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A Guide to Your Best Health
Prioritizing your health is no easy feat — especially when the internet and media flood us with conflicting advice on what works. For many of us, trying to get healthy means committing ourselves with gusto to bold plans with big promises. Whether it’s a Spartacus-inspired boot camp with daily 5 a.m. sessions, or an intense diet that cuts out all but two food groups to mysteriously induce some fat-burning chemical, or something in the murky inbetween, extreme transformation strategies are usually not the best path for most people.
That’s why we’ve spent years researching real ways to get it right and finding products that can actually help you achieve those health goals. Our team has been consulting doctors and nutritionists, vetting ingredients, taste-testing bars and powders, assembling treadmills, sweating it out on yoga mats, and keeping up on the latest training tech to give you the inside track on all things health and fitness.
To get a pulse on the health goals of our readers, we surveyed over 500 people on their goals for the new year. Over 40% of respondents said they stick to their health and fitness goals for just a few months. We also learned more about what kind of health goals people prioritize (spoiler: it’s exercising more), and discovered that 50% of people in our survey said their fitness and health goes are the same as last year. For those of us struggling to stick to goals, or finding ourselves setting the same goals time after time, we dug into how to set effective goals.
If one of your goals for the year is to be healthy, we can help you define that goal and map out a plan for success. But what does it actually mean to be healthy?
According to most of the experts we spoke to, exercise and nutrition are obvious cornerstones, but mental health is also a vital component. Anna Larsen, CPT & Fit Body Boot Camp Owner, told us mental wellbeing is intertwined with fitness and diet, “if you are under sustained stress, you may start to find relief in over-eating, over-drinking or even over-exercising.” Exercise and a good diet produce hormones that improve your mood and mental health, while a healthy mental state can better equip you to maintain positive eating and exercise habits.
We’ve done 40 hours of research, dug into countless studies, consulted over 50 experts, and rounded up our 23 favorite wellness products. This health guide will help you understand the importance of health and start setting achievable goals.
Fitting in Fitness
Exercising and losing weight are pretty familiar New Year’s resolutions so we weren't surprised that over 70% of our goal-setters listed one of these as their most important health goal for 2019.
Why is exercise so important?
Exercise eases stress, builds muscle, burns fat, and supports many of your body’s systems. Regular exercise is essential for long-term preventative health as it reduces the risk of serious health issues. A strong body is also better at fighting off minor illnesses. Running, weight training, walking, dancing — anything that gets your body moving is great for your health.
Exercise helps with weight management and weight loss, too. In order to lose weight, your body must burn more calories than you consume. And because muscle cells need a lot of energy, the muscles you build during exercise will continue to burn more calories than fat cells would, even when you aren’t exercising.
Another major benefit of exercising is endorphins. Physical activity, anything that gets the heart rate up, will release hormones called endorphins. Endorphins reduce your perception of pain and trigger positive “morphine-like” feelings in the body. This leads to more energy, improved sleep, and a positive effect on your mental health.
“A lot of times people think of exercise as ‘punishment’ for eating or drinking certain things, but exercise is really just a way to get your body moving, strengthen your muscles and activate the mechanisms in your bones that repair and strengthen them.”
How much exercise do you need?
The Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) reports that only one in three adults are doing the recommended 150 minutes of moderate exercise each week. While it might seem daunting to add two and a half hours of exercise to your week, it could be as simple as walking for 20 minutes each day, or doing an hour of strength training or a workout class a few times a week.
Don’t feel pressured to sign up for that marathon straight away. Start slow and build on your progress. Once you’re accustomed to that daily walk, step it up and add some hills, or try to walk your same route a little faster. As your muscles get used to a fitness routine, introducing a variety of challenges to push your endurance, speed, or strength will help you continue to make progress.
Goals to get you started
Though you may feel inspired to tackle an ambitious new fitness goal to kickstart your journey, it’s more important to set a goal that you’re confident you can maintain. Larsen advises that consistency is essential, even if your goal seems too easy at first, it’s important to develop a regular routine before you ramp up the intensity.
