Achieve Your New Years Health Goals
Every January 1, it’s the same deal. I’m eager to write out a resolution list and get started on my goals, because this year I will drop 10 pounds, stress less, save more money, and be the most giving person I can be. Fast-forward a few weeks, or even several days: That list is now located under a mountain of papers on my desk, and I’m back to my same old routine of going to costly, caloric happy hours with friends, rushing through workouts, and stressing over deadlines.
Sticking to your goals isn’t easy. Time-management firm FranklinCovey reported in 2007 that almost 80 percent of those who make resolutions eventually fall off the wagon. So why do we even bother? “Goals create vision and purpose in our lives,” says Colorado psychotherapist Alyson Schwabe, LPC. “Without goals, we’d all be depressed and bored.”
I can relate. There’s no doubt I feel much happier and more fulfilled when working hard to achieve something, whether it’s training for a 10K or saving up for an adventure abroad. With that in mind, I asked experts nationwide how I can tackle my goals this year without tiptoeing around them or losing steam after a few weeks. Here’s their advice on how to lose weight, stress less, and find happiness—for real this time.
Goal 1: Lose Weight
According to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, two-thirds of Americans over the age of 20 are overweight or obese. So chances are high that your No. 1 resolution this year is to shed pounds, whether it’s 5 or 50. Here’s your action plan to win the battle of the bulge:
Go flour-free. “I tell people who want to lose weight to stop eating all processed and refined carbohydrates,” says Victoria Maizes, MD, executive director of the Program in Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona in Tucson. “Anything with white flour—bread, rice, crackers, cereal, chips, pretzels—raises blood sugar, which, in turn, the body converts more readily to fat if you’re not active.” But Maizes doesn’t endorse a no-carb diet, which is often high in fat and low in fiber, vitamins, and minerals—not to mention that it’s difficult to sustain. She says the key is to stick to low-glycemic, unprocessed carbohydrates, such as steel-cut oatmeal, wheat berries, sweet potatoes, and legumes, all of which are rich in fiber and nutrients.
Commit to an exercise plan. Frequent exercisers know that the gym will inevitably become crowded every January only to empty considerably by February. This year, create a cardiovascular exercise plan into which you can ease slowly. “People start running, biking, or swimming aggressively with tons of enthusiasm, but within weeks they’ve simply burned themselves out,” says Matt Dixon, owner of PurplePatch Fitness in San Francisco. Dixon recommends newcomers begin with three 20-minute cardio sessions the first week, building up to four sessions per week, then adding minutes to each individual session, and so on. “At first, the focus should be on building the frequency of your sweat sessions, then increasing length, because adding time too quickly is what leads to injury,” he says. For extra motivation, recruit a friend or relative to be your gym buddy: People are less likely to skip a workout when they know someone is waiting for them at a cardio class or the track.
Learn To Count calories. When you want to lose weight, knowledge is power, though most people haven’t figured that out yet. “You’d be amazed that people have no idea how many calories are in typical food items,” says Maizes. If you’re one of them, write out a list of your favorite foods, and research them on calorieking.com orthecaloriecounter.com. You can also calculate your recommended daily caloric intake by visiting calorieking.com and clicking on “Interactive Tools” under “Resources.”
Find the calorie counts for your favorite restaurant items, too. Some “healthy” restaurants, such as Chipotle, serve humongous portions, so you could easily be eating more than 1,000 calories each time you stop in. Be mindful of portion size and extra calories in add-on ingredients, such as cheese and condiments. Another hidden calorie trap: healthy-seeming drinks. Beware of smoothies (a small Peanut Butter Moo’d smoothie at Jamba Juice clocks in at a whopping 624 calories and 16 grams of fat) and frozen coffee drinks.
Craft long, lean muscles. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to pound the pavement to look like you’ve lost weight. Practicing Pilates and yoga can help you look slimmer while you work to eradicate flab. “These disciplines improve posture, tone your abs in ways you could never achieve with sit-ups, and extend your range of motion, which makes you look slimmer even if you haven’t lost pounds,” says Elizabeth Larkam, Pilates and yoga director for The San Francisco Bay Club. Larkam recommends shooting for two hour-long classes per week or five 25-minute sessions per week. However, she and other experts caution against relying solely on these disciplines for weight loss. You still need to do aerobic exercise and eat less to drop pounds.
Say so long to sugar. While some sugar, such as the kind found in fruit, is fine, it’s the empty energy in cereals, soda, ice cream, candy, and processed foods that you should work to eliminate from your diet. To reduce the amount of sugar in your day, pick a breakfast cereal that contains at least 5 grams of fiber and less than 25 percent of its calories from sugar. Think of candy and processed foods as an every-so-often treat.
