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The beginning of a new year is often a time for reflection. It’s a time to deeply examine your own habits and identify ways you can make changes for the better.
Perhaps you’ve wanted to create a regular exercise routine. Or you want to start eating healthy, nutritious food that fuels your body and mind. Or maybe — like many others — you don’t know where to start. You just know you need to make a change.
Sometimes, creating healthy habits can be harder than it seems. But if done right, the benefits are surely worth the work.
Research suggests that Americans who adopt healthy habits can live longer than those who do not. In this Harvard study, healthy habits were examined over the course of nearly forty years. Researchers found that participants who adopted healthy lifestyle habits lowered overall health risk. For example, healthy habits lowered their risk of total death, death from cancer, and death from heart disease.
But what are those healthy habits to adopt? Today, we’ll go over a few healthy habits to implement into your daily routine.
- Eat nutrient-rich food
- Don't smoke
- Sleep well
- Drink less alcohol, drink more water
- Get good exercise and move your body
- Practice self-care and self-compassion
As we’ve learned from science, habits take time to form. We also know habits shape our attitudes, actions, and decision-making skills. But with the right tools, resources, and mindset, you can take control of your life.
Fuel your body with nutrient-rich food
Fueling your body with good, nutritious food is so important to achieving a healthy lifestyle. In the same Harvard study mentioned above, researchers identified five healthy habits. Maintaining a healthy diet was identified as a key factor to living a longer, healthier life. But what does that mean?
In this study, a healthy diet was calculated and rated based on reports of regular healthy foods. This included things like vegetables, fruits, nuts, whole grains, healthy fats, and omega-3 fatty acids.
Dark, leafy greens are especially rich in nutrients and have excellent health benefits. Leafy greens tend to contain a lot of vitamins A, B, C, E, and K. Leafy greens tend to contain higher levels of fiber, iron, magnesium, potassium, and calcium. They also have played roles in blocking the early stages of cancer. All in all, veggies are a win for your body.
Researchers found that participants who maintained a healthy diet avoided certain foods. Of course, no food is “off-limits.” A healthy relationship with food is free of guilt or shame. And sometimes, enjoying the occasional cheeseburger is needed (and satiating). Science shows that avoiding things like added sugar, baked sweets, trans fats, added salt, and processed and high-fat meats have incredible health benefits.
We know humans have a complicated relationship with food. It’s important to be mindful of our eating habits. Adopting healthy eating shouldn’t also come with feelings of guilt, shame, and self-criticism. But oftentimes, it’s easy for those emotions to surface when changing our diet.
When you’re shopping at the grocery store or making a meal at home, try to focus on what about your food selections make you feel good. When does your body feel better after eating? Are you eating to clean your plate or are you eating to satisfy your hunger?
Ditch the cigarettes
It’s been long proven that smoking is bad for you. Smoking causes cancer, heart disease, stroke, lung diseases, diabetes, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Smoking also increases the risk for tuberculosis, certain eye diseases, and problems of the immune system.
In the same Harvard study, one of the key healthy habits that were proven to extend longevity was no smoking. Science puts it simply: there’s no “healthy” amount of smoking. But just because we know it’s bad for us doesn’t mean we don’t. If you’re a smoker, you know quitting is harder than it looks.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers some tips and tools for those looking to quit smoking. From free coaching and a quit guide to social support and medicines that may help, you can get started today.
Fighting those nicotine cravings takes hard work and mental discipline. Try things like nicotine replacement therapy or relaxation techniques.
Some ex-smokers have found success in building small habits like replacing the craving for a cigarette with exercise. Others have sought out reinforcements in the form of social support groups. Everyone’s quitting journey is different — do what works for you.
You snooze, you win.
Research shows that lack of sleep increases the risk for obesity, heart disease, and infections. When you sleep, your heart rate, breathing rate, and blood pressure rise and fall.
This is an important process for cardiovascular health. Your body also releases hormones during sleep that help your body repair and re-energize. These same hormones impact your body weight.
Every person is unique. But generally speaking, adults need an average of 7 to 8 hours of sleep a night. Babies tend to sleep about 16 hours a day, and young children need at least 10 hours of sleep.
