The beginning of the new year is a time to take stock and consider lifestyle changes that will stand us in good stead for the future.
Taking care of ourselves, both physically and mentally, is crucial to our well-being. With the COVID-19 pandemic showing little sign of easing any time soon, this is more important now than ever.
But what simple health and lifestyle changes can we all make to help us stay mentally and physically healthy in 2022? Newsweek asked diet, fitness, psychology and wellness experts for their top tips as we enter the new year.
Habit stacking and breaking bad routines
Debbie Petitpain, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, told Newsweek one helpful approach is to start adding a new habit to a ritual that you already perform—this is known as “habit stacking.”
For example, while your coffee brews, you could drink a large cup of plain water to start the day hydrated. Alternatively, you can break a bad habit by slightly altering ingrained routines.
For example, “if you typically walk in from work and head straight to the kitchen to grab a snack, change which door you walk in through and which room you enter first,” Petitpain said. “Maybe you walk all the way around to a back door and head to your bedroom to change into comfortable clothes or walk in through a garage and head straight to greet your excited pet.”
If your routine is to pour an alcoholic drink as soon as you have finished your dinner, try heading outside and doing a brisk 10-minute walk instead, even if you have to leave the washing undone temporarily.
“If you have a habit of laying in bed scrolling through your phone instead of getting more sleep, power down your device when you lock up your residence or tuck in your kids,” she said.
Focus on behaviors you can control not outcomes
According to Petitpain, we should be very specific when setting goals and have realistic expectations.
“For example, instead of saying, ‘I’m going to eat healthier,’ say, ‘I’m going to add a vegetable to every lunch and dinner.’ It’s very easy to know whether or not you’re meeting the latter goal. Set a day of the month to evaluate how that goal is progressing and make adjustments as needed,” she said.
“Your goal should focus on a behavior you can control, not an outcome you wish for. For example, instead of, ‘I’ll lose five pounds this month,’ say, ‘I’ll walk for 10 minutes after work Monday through Friday.'”
“You know the rhetorical question, ‘How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.’ It’s important not to bite off more than you can chew. If you try to start too many new habits at once, you won’t have your routine that keep you grounded and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Instead, set regular check-ins with yourself to monitor—and tweak—your progress and remember that ‘getting healthier’ is a journey and not a destination.”
Keep changes simple—and get to bed early
Lydia Di Francesco, a wellness consultant, personal trainer and mental health advocate, told Newsweek her entire wellness philosophy is founded on the principle of “keeping things simple.”
“We tend to overcomplicate things while at the same time wishing for that magic pill that will make our dreams come true,” she said. “The bad news is there’s no magic pill, but the good news is there are some simple habits you can do that have a huge impact on your overall physical and mental health.”
Di Francesco said her “number one tip” that she shares with people is to go to bed by 10:30 p.m. latest.
“Getting long enough, good quality sleep is one of the most under-rated wellness strategies,” she said. “We underestimate how beneficial sleep truly is on our body. When we sleep our body is doing the work to repair and restore itself. Sleep also triggers hormonal processes that impact how well we function during the day.”
“If you are going to bed later than 10:30 p.m., start shifting your bedtime by 15 minutes until you reach it. You also want to prep your body for sleep. To do this, dim your house lights around 9 p.m. This signals to your body that it’s nighttime, kickstarting melatonin production and making you sleepy. As well, stop major activities around this time. If you like, do some relaxing activities, such as reading, journaling, taking a bath, or doing a meditation.”
Another easy habit to incorporate into your everyday life—and one that is beneficial—is taking a walk outside.
“This doesn’t need to be a long walk; 10 to 15 minutes is great. If you can do more, even better,” Di Francesco said. “A walk in the morning before work helps to wake you up and give you energy to start the day, however, a walk at any time is beneficial.”
“Research shows that walking helps lower cortisol (your stress hormone), lowers blood sugar levels, and helps you be more creative. If you can’t bring yourself to walk for the sake of walking, that’s OK. Do another activity while you walk, such as take a phone call, listen to a podcast or audiobook, or even listen to a meditation—just be sure to keep your eyes open!”
Start a self-compassion practice
Licensed psychologist, yoga teacher and wellness speaker Justine Grosso told Newsweek that starting a self-compassion practice is one small way to buffer against self-criticism in the new year.
“This is especially important as self-criticism has been found to be associated with social anxiety, depression, and trauma-related disorders,” she said. “Developing a self-compassionate stance towards one’s goals for the new year is also particularly important due to how much pressure there is to adopt new habits and make changes this time of year.”
“Self-compassion offers space for being human, and having big emotions or making mistakes, without making it about an inherent character flaw.”
Exercise and balanced meals
Nordine Zouareg, a high-performance coach and former Mr. Universe, told Newsweek that we can boost our physical fitness by exercising at least 20 minutes a day while eating balanced, healthy meals.
“I often prescribe a combination of strength training, cardiovascular, and flexibility
exercises, in that order,” he said. “Yoga is also one of my favorites to bridge the gap between mind and body. When it comes to nutrition, I recommend small, healthy, and balanced meals comprised of 40 percent biological value protein, 40 percent low/moderate glycemic index carbohydrates, 20 percent good and clean fats (monosaturated oil), and at least eight large glasses of water a day.”
When it comes to boosting your emotional fitness, Zouareg said meditation, spending quality time with family, listening to music, reading, writing, walking in nature and taking vacations are all good options.
“Taking stock of your emotional well-being is a must if you want to perform at a high level and create optimum productivity,” he said.