You want to get healthier, so you start working out. That’s a good start, but experts say that exercise is only one piece of the puzzle.
Physical activity has countless benefits, but there are other factors that are crucial for your well-being, says Michele Olson, PhD, a senior clinical professor of sport science and physical education at Huntington College in Montgomery, AL. “You need a strong foundation of health first to have the energy to exercise.”
To feel your best and live your healthiest life, you need to also make these healthy moves.
Get enough sleep. During slumber, your body is hard at work. Sleep is essential for many vital functions, says Christopher E. Kline, PhD, an assistant professor of health and human development at the University of Pittsburgh. It helps repair your heart and blood vessels and allows your brain to form new pathways and memories.
Over time, that lack of sleep can take a toll on your health. It raises your risk for colds, heart disease, and diabetes and weakens your immune system.
“Sleep loss can also lead to overeating and weight gain,” Kline says. It raises your level of ghrelin, a hormone that stimulates hunger and lowers the amount of leptin, which helps you feel full. And when you’re exhausted, you’re less likely to exercise. How much sleep do you need? Aim to get 7 to 9 hours each night.
Stop smoking and cut back on alcohol. If you smoke or drink too much, it’s time to kick the habit. Smoking shortens your life by at least 10 years. It sets the stage for heart disease, lung cancer, and other diseases. Meanwhile, drinking too much alcohol can increase your risk of liver disease, high blood pressure, and certain cancers. Women should have no more than one alcoholic drink a day, while men should stop at two.
Eat a healthy diet. Foods serve up the vitamins, minerals, and chemicals your body needs to stay healthy, says Carla Cox, PhD, RD, a certified diabetes care and education specialist at Mountain Vista Medicine in South Jordan, UT. “There’s no question that including a variety of fruits and vegetables, as well as whole grains, in your diet can reduce your risk of multiple chronic diseases and certain cancers.”
On the other hand, processed foods, such as fast food, chips, and cookies, are usually high in fat, sugar, and salt. They can increase inflammation in the body, which contributes to disease, Cox says. She recommends cutting back on processed foods and eating mostly produce, whole grains, lean protein, fatty fish, and nuts and seeds.
Focusing on your diet is also key for weight loss. Studies show that working out doesn’t always equal a smaller number on the scale. “People tend to compensate for exercise with food,” Cox says. To shed excess pounds, you’ll need to pay attention to what you put on your plate. A healthier diet tends to be lower in calories than one high in processed foods.
Drink plenty of water. Our bodies are roughly 70% water, Olson says. Water plays a key role in many essential functions: It helps dissolve minerals, carry nutrients and oxygen to cells, and flush out toxins. Without enough hydration, your mental sharpness, mood, and energy level drop. Dehydration may also play a role in other conditions, such as constipation and high blood pressure. Make sure that you’re drinking enough water. You’ll know you're not if your pee is dark. It should be a pale straw color.
Keep your stress in check. When you’re under pressure, your body releases a cascade of stress hormones. This causes a number of changes, such as faster breathing, a speedier heart rate, and tense muscles. While this “fight or flight” response is helpful in the short term, it can wear down your health over time. Chronic stress can lead to headaches, anxiety, and sleep problems. Research shows that it also raises the risk of diabetes, heart disease, and obesity.
While you can’t steer clear of stress completely, you can learn how to better manage it. Spending time with your friends and family and practicing relaxation techniques, like deep breathing or yoga, helps you decompress. If stress keeps interfering with your life, talk to your doctor. You may want to see a counselor or therapist, who can help you pinpoint your sources of stress and teach you how to cope.
How Exercise Can Help
Although exercise alone can’t make you healthy, it is an important part of your well-being. “Physical activity strengthens your bones and your muscles, including your heart,” Olson says. It can protect against heart disease, diabetes, and certain cancers, such as breast and colon cancer.
Exercise also goes hand-in-hand with other healthy habits. Getting moving burns off stress and helps you score a better night’s sleep. It’s even been shown to reduce the urge to smoke, which may help you quit. It’s like a domino effect, Olson says. Making a change in one part of your life can give you the energy to make healthier choices in others.