You’ve always known you should pay better attention to your health, but starting now feels too difficult to even try.
You’ve practiced healthy habits in the past, but life got in the way and for one reason or another you’ve fallen off the wagon.
You’ve got 10, 20 or 100 pounds to lose, but you don’t have any idea where to start.
Sound familiar? If any of the above describes you, you’ve come to the right place. It’s never too late to start living a healthy lifestyle. In fact, doctors agree that making healthy changes even later in life can lead to major health improvements.
As they say, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”. Research shows that our lifestyle has a more significant impact on our health status and longevity than genetics. In a study led by Johns Hopkins Medicine, researchers found that people between 45 and 84 who made healthy changes to their diet and lifestyle—despite their past behavior—decreased their risk of death by 80% during the time of the study!
So how do you start living a healthy lifestyle completely from scratch? The guide ahead will tell you.
1. Build healthy habits.
Our lives are determined by our behavior. Our behavior is made up of the habits we practice day in and day out, often for years at a time.
Starting a healthy lifestyle does not require making major changes in your life—in fact, quite the opposite. Small, gradual changes are far more sustainable and will go a long way to improving your quality of lifestyle.
Evidence has shown that people who make major lifestyle changes–like losing weight–gradually, are more likely to stick with the changes for the long haul than those who try to make a drastic change all at once. Studies have also shown that it takes between two and three months to change an existing habit or form a new one.
We suggest slowly building your healthy habits in three key areas: diet, exercise and lifestyle. Work on one habit from each area at a time. If you’re having trouble figuring out where to start, identify which area of your life has the most room for improvement? Is it erratic eating habits, lack of physical activity or social life, too much stress at work or poor self-care? Below are some practical tips to get you started in each area.
- Upgrade your foods to whole foods, which are more satiating and nutritious than processed foods. For example, start eating brown rice instead of white, eat sweet baked potato instead of potato chips, etc.
- Eat at least three times per day, and slow down while eating.
- Drink plenty of calorie-free drinks like water, unsweetened tea and black coffee. Oftentimes, thirst masquerades as hunger.
- If you’re craving sugar-filled soda or juice, make a healthy swap. Eat a real apple instead of apple juice, or have some seltzer water with lemon or orange slice instead of soda.
- Stop eating before you are full. If you feel like eating more, wait at least 10 minutes before going back for the second round. Your hunger will often go away as your body processes that it’s full.
- At mealtime, fill half your plate with fruits and veggies. Split the other half between grain and lean protein, like fish, chicken or vegetarian sources like beans, lentils and nuts.
- Keep healthy snacks, like plain yogurt, trail mix and fresh fruits and veggies, handy. Don’t let yourself get to the point of feeling famished. If you’re feeling hungry, have a snack up to three times per day.
- Move every day. You don’t have to run on a treadmill to reap the benefits of exercise. Brisk walking, dancing, swimming, biking slowly and even gardening are all great forms of exercise.
- Start with 10-minute chunks, which is all it takes to make a difference for your heart and body. Walk briskly around your office park. Go for a short bike ride before dinner. Take the stairs instead of the elevator.
- Work your way up to 2 hours and 30 minutes of exercise per week. Again, this doesn’t have to mean time in the gym, and it can be broken up into 10-minute chunks over all seven days of the week.
- Work to incorporate weight-bearing exercise, like pushups, sit-ups, lifting dumbbells or working with resistance bands, into your routine twice per week.
- Remember that every little bit counts. A ten-minute walk around the block before you leave for work is better than no walk at all!
- Take stock of how you feel when you make poor lifestyle choices, like overeating. Are you bored, tired or stressed?
- Instead of using food or alcohol to cope with these scenarios, try one of the following:
- Call a friend or family member
- Take a warm bath or shower
- Listen to music
- Practice deep breathing
- Go for a walk
- Read a book
- Get social. Abundant research shows that relationship are critical to good health and that people with strong community support live longer and are healthier and happier. Developing a strong network is a great investment in your health, whether it means spending more quality time with family, friends, coworkers, community, etc.
- Prioritize sleep. It plays a role in everything from your mood to your waistline to your work performance. The Centers for Disease Control recommends that healthy adults sleep seven to eight hours per night.
- Drink no more than one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men, as recommended by the US Federal Dietary Guidelines.
- If you’re a smoker, work to cut back or quit. You can find resources to quit smoking here.
2. Set realistic goals.
It’s hard to make any sort of change, be it related to your health, your career, family or otherwise, without some sort of goal. Goal setting is an important step to achieving better health.
Your healthy lifestyle goals should be SMART: Specific, Measurable, Adjustable, Realistic, & Time-Based.
Define a precise goal, like “lose 5 pounds” or “walk for 30 minutes without stopping.” Write it down and put it somewhere you’ll see it every day.
Give yourself a clear time frame in which to complete your goal. For example, “I will lose five pounds in the next 45 days.”
Remember, life happens. Don’t be discouraged by setbacks, especially those you can’t control. For example if you get sick and can’t go for your daily walk, don’t beat yourself up. Move on and adjust your goal as needed.
If you’re not a regular exerciser, running a marathon is not a realistic short-term goal (though it’s a great long-term one!). Instead, break large goals into realistic, smaller goals, like running a mile without stopping and then running a 5K.
The ideal goal has a completion window of about two to three months. It’s long enough to achieve your goal, but not so far away that you lose interest in it. If you have a goal that will take longer than three months, break it into small components that fit this time frame.
3. Track your progress.
On the path to a healthy lifestyle, every decision counts! Remember our earlier discussion about small habit adjustments leading to major lifestyle changes?
Track these small changes on a daily basis. It’ll not only help you hold yourself accountable, but will help you see your progress over time. An app like Mealviser is a simple and stress-free tool to track your diet and exercise while working toward a goal.
Each day, take a few minutes to jot down what you ate, what physical activity you did and how you felt. If you had a great day, give yourself a pat on the back! If you slipped up, reconnect with your goal and do your best to have a better day tomorrow.
Congratulations on the decision to make healthy changes to your lifestyle. If you get discouraged along the way, envision yourself one year from now: a happier, healthier and all-around better you. It’s not always easy, but it’s worth it!