Consider acupuncture. If you watch what you eat, exercise four times a week, and still don’t see results, acupuncture could help get the scale moving in the right direction. According to traditional Chinese medicine, the spleen turns food into blood and qi, or energy, but if the organ is impaired, dampness accumulates, resulting in high blood sugar, high cholesterol, and excess body fat. “Optimizing the function of the spleen with acupuncture boosts metabolism and helps the body digest better, which can result in weight loss,” says Wally Doggett, LAc, owner of South Austin Community Acupuncture in Austin, Texas. “Using needles or taping tiny vaccaria seeds to points on the ear can reduce cravings and appetite.” If you’re worried about the price, check out communityacupuncturenetwork.org to see if your city has a community acupuncture clinic, where you can get treated in a communal setting for $20 to $40 a session.
Focus on your food.
Slowing down, focusing on your meals, and savoring the flavor of each bite are easy ways to curb overeating. Maizes recommends a simple technique to make eating more mindful. First, peel an orange slice, and simply look at it. Notice everything about it. Then, put it in your mouth, and taste the texture for a minute before chewing. “It’s amazing how much pleasure you can get from one orange if you really pay attention,” she says.
To further increase your eating enjoyment, turn off the TV, put down the BlackBerry, and add candles to your table to make each meal more special. I’ve noticed that if I take the time to prepare a real meal (even a simple one), I also take the time to really appreciate the experience of eating it. Challenge yourself to cook dinner a few nights a week, and get excited about eating healthy, enjoyable meals.
Goal 2: Stress Less
The bad news: The US economy and job market are still in a downturn. Even worse: A survey from the American Psychological Association reveals that women bear the brunt of stress caused by the current economic climate, because they are more likely to worry about finances, job stability, and their family’s healthcare. Here’s what you can do to ease the tension:
Fix your finances. Why is it that when you’re trying to budget, the last thing you actually want to do is, well, make a budget? Bari Tessler, a former mind-body therapist and founder of Colorado-based Conscious Bookkeeping separates the financial process into three easy steps. In the first stage, called financial therapy, Tessler says, “I have people look at their current relationship with money and analyze their patterns—what they’re spending on what, how they save, and how they make money. A lot of your financial habits were learned from your parents—or you’re rebelling against them. This step can be emotional and scary, but it reduces stress because understanding your patterns helps you change them.”
For the second step, bookkeeping, Tessler recommends signing up for an online program such as mint.com or purchasing a computer program like Quicken to track income and spending. “I also have people label their spending with more meaningful words,” Tessler advises. For example, instead of calling it “rent” or “mortgage,” title your monthly payment “home,” and if you take theater or painting classes, label them “creativity.” You can even rename your travel debt something like “my Roman holiday.”
The final stage is mapping out a budget. “This is the most personal step because it’s based on your age, family life, where you are with your career, and your hopes and dreams,” says Tessler. “Look at your numbers realistically, and figure out what you need to do to work toward a larger goal. If you want to start a business, you may decide to take a part-time job for the next year or two to build up some capital. Or if you want to travel the world, establish a new savings account just for that.” Tessler says having a plan and managing your money with a specific intent will immediately reduce stress and give you goals to work toward, but you have to keep the conversation going. “Schedule a money conversation each month,” she says. “Whether you’re talking to a financial advisor or your partner, make it a point to look through your records and discuss how the month went and how you can improve.”
Try Mindful meditation. Stress triggers the body to release stress hormones, which can throw off your hormone balance or worsen any preexisting imbalances, so it’s important to find ways to manage your response to stressors. “We don’t have much control over what stresses us out—a loved one who is sick, the economy—but we can train our minds and hearts to notice and modify our own reactions to the stress,” says Jeff Brantley, MD, director of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program at Duke Integrative Medicine. What is mindful meditation exactly? “It can be as simple as stopping every hour to take deep breaths at your computer,” says Brantley. “The key is to develop your natural ability to stop and check in with your body every few hours to notice if you’re tensing your shoulders or feeling overwhelmed in general.” Another way to check in with the body? Tape notes that say “breathe” or “relax” to your mirror, computer, or car dashboard to remind yourself to pause and take a few breaths. Brantley also says reaching out to friends and family through Twitter can give you a boost.