But how can you make healthy sleep a habit? Try starting out with some of these tips.
- Stick to a schedule. Get up at the same time every day, even on weekends or during vacations.
- Go to bed early enough to get at least 7 hours of sleep.
- Establish a relaxing bedtime routine.
- Keep the room at a comfortable, cool temperature.
- Avoid screens before bedtime.
- Avoid eating a large meal before bedtime. If you are hungry at night, eat a light, healthy snack.
- Exercise regularly and maintain a healthy diet.
- Avoid consuming caffeine in the afternoon or evening.
- Avoid consuming alcohol before bedtime.
- Reduce your fluid intake before bedtime.
A healthy sleep pattern also has its benefits when it comes to mental health. The Sleep Foundation cites that mental health disorders tend to make it harder to sleep well. At the same time, poor sleep can be a contributing factor to worsening mental health problems.
Sleep and mental health have a complicated relationship. Oftentimes, this means sleep and mental health are being treated at the same time. Adopting a healthy sleep routine paired with therapy can help combat poor sleep and suffering mental health.
Drink less alcohol, drink more water
The above-mentioned Harvard study cited five key healthy lifestyle factors that lead to living a longer life. One key healthy habit was consuming low-risk alcohol intake. Scientists measured this “low-risk alcohol intake” as between 5 and 15 grams per day for women, and 5 to 30 grams per day for men. Generally, one drink contains about 14 grams of pure alcohol.
Science does tell us that too much alcohol can have significant negative health impacts. In fact, research tells us that excessive alcohol impacts our brain, heart, and liver. Too much alcohol can impact your mood, behavior, and your mental health.
Drinking too much over time (or even just once) can lead to high blood pressure, strokes, or even cardiomyopathy. And heavy drinking takes a significant toll on your liver.
For example, steatosis, alcoholic hepatitis, fibrosis, and cirrhosis of the liver are all common in heavy drinkers. According to the National Cancer Institute, there’s a correlation between alcohol and cancer. There's a strong scientific consensus that alcohol drinking can cause several types of cancer.
Your body needs to stay hydrated to be in a state of good health. Water is essential for life, which means it’s essential for our bodies. Hydrating your body helps regulate body temperature.
It also prevents infections, delivers nutrients to cells, and keeps organs functioning properly. Being well-hydrated can also improve your sleep, cognition, and mood.
By drinking more water (and drinking less alcohol), you could help improve your overall well-being. Start by setting a goal. Medical professionals recommend anywhere between 91 to 125 ounces of water a day. Every person is different, so consult your doctor or physician on what’s best for you.
Move your body in ways that feel good
Exercise is an important aspect of overall health and wellness. And while exercise looks different for every physical body, it is a key factor in building healthy habits.
In the same Harvard study, healthy physical activity for 30 minutes a day was named a key healthy lifestyle factor. Participants in this study took part in moderate to vigorous activity, which could mean something as simple as a brisk walk.
Beyond longevity, exercise has its own host of health benefits. According to the CDC, regular physical activity is one of the most important things you can do for your health. Regular physical activity can help keep your thinking, learning, and judgment skills sharp as you age. It can also reduce your risk of depression and anxiety — and help you sleep better.
It can help with weight management. It can help reduce health risks like diabetes, cancers, and bone density. And one of the best benefits of physical activity is the variety of options. You can bike, swim, hike, walk, do yoga, run, dance, strength train, and more. Virtually any way you can move your body can count as physical activity.
But how do you make this habit stick? These tips, backed by science, can help you get started.
- Give it time. A month, to be exact. Research suggests that committing to four weeks of exercise can help you build a routine. One study found that people who exercised for 28 days were more likely to be exercising 10 months later.
- Combine something you crave with your exercise routine. Maybe this is binging the latest episode of Yellowstone while you’re on the elliptical. Or maybe this means your brisk, 30-minute walk has a final destination: your favorite coffee shop. By bundling something you love with exercise, you can increase the rate at which you exercise.
- Set small goals. Maybe you start with committing to walking more every day. The next time you go to the grocery store, try parking in the furthest spot instead of the closest.
