APU Health & Fitness Original

5 Habits to Improve Your Physical and Mental Health

We may be well past New Year’s resolution time, but it’s never too late to adopt some healthy habits that will set you up for success. Following a year like 2020, when our daily routines and lifestyles were drastically interrupted, it’s important to seek out and build new habits that are in line with our goals. 

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After all, habits are what truly create a healthy lifestyle. You’ll often hear fitness enthusiasts remark about creating a lifestyle versus going on an extreme diet. While we would all agree this sounds great, it also feels a bit ambiguous.

To help define what a healthy lifestyle looks like, consider a house. The building blocks of that house are your daily automated healthy habits. When we create a firm foundation of automatically healthy behaviors, we set ourselves up for a lifetime of wellness versus a roller coaster of extremes.

Now that it’s spring, it’s the perfect time to take stock of your current schedule and habits and decide if there are areas you want to improve. Whether you want to decrease your stress, be more mindful at the dinner table, or enjoy exercise again, it’s time to define where you want to go and start building that firm foundation to get you there.

Of course, wellness is much more than physical health and making sure to maintain body composition and weight that keep you at a lower risk of disease. Wellness also includes a healthy mental state.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and it’s important to remember that our daily habits play a huge role in keeping us mentally as well as physically healthy. With that in mind, consider adopting the following five healthy habits now to get you set for your best summer yet.

1. Drink Plenty of Water

Before you decide this is too simple of a strategy, ask yourself if you really drink enough water each day. This behavior seems like real low-hanging fruit. We hear it all the time so it’s easy to dismiss it as a “duh!” suggestion. The reality though, is that almost half of American adults drink fewer than four cups of water daily.

That’s well below the recommendations of multiple agencies and can lead to chronic dehydration, which has several negative side effects. Feel groggy? Have a headache? Got the munchies? Check your water intake. 

To make water drinking a habit you’ll stick to, set yourself goals throughout the day. Have at least one bottle of water before you consume anything else in the morning. Drink at least one glass of water with each snack. And if that slightly ridiculously over-priced water bottle makes you excited to achieve this goal, consider the price just might be worth it.

2. Set Up Social Exercise Opportunities

For far too long, the lie that exercise needs to be punishing has been floated around as if it were the truth. “No pain, no gain” may be one of the biggest fallacies in the wellness world. There are plenty of completely non-painful and even enjoyable ways to make gains (whatever the gains are that you want to reach, of course).

While I’ll agree that you do have to be disciplined and work hard to achieve your goals, it certainly doesn’t have to be a miserable experience. Consider asking yourself, “What’s something I’m willing to stick to forever?”

If sweating for two hours a day five days a week sounds like too much, it probably is. Instead, try setting up extremely rewarding exercise experiences. When exercise can be intrinsically motivating, we exercise because the activity itself is the reward, the outcome of better health and maybe a leaner physique is just icing on the proverbial cake.

Now that some coronavirus restrictions have been lifted and we’re starting to get back to some of our usual activities, this is a great time to build a new social exercise habit. Maybe you walk with a friend to get coffee once a week. Perhaps you try a new hike each weekend with your spouse.

Whatever sounds fun and exciting, put it on the calendar and make it a regular happening. Not only are these types of activities rewarding in and of themselves, but they also come with the built-in accountability of knowing someone else is counting on you.

3. Simplify Your Meal Planning Strategy

When we want to improve our physical and mental health, we know food plays a huge role. But it can sometimes be completely overwhelming to consider meal prepping with every morsel. Instead, consider simplifying and streamlining your meal planning system this spring. 

This will look a bit different for everyone considering individual preferences, but I like to eat the same thing for breakfast every day (prep this on Sunday!) and have leftovers. I also eat a salad or smoothie for lunch (these ingredients keep in the fridge for a long time) and then have a new simple dinner each night. 

These dinners are not elaborate. They’re hardly dining table-worthy, much less Instagram-quality. However, they’re packed with nutrients and keep my family feeling great. To keep it simple, try identifying two things: protein and produce. If you can pick a protein and produce for each meal, you’ll be set.

4. Define Your Optimal Behaviors

This may seem too big to be one habit, but it’s more of a repeating practice so it still fits the bill. It’s important to know who we want to be and how we want to improve to get there. This doesn’t have to be concrete measurements and SMART goals; it can be more elusive and high-level such as the type of person you want to be. Consider what your life values are (read: priorities). 

Do you want to be the kind of person who prioritizes physical health or mental health? What would that person’s life look like in your opinion? Write this vision down so you can see it on paper.

Consider envisioning an actual day-in-the-life-of scenario. Now, compare this day to one of your current days. How many differences are there? Are there things you can begin to address?

Revisit this vision of a lifestyle weekly (maybe when you prep your breakfasts on Sunday), and remind yourself that creating healthy habits is 100% in line with who you want to be. It feels good to show up as your best self.

5. Schedule Intentional Rest and Rejuvenation

Even the most Type-A go-getters need rest. In addition to pure rest and sleep, it’s also a huge mood booster to do something that’s relaxing specifically to you. The reason it’s important to set aside time for this is it can easily get pushed to the back burner. 

Set a few hours aside on the weekend to read your newest book. Try a face mask and journaling on Wednesday nights. Get in a foam-rolling session, a stretching technique that has been embraced throughout the fitness industry, while you watch your favorite TV show. Whatever it is that would feel like a bit of a treat both physically and mentally, put it on your calendar.

At the end of the day, simple healthy habits are what differentiates those who reaches their goals from those who doesn’t. Remember, habits are the building blocks of a lifestyle so if you use the right blocks, you get the results you want.

The best part? Habits are automated pathways in our brain. Once we’ve created a healthy habit our brain wants to keep making the same decision. 

So stay consistent with your new habits in the short-term (this may take some discipline), and reap the long-term physical and mental benefits.

Dr. Adrienne Herrenbruck is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sports & Health Sciences. She earned her Ph.D. in exercise physiology from the University of Kentucky and is a Certified Exercise Physiologist through the American College of Sports Medicine. Her research interests focus on skeletal muscle physiology, and she has a passion for discussing the convergence of science and healthy living.

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