Write it down. If you like to write and find that making lists helps you feel in control, consider starting a journal. “Journaling is a powerful tool for self-awareness and can help reduce burnout as well as promote personal growth,” says Brantley. Whether you want to write about each day, list your goals, or simply jot down what you’re grateful for, remember that the point is to organize your thoughts, relax, and have fun. Putting your thoughts down on paper will reduce stress and help you reflect and reevaluate your life.
Relax and Recharge.
We all need to be reminded that unplugging from work and splurging—within reason—on a vacation or short getaway can do wonders to reduce stress. “There’s a lot of value in taking longer periods of time off,” says Jeff Brantley, MD, of Duke Integrative Medicine. “Whether you’re going on a weeklong getaway with the family or spending a weekend at a spa or spiritual retreat on your own, it’s important to really get away from everything—it’ll renew your heart and soul.”
Money may be tight, but a bright spot in this economy is that you can get amazing deals on cruises, travel packages, and other fun getaways. For those literally watching every penny, you don’t have to go far—or spend a lot of money—to disconnect from work and reconnect with fun. Some ideas: See what it’s like to spend the whole day in bed with your favorite book, attend a nearby festival, or head to a local state park to commune with nature.
Goal 3: Get Happy
Losing weight, getting fit, saving money, and almost every other resolution all amount to achieving a state of happiness—and isn’t that the biggest goal of all? Here are a few simple and surprising ways to up the joy factor in your life:
Step out of your comfort zone. At a certain point in life, almost everyone develops a set schedule filled with the same daily activities and familiar people. “We try to create homeostasis, meaning a routine or structure, but that ends up limiting and suffocating us,” explains Schwabe. Signing up for a photography class or joining that salsa dancing club may be just what you need to break out of a boring, old rut and feel alive again. “Trying new things actually stretches us and pushes us beyond ourselves,” says Schwabe. “Sometimes it can be uncomfortable, but it’s a great recipe for meeting new people and sparking happiness.” To break out of a rut, make a list of your interests and things you’ve always wanted to do. Next, hit the Internet: Art museums, colleges, and bookstores in your area likely have adult classes. Also check out meetup.com, which can help you connect with people who love what you love, from poker to pug dogs.
Work On your relationships. Just because you’ve known your best friend or spouse for 25 years doesn’t mean you can put that relationship on autopilot. In fact, it can be even more important to remind that person—and yourself—why he or she is so important to you. “You have to practice presence, appreciation, and honesty in any relationship,” says Schwabe. To do this, really focus on what your relationship is now (not what it was years ago), learn to appreciate everything about that person—even the stuff that annoys you—and be honest about anything in the relationship that needs work. “It doesn’t always feel like happy stuff, but being honest is one of the quickest ways to improve a relationship,” says Schwabe.
Focus on others. Whether volunteering or donating money, most people realize how important it is to give back to the community. But for Los Angeles resident Cami Walker, 36, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2006, giving to others completely changed her life—and her health. Two years ago, Walker was consumed by illness and constant pain. When Mbali Creazzo, a South African medicine woman who was also one of Walker’s spiritual advisors, suggested she focus her energy on others by giving a daily gift for 29 days, Walker figured it was worth a try. The results, which are chronicled in her book, 29 Gifts: How a Month of Giving Can Change Your Life (De Capo Lifelong Books, 2009), were simply miraculous. Within those first 29 days, during which Walker gave simple gifts such as phoning friends, donating money to charities, and washing the dishes for her husband, she was walking, working again, and feeling less pain and fewer MS symptoms. Now, almost two years later, she’s still giving on a daily basis and is recruiting others to do the same at 29gifts.org. (For more on MS, turn to “New Hope for MS” on page 51.)
Even if you don’t commit to the 29-day challenge, giving gifts in a more informal way can have a big impact. After interviewing Walker, I made a point to give a gift each day for a full week, including donating extra cleaning supplies to a charity and sending an e-card to a friend having a rough month. Once I shifted my mind-set to giving, I noticed there were opportunities to do good deeds all the time. And it didn’t take me long to realize that others’ happiness may be the biggest gift of all.
Tal Ben-Shahar, PhD, a Harvard professor and author of Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment (McGraw-Hill, 2007), recommends creating daily or weekly rituals that bring you joy, whether it’s pleasure reading for an hour every other day, taking a new dance class every Thursday night, or teaching your granddaughter how to knit on Sunday afternoons. According to Ben-Shahar, incorporating regular rituals doesn’t limit spontaneity but ensures time to do the things you love. Start by identifying two activities that bring you pleasure, and schedule them into your week for at least one month’s time. Don’t add new rituals until the first two become habitual.
Erin Quinn is a freelance writer in Austin, Texas.