Happy New Year! January is one of the best times of the year—it’s a new calendar and a fresh start, and there’s no time like the present to begin new positive habits and reinforce the old. So: you’d like to get healthy! (Even if that wasn’t your specific resolution, we’ll just go with it, because everyone wants to be healthy.) That can mean many things to many people. Some of us want to lose some weight, others to eat foods that are better for the environment. Some people are quitting or reducing harmful habits like smoking or drinking; others are looking to add in good habits, like regular exercise and better self-care. Everyone is different, and everyone goes about achieving their goals differently; that said, there are some common habits, tips, and suggestions that we can all use to help.
Having specific, measurable, and achievable goals will help you more than vague ideas of “just getting healthier”. It also may help you to break your goals down into smaller milestones; “going to the gym three times a week” and “eating plant-based meals except for on a cheat day” feels a lot easier than “I will lose fifty pounds” or “I will only eat clean”. Don’t feel bad about tricking yourself a little—bribery helps, too! Quitting smoking (or drinking, or eating out) becomes less of a deprivation when you have something fun to put that money towards. Trade cigarettes for a vape pen—you’re still getting the nicotine without the harmful tar, so you can concentrate on quitting that next. Many people try “Drynuary”, or going alcohol-free for the month of January after the New Year’s excesses—if you’re not ready to commit to that, switch it up and have some “mocktails” once in awhile (they’re just as creative and tasty as boozy cocktails, and they’re usually a lot lower in calories). Petrified at the thought of giving up the bacon cheeseburgers? A veggie burger with dairy-free cheese hits the flavor without hardening the arteries. Every little bit helps, and focusing on even small improvements will help you feel better about yourself and make it easier to keep going.
Getting in shape doesn’t have to be drastic at first. Doctors recommend 30 to 45 minutes a day of daily exercise—which may sound almost impossible, between work, commuting, personal and family obligations, but really isn’t that much. A nice long walk, a dance class, rock-climbing—exercise isn’t just limited to gym equipment. If you can find something you really enjoy you’ll be more successful; after all, exercise is about feeling better and having fun as much as it is anything else. If you can’t fit an entire session in, try breaking it up into smaller increments—any movement is better than no movement. If you don’t like jogging or your knees hurt, try lap swimming or an exercise bike instead; if grinding away at the gym bores you, try a team sport (there are amateur leagues for just about everything). There’s something for everyone, no matter your age, time constraints, or activity level.
Plant-based diets are generally agreed to be the healthiest—you don’t have to go from carnivore to strict vegan overnight, but there’s a plant-based substitute for just about all your favorite animal products (meats, cheese, sour cream, ice cream, and more “milks” than you can shake a stick at). Plant-based milks and cheeses generally have less or no cholesterol, which is the substance that builds up in your arteries and turns to plaque; also, plant-based diets are more sustainable, as it takes much less land and water to grow plants than it does feedlots for meat. Some people find that completely revamping their diet helps cut down on food cravings, but others prefer to start small and swap out individual items (gluten-free, dairy-free cauliflower crust pizza is still delicious pizza). Whatever you find easiest is the best way to go, because then you’re more likely to continue.
You may have heard of the “caveman diet”, or know someone who’s “going paleo”—so what does this mean, exactly? The caveman or paleo diet, popularized by Dr. Loren Cordain, is a diet plan based around what our Paleolithic ancestors would have eaten millions of years ago; no processed foods, grains, dairy, or legumes (like peanuts and beans), plenty of fruits, non-starchy vegetables, grass-fed meats and seafood, and nuts and seeds. The advantages: it’s nutritious whole food, and while the guidelines are strict many people find this beneficial as it takes a lot of the guesswork out of what is “allowed”. (That is, of course, one of the disadvantages; also, organic foods can be more expensive, as is grass-fed meat. Those who are meatless for health or ethical reasons also may find it difficult, though there is a growing paleo-vegan or “pegan” movement.)
Paleo is not a low-carb diet (eat all the vegetables you want), so those looking for a more Atkins-like approach may benefit from the “keto diet”. The ketogenic diet, originally developed for the treatment of epilepsy, is an extremely high-fat and almost zero-carb approach that induces weight loss by conditioning your body to burn fat instead of glucose (which is the product of digesting carbohydrates). Placing your body in ketosis makes it very efficient at burning fat for energy, and can cause large reductions in blood sugar (making it useful for diabetics or pre-diabetics). It’s one of the most restrictive diets, cutting out almost all sugar (including fruit) and carbohydrates (just about all of them, including many vegetables), so while it’s very effective in weight-loss and blood sugar terms, it’s also very difficult for many people to stick to.
That brings us to another important part- know thyself! Everyone’s body is different, and everyone will have different results. That’s why personal trainers and coaches are so popular—having a fitness or diet regimen custom-tailored will often make it both easier to follow and more successful. Some people thrive on the keto or paleo diets (there’s no ambiguity on what is allowed), but others require more carbohydrates or less protein. While there’s an adjustment period to any big change, if you’re really not feeling your best it might be time to tweak something. (Check with your doctor before making any major life changes, of course!)
It’s important to make time for self-care beyond fitness and diet. Make sure you’re attending to your own mental and emotional needs, too; whether that’s a favorite hobby, a good book, a walk in the park on a nice day, or a face mask and bubble bath, everyone needs time to themselves. If you’re a religious or spiritual person, make time for attending to those needs as well; even a few minutes of meditation a day helps reduce stress and anxiety (and there’s plenty of phone apps for that, like Headspace). Carving out a few moments of peace and quiet in a frantic, busy, breaking-news 21st-century environment will do wonders for your stress levels.
If many of these suggestions seem to be “Whatever works for you is best”—that’s because it’s true! Getting healthier doesn’t have to mean going from a couch potato to an ultramarathoner (though if you want to, more power to you!). New Year’s resolutions often fail because they’re hard to stick to, and a lot of that is mental—if you think of something as a punishment or deprivation, you’re not going to be nearly as motivated as if you think of it as a benefit or a positive force. Getting healthy is about living longer and better, not beating yourself up or keeping up with someone else’s standards. You get to live with yourself the longest, so you might as well enjoy it!