What do you want to do to improve your life this year?
Lose weight? Quit smoking? Finish school?
Coming up with a New Year's resolution is simple; sticking to it for the next 12 months is the part most of us have trouble with. This year, instead of making one resolution that may not survive the next week, decide to incorporate healthy habits into your daily life, all year long.
Here are 13 practices that experts say we should all be following for optimum health.
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You probably won't be able to start all 13 habits at once and keep them going by the end of the month. Start by adding one or two new practices in each week, and make sure you can stick with those before adopting one or two more. And remember, habits take time to form, so "messing up" or "cheating" here and there aren't reasons to give up.
In no time, you'll find yourself with a healthier lifestyle.
1. Exercise in the morning
Do this and you won't even give yourself the chance to squirm out of a workout later in the day because of a work obligation, carpool or errands.
Better yet, morning workouts help regulate your sleep/wake cycle, raise your energy levels and get your brain focused. Dave Fannin, owner and fitness coach at The Body Firm in Fort Worth, tells his clients: "If losing weight and getting in shape is a priority, you need to do it first thing in the morning -- before the responsibilities and busyness of the day gets in your way. You'll find yourself more consistent with your workouts. You'll increase your metabolism, have more energy, feel better, and you'll tend to make better food choices throughout the day also. For seeing results quickly, there's really no downside to getting it done first thing in the morning."
(Not an early riser? Not to worry -- healthy habit No. 13 has you covered.)
2. Stretch regularly
Improve your athletic performance and decrease your risk of activity-based injuries through stretching. It helps your joints move through their full range of motion and increases blood flow to muscles.
Sarah Bruner, a Smart Barre instructor in Fort Worth, stresses the importance of stretching in her classes. "Stretching helps ease pain and releases built-up stress in muscles and tendons. It helps lengthen your muscles and improve overall mobility. It even makes movement easier," she says. Before you start limbering up, let's go over some basics:
Stretching isn't a warm-up. You could injure yourself by stretching cold muscles, so it's best to do light cardio for five or 10 minutes first.
Focus on major muscle groups, and stretch muscles that you use a lot at your job or other daily activities.
Don't bounce! It can create small tears in your muscles, and leave scar tissue in its place. So, once everything is said and done, bouncing can result in less flexibility. Assume a stretch and hold that position for about 30 seconds before moving on.
Don't think "no pain, no gain" when it comes to stretching. You should expect to feel tension, but if it hurts, you've pushed too far. Only go as far as you can pain-free, and hold.
Be consistent. Aim for at least two or three times a week and keep with that routine in order to reap the full benefits of your new habit.
3. Take a digital detox
Have you checked your text messages or answered an email since you started reading this story? If the answer is yes, you're probably not alone. Our lives are saturated by technology, and many of us would say we're "addicted" to our smartphones.
Before you go all out and form a Technology Addicts Anonymous chapter, consider taking a cue from Digital Detox. This scenic retreat in Northern California is an escape from the real world where guests give up their cellphones, laptops and other gadgets to relax and recharge their minds and bodies sans technology.
Karyn Purvis, director of TCU's Institute of Child Development, agrees that there are huge benefits to taking a technology detox. "We're allowing technology to overrun our relationships," she said. "We are so addicted to media, immediate gratification, text messages, emails, all this noise."
A simple way to digitally detox, she suggests, is to turn off the television for a week at home. "For some families, it's excruciatingly painful -- their remote hand is twitching waiting to turn something on," she said. "At first they don't know what to do with themselves. But over time it gets easier, and by the time the week is up, you realize the chaos that normally overruns our lives."
Try to set goals for yourself (and even your family), like taking one digital detox per quarter, and adjust as life and schedules get hectic.
4. Get up from your desk
If you're sitting, you may want to stand up for this.
In a 13-year study that analyzed the lifestyles of more than 17,000 men and women, scientists at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Louisiana found that people who sit most of the day are 54 percent more likely to die of a heart attack.
And get this: The so-called "sitting disease" affects smokers, nonsmokers, dedicated exercisers and healthy eaters. This is just one of many studies to crop up in recent years with similar evidence.
What has been found is that sitting encourages poor posture, makes you fatter and causes lower-back pain. People who got up, stood and moved more not only slashed their chances of health risks, but were also thinner than those who stayed seated.
To combat sitting disease, take the following steps. Set a timer to get up and move around twice every hour. When you get a phone call, stand up for it. Finally, if you aren't fulfilled by the first two options, get a stand-up desk, or convert your current desk into a stand-up desk by elevating your monitor so it is at arm's length and the top is at eye level. Your keyboard should be at the height to create a 90-degree angle with your elbow.
5. Stay in touch
Feel like it's been too long to reconnect with an old friend (or family member)? Call him or her anyway.
Research suggests that people with stronger social ties outlive their less social counterparts. In fact, a study in the journal PLOS Medicine suggests that a lack of social bonds can actually damage your health just as much as alcohol abuse and smoking. It can even hurt your health more than obesity and lack of exercise.
In an age where technology rules, it has never been easier to get in touch with others. So pick up the phone and send a text or email (unless you're on your digital detox, of course). Make new connections through your job, or through volunteering.
Keep up this new habit throughout 2013 by setting shorter-term goals for yourself, like calling at least one friend or family member you don't talk to often to chat each month.
6. Drink two glasses of water before breakfast
Really, it could be before any meal. In a study at Virginia Tech, people who drank two glasses of water before breakfast consumed on average 75 fewer calories than those who did not.
It's a sort of calorie-free appetizer, and participants reported feeling less hungry when it came to mealtime.