For example, rather than pushing for an hour of exercise every day, Larsen recommends, “start with three to five days a week of a 20- to 30-minute routine that you enjoy.” If you hate to run, don’t force yourself to suffer through a sweaty treadmill session. Opt for a different activity like pilates, yoga, or a sport you enjoy. Ask a friend to join you for a swim, take your dog for a long walk, or go on a hike. What matters most is that you’re moving and you’re feeling good about it.
Some great products for fitness
Healthy Eating Habits
There’s a lot of conflicting information out there about what it means to “eat healthy.” The International Food Information Council Foundation’s (IFIC) 2017 Food and Health Survey found that most people find conflicting advice about what to eat or avoid, causing many to doubt their food choices. Sometimes we’re told to completely cut out carbs, but we also hear carbs are a primary energy source. One authority claims that coffee is carcinogenic, while another suggests it prevents diseases like Parkinson's. Though defining it may be complicated, 19% of respondents in our own survey ranked “eating healthier” as their most important health goal.
Why is eating healthy so important?
The entire purpose of eating is to fuel the complex systems that function in your body — so feeding it the best nutrients possible is essential. Those nutrients, like calcium and potassium, directly influence bodily tasks like hormone creation and heartbeat regulation. Though vitamins and supplements are sometimes helpful, a balanced and healthy diet is the best way to ensure you’re getting the minerals your body needs.
The perks to eating healthy are abundant — it lowers your risk for health issues, improves confidence, increases energy, aids in weight management, and sets a good example for family and friends. The World Health Organization reports that if people ate healthier, stopped using tobacco, and exercised more — 80% of all cases of heart disease, stroke, and Type 2 diabetes could be prevented. This staggering statistic is reflected in nearly every major health disease — cancer, diabetes, obesity, osteoporosis, and even depression are all less likely for people with a healthy diet.
Which nutrition plan is best for you?
So let’s get back to what it means to “eat healthy.” A good place to start is USDA’s MyPlate. Basically, the ideal plate for each meal contains a balance of essential food groups. Half your plate should be fruit and vegetables, and the other half should be whole grains and protein. Add a small side of low-fat dairy and you’ve got a balanced meal.
Just like with exercise, drastic changes upfront are hard to maintain when it comes to eating healthy (that’s why diets don’t really work for most people in the long term).
While the goal is a balanced plate at every meal, you can start by making small changes to slowly modify your diet. Keeping track of what you’re eating and drinking to help you understand your eating habits. Be aware of portion sizes and don’t over-eat. Try to limit excessive sugars, saturated fats, and sodium. Choose grilled food over fried, opt for fat-free dairy products, and try cooking with herbs and spices instead of salt. Drinking lots of water in place of soda and juice is another simple switch that will benefit your health in many ways.
But know that you don’t need to be overly restrictive or perfect with your eating habits to see success. Making small measured changes over time and striving for balanced nutrition is key to reframing your eating habits. “Eat healthy for 80% of the week and allow for unhealthy choices for about 20% of the week,” Diane Malaspina, Ph.D, Yoga Medicine Therapeutic Specialist advised. “This is called the 80/20 rule. This approach teaches the skill of moderation and doesn’t call for complete food restriction so that less healthy food can be enjoyed in moderation.”
“Remember that fad diets aren’t easily maintainable, so it’s best to just adopt a healthier lifestyle that you can carry throughout your whole life.”
UCLA research found that the majority of people on diets will regain more weight than they lose within five years. Diets, especially overly restrictive ones that eliminate entire food groups, can be hard on your body, make eating at social gatherings complicated, and if they involve exotic ingredients or subscribing to a food plan, can become pretty expensive. Both the USDA and our experts agreed that general moderation and a balance of food groups is the most effective way to achieve long term healthy nutrition.
