Simple Steps Toward a Healthier Lifestyle

From the WebMD Archives

To get healthier, you don't have to overhaul your whole life all at once. Big journeys start with a few steps. And when it comes down to it, a healthy lifestyle is all about the basics.

“Put in simplest terms, we need to eat well, sleep well, and move our bodies,” says Julia Nordgren, MD, of Palo Alto, CA. She’s the author of The New Family Table: Cooking More, Eating Together & Staying (Relatively) Sane.

Focus on small changes first, and you’ll build a foundation for a healthier you. Here are some to try.

Make a Few Food Switches

When you're improving your diet, you don’t need to limit yourself to a strict list of foods. In fact, diets that cut out entire food groups don’t often stick in the long run. High-calorie treats are OK every once in a while, but the bulk of your menu should consist of:

  • Vegetables
  • Fruits
  • Whole grains
  • Fat-free or low-fat dairy
  • Lean meats, fish, eggs, beans, and nuts 

Start with simple snack-time switches, Nordgren says. When you've got the munchies:

  • Reach for crunchy carrots with hummus instead of chips and dip.
  • Trade your afternoon candy bar for apple slices and peanut butter.
  • Replace that midday soda with a fresh-fruit smoothie -- or better yet, water.

At meals, fill more of your plate with fruits and veggies, Nordgren says. Go for at least half a plate’s worth, and eat the rainbow. More colors in your meal mean more vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants for you.

Find Exercise You Enjoy

It’s the secret to making exercise a habit -- and that’s good for your whole body.

“Exercise is the one thing that truly impacts every body system,” says Nordgren. “It’s even good for your sex life!”

Her advice: Reframe how you think about it.

“Instead of saying, ‘I should get on a treadmill for 30 minutes because my doctor will yell at me if I don’t,’ think, ‘I should call my friend and go for a hike so I can hear all about her latest adventures!’”

Continued

If you don't feel like buddying up, boost the fun factor by heading outdoors or working out to your favorite playlist.

Get your blood pumping for at least 150 minutes a week, spread out however works best for you. If that’s too much right now, work your way up to it. (Check with your doctor if you're over 40 and just starting to exercise.) Dance, do karate, walk your dog -- make your movement fun, and you’ll want to go back for more. 

Banish Your Phone From the Bedroom

When you don’t get the ZZZs you need, you droop fast.

“Not sleeping enough -- or not sleeping restfully -- is one of the quickest ways to feel lousy,” says Nordgren. Over time, a lack of shut-eye can raise your risk of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes, and even shorten your life span.

Adults need 7-8 hours of sleep a night. If you’re not hitting that target, figure out what you need to do. And as you improve your quantity of sleep, don’t overlook quality.

“In this day and age, the most important thing to do for your sleep is -- you guessed it -- leaving your phone in a different room,” says Nordgren.

The blue light from your phone’s screen triggers the “wake up” part of your brain, making it harder for you to drift off.

“Get yourself an old-fashioned alarm clock, a great book, and a reading light,” says Nordgren. “I promise you’ll sleep much better.”

Slow Down and Be Present

American adults are some of the most stressed-out people in the world, according to a 2019 Gallup poll.

“We are so trained to be constantly responding to things -- emails, texts, children, bosses, news feeds -- it really never ends,” says Nordgren.

This fast pace, she says, eats away at our mental health -- which, in turn, harms our physical health.

Pick a time of day to sit and just be, even if it’s just for 5 minutes. Put away work and screens and the demands of the day and focus on your breath and your body. This practice of mindfulness -- being aware of the present moment -- can lower stress, prevent illness, and even reduce anxiety and depression.

And don’t forget the power of connection.

“If you’re feeling overwhelmed, reach out to someone who cares about you,” says Nordgren. “Spend an extra moment lingering in conversation. Call instead of texting. Be purposeful about enjoying the people around you.”

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on March 12, 2020

Sources

SOURCES:

Julia Nordgren, MD, pediatrician, Palo Alto, CA.

CDC: “Healthy Eating for a Healthy Weight,” “How Much Sleep Do I Need?”

National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute: "Healthy Eating Plan."

American Heart Association: “How to Eat More Fruits and Vegetables.”

Rush University Medical Center: “Eat a Colorful Diet.”

Mayo Clinic: “Exercise: 7 benefits of regular physical activity.”

Harvard Medical School: “Consequences of Insufficient Sleep,” “Blue Light Has a Dark Side.”

Gallup: "Americans' Stress, Worry and Anger Intensified in 2018."

National Institutes of Health: “Mindfulness Matters.”

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