Water has other noteworthy benefits, like improving your complexion and possibly even speeding up your metabolism, so drink up!
You need water anyway, so why not use it as a portion-control tool?
7. Reduce your sodium intake
Do you know what your daily allowance is?
For most people, 2,300 milligrams is the limit, but according to an article in Woman's Day magazine, for those who are over 50; have high blood pressure, diabetes or kidney disease; or are African-American, sodium intake should be limited to 1,500 milligrams each day.
Unfortunately, the Centers for Disease Control estimates that the average American consumes about 3,300 milligrams per day, and restaurant and processed foods, not your salt shaker, are mostly to blame.
Lower your intake by preparing more food at home, and eating processed and frozen foods, canned soups, lunch meat, dressings, sauces, and snacks less often.
8. Manage stress and anxiety using the four A's
Whether it stems from our jobs, relationships or a busy schedule, stress can be difficult to avoid. To cope with stress, the Mayo Clinic suggests trying the four A's: avoid, alter, accept and adapt.
Avoid: Sometimes stress can be stopped before it starts. Check traffic before you leave the house, keep a distance from people who bother you, and learn to say no to things that are going to add anxiety to your schedule.
Alter: Take inventory of the situation, and attempt to change things for the better. That might mean kindly asking others to change their behavior, openly communicating how you feel about something, practicing time management or being up-front about your limits (like saying "I've only got two minutes to cover this" to a chatty co-worker).
Accept: When things can't be altered, accept that it is what it is. In this case, talk out your frustrations with a friend or co-worker. Still angry? Free yourself of that negative energy and learn to forgive. Holding grudges and being angry can be exhausting. Feel better through positive self talk, and learn from your mistakes to adjust the future.
Adapt: The idea that you can't cope is stressful in itself. Changing your standards or expectations may be the most helpful thing you can do for yourself. Stop gloomy thoughts in their tracks, and focus on the positive. If you replay the scene in your mind, do so only by reframing the issue in a positive light. You can also adopt and repeat a mantra, like "I can handle this." Finally, look at the big picture and think about whether this seemingly stressful situation is really all that important.
9. Take time to be grateful
Say "ahhhhhhh." Showing gratitude, whether it is expressed orally or through written reflection, improves our immune systems, increases our feelings of connectedness and even helps us fall asleep faster.
And just for grins, while you're thinking grateful thoughts, don't forget to smile! Smiling can dramatically improve one's mood, according to a study conducted by the British Dental Health Foundation. The act also can improve confidence, and help you make friends and even excel in your career.
10. Make love more often
You might be thinking, "Hey, I like the sound of that!" Yes, there are numerous and wonderful health benefits you will reap from more intimate time.
While the calorie-burning power of sex will never replace a three-mile run or a workout at the gym, it does get your muscles working. Our bodies have more than 600 muscles, and during sex, according to Patti Britton, author of The Art of Sex Coaching, we use all of them. Aside from providing a workout, sex puts us in a better mood, gives us stronger immune systems and (look out, Oil of Olay) leaves us with glowing, younger-looking skin.
11. Stand up straight
We probably all remember hearing that as kids, and groaning as we retreated from our favorite slumped-over position to push our shoulders back and feel less comfortable.
The truth is, standing up straight doesn't just prevent you from looking like a slouched-over slob. According to Discovery Fit & Health, good posture starts in your core -- the stabilizer muscles that sit in your abs, hips and lower back. A strong core helps you stand for longer periods of time (like at your new stand-up desk, perhaps), prevents injury because you're putting less stress on your joints and helps you appear more confident.
12. Eat more eggs and sweet potatoes
But not necessarily together -- that doesn't sound too appealing. By themselves, though, these are two often-overlooked superfoods.
Jonny Bowden, author of The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth, notes that eggs are the best source of protein. They contain all nine essential amino acids, which help build your muscles. And with bigger muscles come greater fat-burning potential, since it takes more calories to maintain muscle than it does fat.
Now to sweet potatoes: One medium sweet potato contains more than your daily requirement of vitamin A, almost a third of the vitamin C you need, close to 15 percent of your daily fiber target and 10 percent of good ol' potassium. Not to mention (but we will anyway) oodles of healthy antioxidants and beta-carotene, and, for our diabetic friends, a low glycemic index. 13. Wake up early and seize the day
Twelve new habits may seem like a lot to handle. Not to worry, this 13th healthy habit is the icing on the cake -- a way to stay motivated and committed to this "new year, new you" plan.
Here it is: Sleep better and wake up earlier. Early morning risers, suggests a study from the University of Toronto, are happier than their late-rising counterparts. Those early birds also have a more optimistic and motivated outlook on life. Here's how you can wake up early, feel refreshed and be totally ready to seize each day.
Get some things ready the night before. Make your lunch, choose your outfit -- anything you can do to make the morning routine fast and easy.
Think positively! Write down a positive thought the night before, and revisit it in the morning. It'll start you off on the right foot.
Stay hydrated. Your body gets dehydrated during sleep, which results in feelings of fatigue. Drink water before bed and when you get up in the morning.
Figure out how many hours of sleep you need each night, and be consistent in getting it.
Before bed, take a Wake Up on Time supplement. It's a "wake-up call in a pill" that's packed with vitamins, herbs and amino acids. Its formula slowly disperses through the body over a six- to eight-hour sleep cycle, speeding up the metabolism and boosting energy levels and your immune system so you wake up refreshed. For more information and to purchase ($30 for 40 tablets), visit www.wakeupontime.com or try Amazon.com.
Additional sources: Livestrong.com, HuffPost Healthy Living, Psychology Today, Fitness magazine, Mayo Clinic