There's hardly a better time of year than fall. The heat of summer dissipates, giving way to beautiful temperatures framed by a hard, blue sky and canopies of red, gold, and orange.
The crisper smell in the air and the settling down of a busy summer are great indicators that it's time to set goals, re-establish routines, and start creating good habits for the upcoming winter.
"Fall is about gathering strength and energy to prepare for the challenges ahead," says Justin Price, named 2006 Personal Trainer of the Year by the IDEA fitness association.
Don't wait until New Year's Eve over a cocktail to make almost-sure-to-fail promises to yourself for the year ahead. Here are 10 ways you can use this upcoming season to become a fitter and better you.
1. Get fit outdoors. Hiking, mountain biking, walking, and rollerblading are all great picks for fall, says Kelli Calabrese, MS, exercise physiologist, fitness consultant, and author of Feminine, Firm & Fit.
Choose outdoor activities first, she suggests, since in some areas of the country, you'll soon be relegated to the gym and exercise videos.
Things quiet down outdoors now, with children back to school, says Price. Check out some of the parks in your area, or get out on the beach, if, like Price, you're lucky enough to be near one.
Throw the Frisbee around or do some squats and lunges in the sand, while watching the surf. Be creative. Try an outdoor boot camp class for something different.
"If you develop positive strategies now, it will be harder for you to give in to temptation as the holidays and the winter months come around," says Price.
"If you feel good and self-confidence is high, you want to treat yourself right, don't you?" asks Price. "Just by doing physical activity," he says, you'll maintain that self-confidence. "When swimsuit season comes back around, it'll to be easier to lose 10 pounds than 35," he says.
2. Exercise family-style. Pick things you can do as a family, like rock climbing, canoeing, or bowling to keep everyone striving for better health and fitness, she says.
Some of the local parks even have fitness courses you could run through together. Set a family weekend to head to a new state park and check out the foliage or go apple picking, she suggests.
Lots of activities start up in the fall, adds Calabrese, from running and cycling clubs to local classes at the YMCA.
Calabrese encourages you to try it as a family. "Start a martial art, everyone's a beginner together; you all start out as a white belt and progress from there," says Calabrese.
"Don't force family members to do things like go to the gym with you," says Price, but rather, "combine exercise with family activities you already do."
He suggests playing football, basketball, ice-skating or taking a long walk with the dog instead of sitting around the television with rental movies and video games. Join a softball league or soccer team. Take up yoga, tennis, or salsa dancing.
New Skills for the Fall
3. Learn a skill. Always wanted to try in-line skating, golf, cross-country skiing, or ballroom dancing? Here's your chance, say experts. Use fall too as a time to gain a new skill, suggest Price and Calabrese, and set a goal for the following year.
Perhaps you want to take a spring walking tour through Tuscany, says Calabrese, or a summer bike tour through Provence. Get ready now. Ramp up your fitness so you're prepared when the time comes.
Price says he always ties it into goals; asking his clients where they see themselves in the new year. "Do you want to run a marathon? Do you want to play tennis with your son?" Whatever it might be, says Price, starting in the fall will more assuredly get you to your goal by spring.
4. Clean out the pantry. Make an effort to go through your pantry and get rid of the processed and junk foods, she says. A great rule of thumb: "People should be eating most of their foods out of the refrigerator," says Calabrese. Lean meats, fruits, and vegetables should make up the bulk of your diet, she says.
Snack on apples, carrots, and edamame instead of cookies and crackers. But if you need your cracker fix, try the health food store or the health food section of your grocer, says Calabrese.
"Whatever is in the regular store, there's almost always a healthier alternative at the local organic foods market," she says. Try a brown rice and molasses version of a Rice Krispie treat; eat organic cereals and snack on trail mixes with dried fruit and nuts.
Squash, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, carrots, beans, avocados, broccoli, and cauliflower are all great antioxidant-rich vegetables, packed with vitamin A, vitamin C, and potassium, says Price. "Antioxidants help the body to combat free radicals in the body," says Price, obtained through everything from pollution in the environment to internal stress.
