA
Anita Ferry lives in an LA apartment with her boyfriend of 13 years and her 81-year-old mother. But she makes the most of her limited space—planting containers by her front door, growing mushrooms on the dining room table, sprouting seedlings under a grow lamp on her balcony, and tending boxes on her building’s roof. She also farms a 400-square-foot community garden plot 3 miles from home. “I love knowing exactly where my food comes from—and how it affects the world in return,” she says.
Ferry finds the community garden’s composting culture very inspiring, and she estimates that at least 30% of her household waste now goes straight to her compost bin. “Composting should be made mandatory for every household, so we can cut down on all the landfills and heal our soil,” she says. “I save all my vegetable trimmings, eggshells, coffee grounds, and tea bags and add them to my compost, which in turn goes back into the soil in my garden to help nourish the delicious food I am growing.”
Gardening can save your…mental well-being
Anne Costello, 44, La Grange, IL
Anne Costello advises attorneys for a busy law firm on the technological aspects of their cases—a hectic, around-the-clock job. She’s also mom to two daughters, ages 7 and 10. When she gets stressed out, Costello retreats to her backyard garden for relief. “I always feel better getting outside and digging in the dirt,” she says. “Plus, gardening is a solitary, meditative experience that I crave. I love that I can share the garden with my family when I want to, but it can also be just for me.” And she relishes seeing things grow. “My work is so abstract and long term, but the garden gives me a definite end result,” she says. Last summer, her family’s house flooded so badly that they were forced to rebuild and have been living in a rental property, without a garden. “It was the most stressful year of my life, and I gained a lot of weight,” she says.
“I cannot wait to get back to my own home and my garden.”
Gardening can save your…bank account
Gayle Bowe, 32, New Paltz, NY
Gayle Bowe and her husband, Justin, are new parents and novice gardeners. Before their baby was born earlier this year, they decided to change their lifestyle—to create a healthier environment and more solid financial footing for their growing family. They turned to their neighbor, Jean, a lifelong vegetable gardener, to help them dig a garden that would feed their family—including ready-to-puree produce for their new baby, Henry, now 5 months old. “Organic baby food is expensive: on average, $1.50 per jar,” Bowe says. She estimates that they’ll save at least $300 this year by preparing their own organic purees. “And as far as Henry goes, I want nothing but pure, untainted goodness,” she says. “Processed baby foods are cooked at high temperatures that destroy some vitamins. Making my own will ensure that he gets all the nutrients he needs, without any extra starchy fillers, sugars, or salt.” (See which fruits and veggies you should always buy organic.)
Gardening can save your…community
Asenath Andrews, 60, Detroit, MI
Twenty-five years ago, when Asenath Andrews founded Catherine Ferguson Academy—a Detroit public school for pregnant teens, as well as teen mothers and their kids—one of the first things she did was plant a garden in the school yard. “If you’re somebody’s mother, you’re supposed to be able to feed your kids,” she says. “The only way to guarantee that is to garden.”
She’s also helped develop an urban gardening program that teaches at-risk students nutrition, construction, marketing, cooking, and farming skills. The program benefits the greater community, too—students sell fresh, organic produce from their 2-acre garden at the school’s farm stand once a week and at Detroit farmers’ markets on weekends. “Gardening has clearly given these girls skills and values they can carry with them forever,” Andrews says.
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