Goals to get you started
To start eating healthier, just one or two intentional changes can go a long way.
Some great products and services for better nutrition
Meditate on Mental Health
A healthy mental state helps us cope with the stresses of life, work productively, maintain loving relationships, develop self-confidence, improve physical health, and ultimately live a happy life. But good mental health is not simply the absence of mental illness, just as being in good physical shape is about much more than not being sick. It’s possible to invest in and optimize our mental health and doing so can yield positive effects in every aspect of our lives.
In our survey, 57% of respondents that chose “improve mental wellbeing” as their most important health goal were men. Culturally, when talking about the idea of self-care and mental wellbeing, men aren’t always included. But it’s clear that this aspect of health isn’t a gendered issue. Taking the time to focus on your mental wellbeing on a regular basis is important to everyone’s health.
Addressing your mental wellness doesn’t have to be complicated either. Simple steps like getting more sleep, journaling, disconnecting from electronics, and exercising can make a big difference.
Why is mental health so important?
A positive state of mind will increase motivation, renew your energy, and help you make good choices. It also improves your ability to handle the inevitable stresses of life and maintain positive relationships with those around you.
“[Mental health] affects our emotional, social and psychological well-being; how we deal with others, handle stress and make choices."
Your emotional disposition and outlook will affect how your body feels, too. Fatigue, cravings, irregular appetites, and weakness can all result from a poor mental state. “The mind-body connection is clear,” explains Malaspina. “Our thoughts, beliefs, feelings, and attitudes can positively or negatively affect our biological functioning.”
Goals to get you started
Most people will benefit from simply taking time to practice self care. What exactly self care means to you will be highly personalized. But simply put, give your mental wellness a boost by doing activities that help you feel relaxed and joyful. For some, that could mean spending time in nature (known as shinrin-yoku, or forest therapy). For others, it could be a lively family game night. Whatever helps you feel rejuvenated and balanced.
Some great products and services for self-care
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How to Set Good Goals
Setting goals is hard. So it’s no surprise that half of our survey respondents are setting the same health and fitness goals as last year. In our enthusiasm for self-improvement, it’s all too easy to design unattainable goals — e.g. “I want to run a marathon next weekend” or “I want to lose 60 lbs by Valentine’s Day” — or keep things too general — e.g. “I want to eat better” or “I want to lose weight.”
While there are a large number of factors that can make reaching health goals difficult, we have some suggestions and a few tips from our experts for setting better goals.
According to the HSS, there are four stages to changing a health behavior:
It can be helpful to journal your progress through these stages as you instill new healthy habits. If you find yourself listing the same goals year after year, take some time to think about why you’ve struggled to reach this goal in the past, and then reflect on how you can change it to set yourself up for success.
Steps to setting better goals
- Make it a habit. Most people can form a habit in about three weeks. This is usually enough time to start experiencing the benefits of your new habit. So instead of setting huge goals for the whole year, try setting incremental goals for one month, three months, six months, etc. Successfully hitting these milestones also motivates us to keep up the habit to hit the next one.
- Set SMART goals. SMART is an acronym for specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. Use this goal structure to craft an achievable and targeted goal. For example, refine general goals like “lose weight” or “exercise more” into “lose 20 lbs in six months” or “walk for 30 minutes five times a week.”
- Track your progress. There are many ways to keep track of how well you’re sticking to a new goal: journal daily, check-off micro-goals, set specific mile-markers, or take photos. Larsen’s a big fan of this last idea, “take a photo of everything you eat during the day. You may think you're only having a couple of treat meals a week, but photos may show that you're actually having one or two a day —this way you can monitor that. Taking weekly full-body photos and comparing them each week or month can show you the progress you won't see on the scale or in the mirror.”
- Reward yourself. Whether it’s with a day of rest, a movie out, or a cheat meal. “Reward yourself by feeling proud of yourself,” Malaspina recommends. “The more you feel good and rewarded for your efforts, the more likely you are to repeat your behaviors.”