Or maybe you start by walking your dog three times a day instead of two. Set an alarm to make sure you get up and move your body at lunch. Whatever your goals are, start small and make them achievable. Then, build from there.
- Be flexible. Life happens. The best-laid plans are disrupted at any moment of the day. If you regularly reserved your lunch hour as your workout time but needed to push through a work project, be flexible. You’re more likely to develop the habit if you prioritize flexibility.
- Find an accountability partner. Committing to the social aspect of exercise can help keep you accountable. Maybe that means you have a weekly yoga class buddy or you and your partner go on a run every Sunday. Whatever it is, find ways to make your exercise routine social.
Everyone can experience the health benefits of physical activity — age, abilities, ethnicity, shape, or size do not matter. Move your body in ways that feel good — and find what works best for you.
Practice self-care and self-compassion
While it may not appear to be a “habit,” self-care is an aspect of creating healthy habits that’s crucially important.
Change is hard at any level. It often challenges us to move outside of our comfort zones. It disrupts our status quo. It can bring fear, uncertainty, and anxiety. But it also can bring incredible growth and development. Change itself can help change your life.
So when it comes to changing your lifestyle to adopt more healthy habits, it’s natural to feel some resistance. It’s also natural to feel emotions like guilt, shame, or embarrassment.
But here’s the catch: that’s where self-compassion comes in. Self-compassion comes in three components:
- Common humanity
Here’s how self-compassion might show up in your own healthy habits journey. You might have a “cheat day” and order a steak instead of a salad. Be kind to yourself and recognize that it’s OK to indulge in moderation.
Or you might be out with friends and deliberating on whether or not you should order that second drink. You might, or you might not. No matter what your decision is, you’ve gone through the steps of mindfulness. How will that second drink make me feel? Am I enjoying myself in the present moment? What will make me feel my best in this moment?
It’s easy to label behaviors associated with building healthy habits as wrong or bad. That’s where we’d like to challenge you to practice some self-care and self-compassion. Research shows that self-compassion can increase motivation to change. This is because it allows us to objectively evaluate areas for improvement.
3 ways to start building healthy habits
Hopefully, by now, you’ve identified some healthy habits you’d like to implement into your routine. But now you’re left with this question: where do I start?
1. Stack your habits
Experts say the best way to form a new habit is to tie it to an existing one. This is called “stacking your habits.” Take a look at your existing patterns or habits and see if there’s an opportunity to add to them.
- For diet: Let’s say you order lunch every day. Try swapping your regular side of french fries for a side salad instead for a healthy meal.
- For exercise: Let’s say you walk your dog every day. Could you challenge yourself to walk four blocks more than you usually do?
- For sleep: Let’s say you go to bed every night at 9 p.m. but you tend to watch Netflix before falling asleep. Could you pick up a book instead?
2. Start small
Research shows that tiny habits are easier to create than large-scale changes. It may seem counterintuitive to start small, but you’ll see it pay dividends. Small habits can snowball into big change. Think of ways you can set small, achievable goals that’ll have a big impact.
- For diet: It could be as simple as switching out a new coffee creamer with less sugar every day.
- For exercise: If you are sedentary most of the day while working, find a 5-minute break in between meetings.
- For sleep: How about charging your phone in a different room instead of leaving it under your pillow?
3. Do it every day
Habits take a long time to become a part of a routine. Consistency is key to creating lasting change. One study found the median time for a task to become a habit was 66 days. And once it's become a habit, it's also become a behavior change.
Create lasting change
Change is hard. But it’s not impossible.
No matter where you are in your well-being journey, adding healthy habits to your routine has no downside. Sometimes, it just means taking that first step to commit to healthy living.
Creating good habits starts with making small changes to your daily routine. Once you’ve identified what changes you’d like to make, you can achieve your goals. With the right tools and resources (with a dose of self-compassion), you can create a healthier, happier life for yourself.
Madeline is a writer, communicator, and storyteller who is passionate about using words to help drive positive change. She holds a bachelor's in English Creative Writing and Communication Studies and lives in Denver, Colorado. In her spare time, she's usually somewhere outside (preferably in the mountains) — and enjoys poetry and fiction.