"Everything is cyclical," says Price, "so if we eat with the seasons, we're going to be healthier. There isn't another time of year when we have so much variety that's fresh and local," says registered dietitian Amy Joy Lanou.
Enjoying what's local, as opposed to vegetables grown elsewhere and shipped in, will give you the most nutritional punch, she says. "When foods are picked in, say Costa Rica, they have to be picked before they are ripe and allowed to ripen on the way," says Lanou, nutrition director for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine in Washington. Local produce stays in the ground and on the plant longer, allowing it to take in the nutrients of the sun and earth until it is finished growing. The time between it being picked and you eating it is much shorter, and therefore, the produce is fresher and more nutritious.
Don't stop there. Freeze vegetables when they are fresh and ripe and use them throughout the winter, when fresh, local produce is not available. Freeze tomatoes to make stews, salsa, and tomato sauces; freeze grapes and berries for smoothies and muffins; and freeze squash for winter soups.
'Time of Renewal'
6. Teach better eating habits. "Fall is a time to restart, a time of renewal, a time of year to dig back into projects," says Lanou.
"One of those might be working with your kids to have healthier eating habits," she says. That may mean working directly with the schools to have healthier lunch options, or changing what you put in lunch boxes. Instead of stuffing your child's lunch box with the usual packaged and processed convenience foods, says Lanou, make an effort to get the kids involved and create more healthful midday meals. Try slicing apples and putting in a small container of peanut butter for dipping or making hummus dip and putting it in with carrots.
"Find things that work for your child," she says, "Engage them in the process, so they are agreeing to do this with you.
7. Take charge of medical health. Physician, author, and patient empowerment expert Marie Savard, MD, says fall is the time to get a handle on your personal health care, past and present. "Just as we keep track of our car maintenance records and our financial records," says Savard, "we need to keep track of our health records."
Keep track of your list of medical problems and an updated list of your medications and how you are taking them. Make sure that you have the names and numbers of all doctors who are current providers. If you change to a different primary care provider, make sure that a copy of your records is sent to your new primary care provider.
"We see multiple doctors and specialists [throughout our lives]," she says. "No one doctor today has cradle-to-grave medical records."
Next, take charge of your own personal health, including getting a physical, gynecological exam (for women), and up-to-date immunizations, including a flu shot.
"Protection from the flu is well worth the inconvenience, minor cost, and pain in the arm," Savard says.
For college freshmen, Savard recommends the meningococcal vaccine to protect against bacterial meningitis, the highest incidents of which are found among college freshman living in dormitories.
Savard also recommends having a health buddy. Just as a workout partner keeps you more consistent with exercise, a health buddy will offer you encouragement to schedule medical checkups, quit smoking, or get more rest.
"Start preventatively," says Savard. "Don't wait until you're in the throes of your symptoms to address the problem. We are closing doors and starting to spend more time indoors," Savard continues. "This is the time we begin passing cold viruses back and forth. Be more vigilant about hand washing."
If the dry heat causes nosebleeds, Savard says, get out the salt water spray and humidifier.
9. Throw away the scale. Though we put a lot of weight into the scale as the best indicator of our healthy size, Savard says more and more research is finding that is not so. The tape measure is a much better way to define health, she says.
"Pounds don't tell as much about health as the inches around our waist and our body shape," she says.
"It's waist size that matters. Your waist size, and where you carry your fat are three times more important as a predictor of future health than what the scale says," Savard stresses. Abdominal fat is the 21st century's enemy.
10. Get enough rest. Fall is usually a time where you're forced to wake up earlier to get kids off to school and get to work on time. You are less likely to get the seven to eight hours of sleep your body needs.
"Sleep is really the precursor to everything," she says. Without adequate sleep, "you're in a constant state of high alert or stress mode. That takes its toll on every body part or function from the immune system to the central nervous system."
If you're not sleeping well, adds Savard, "then you don't have the ability to focus and take on these lifestyle changes."
Savard offers this rule of thumb: If you need an alarm clock to wake you up every day, you're probably not getting enough sleep.