9 "High-Maintenance" Healthy Habits That Truly Pay Off
You know you should meditate—everyone from your medical doctor to the guy checking you out at Whole Foods raves about its benefits. But is daily inward reflection really worth your time? Yes! In addition to reducing anxiety and improving your overall outlook on life, "meditation has been shown in research to reduce blood pressure, increase attention span, help insomnia, and increase compassion," says Dr. Samantha Brody, a licensed naturopathic physician and acupuncturist.
And you don't just have to sit and stare at the wall to clear your mind. "There are many different ways to meditate," Brody says. "There is mantra meditation where you focus on a word or a phrase, meditation where you focus on your breath, and even moving meditation." But the real trick, she says, is to stick with it, even when you feel like you don't want to. "It's on the other side of the resistance that you'll find the biggest rewards!"
Ready to get started? Check out this beginner's guide to meditation for everything you need to know.
Stretching is often overlooked because the results are not as visible as lifting weights and squatting—or so you thought. Stretching can lead to better posture, fewer aches and pains , and even a cheerier outlook on life. That's because stretching increases your blood flow and circulation for a healthier body and sends oxygen to your brain for a clearer mind and sunnier moods,” says Peggy Hall, wellness expert.
To stretch properly, you can use any number of techniques from yoga to active resistance to dynamic stretching, but it doesn't have to be elaborate. The key is to make sure you stretch the front and back of your body evenly, says Greg Merseth, a personal trainer and correctional exercise specialist for Lifetime Fitness. "Everyone always stretches their hamstrings and forgets their hip flexors! This pulls your pelvis out of alignment and sets you up for a ton of functional problems."
Not all stretching is created equal, so check out this quick guide on the best pre- and post-workout stretches for your body.
Going to Bed Before 10 P.M.
"This is an excellent strategy to stay slim, as late nights are linked to craving salty, savory treats and overeating," says Dr. David Grotto, M.D., author of The Best Things You Can Eat. What's more, research shows that every hour of sleep you get before midnight is worth two hours of sleep after midnight!
"Sleep is the forgotten aspect of fitness, weight loss, and health," says Dr. Shawn Talbott, Ph. D., author of The Vigor Diet: The New Science of Feeling Your Best. "But without getting those eight hours, we are overexposing our body to the stress hormone cortisol, which stimulates cravings for junk food, breaks down muscle tissue, and stimulates belly-fat storage."
Try to establish a bedtime routine, and consider exercising earlier in the day to help tire you out. After that it's a matter of just doing it. If you're used to super late-nights, start by pushing your bedtime up 30 minutes or one hour at a time. Dr. Brody cautions that "although we all know what it feels like to be tired, stay up past your body's signals to sleep and you can get a ‘second wind' that can keep you from falling asleep."
RELATED: The Best Foods for Deep Sleep
Almost every health/nutrition/weight loss expert agrees that most people are unaware of what (and how much) they're truly eating. And food journaling is the best way to change that! "Very often people will eat subconsciously—a bite here, a snack there—and not realize how many calories or what types of foods are going down the hatch," Dr. Talbott says. "So food journaling makes us more aware of what we're eating, when we're eating it, and why—and it almost always makes us think about making better choices."
You can always go the pencil-and-paper route, but there are many new apps and sites designed to help you log your daily intake—Dr. Brody recommends Myfitnesspal.com. The best part about food journaling is that you only need to do it every once in a while for it to be effective, even once a week can help you recognize bad habits and see where you might be able to make better nutrition choices.
One caution however: "For people who get obsessive or have an eating disorder history, sometimes tracking food can trigger negative behaviors or self judgment," Dr. Brody says. If this describes you, talk to your doctor about alternate ways of improving your eating habits.
Sleeping on the Ground
While we don't expect you to give up your plush mattress to sleep on the floor every night, it might be worth a try if you have trouble sleeping. According to Dr. Brody, enthusiasts believe that being on the floor is a more natural state. Plus, sleeping on a thin mat has been shown in some cases to ease back pain, reduce snoring, and encourage a proper sleeping position.
The biggest problem with beds and pillows isn't really the softness but rather the position in which you sleep, says Dr. Len Lopez, a nutrition and fitness expert and author of To Burn or Not to Burn: Fat is the Question. "Sleeping on your side, in the fetal position for six to eight hours, will shorten (tighten) your hip flexors and hamstrings which leads to back pain. It also shortens your pectoral muscles, one cause of upper-back pain."
So how should you lay your head to rest? "The ideal way to sleep is flat on your back on something slightly softer than the floor and with no pillow—that way your spine is basically in it's most neutral position," Dr. Lopez says. He's especially not fond of "head positioning" or ergonomic pillows which he says cause more problems than they help.
Dr. Grotto adds that if you are having a hard time adjusting to your new, harder accommodations, "try a handful of tart cherries and walnuts, natural sources of the sleep hormone melatonin" just before bedtime (or reach for one of these sleep-inducing snacks).
There's nothing like waking up to a nice hot mug of... acidic water? Our experts say "yes!" "Lemon water is great for hydration, and the vitamin C in lemons helps detoxify, repair, and heal the body," Dr. Grotto says.
Your body is dehydrated after a long night of sleep so try to get in the habit of pouring a glass of H2O with a squirt of lemon juice first thing in the morning. Lemon makes plain water taste better too, so you'll be more likely to drink more, he adds. Just be careful to wait 30 minutes after drinking to brush your teeth as the acid temporarily weakens tooth enamel.
Hang around any fitness venue long enough and you're guaranteed to hear people touting the benefits of high-intensity interval training (HIIT). But running is tough enough—why add sprints that make your heart feel like it's going to explode?
Super high-intensity sprints (10 on a scale of one to 10) with short recovery periods (30 to 60 seconds) have been shown to improve endurance and overall fitness level just as well as much longer steady-state exercise, Dr. Grotto says. So you reap the same benefits in a much smaller amount of time. And when it comes to torching calories, HIIT can't be beat! Not only do you burn more calories during HIIT workouts, but the effect of all that intense exertion kicks your body's repair cycle into hyper-drive, meaning you burn more calories in the 24 hours after you leave the gym. (Click here to learn more benefits of HIIT).
To do a HIIT workout, try one of our fat-blasting Tabata drills or simply pick your favorite piece of cardio equipment and alternate 20 seconds of maximal effort with 10 seconds of rest, eight times total.
Walking in a winter wonderland sounds delightful, in song anyhow. But in reality, most people don't want to drag themselves outside to take an after-dinner stroll in frigid temperatures. Why should you do it anyway? We need fresh air, sunlight, and to move our bodies just as much as we need healthy food and a solid workout, Dr. Brody says.
"We're just not designed to sit all day, and certainly not to sit all day inside." Moreover, recent research shows that being exposed to cold forces our bodies to work harder, thereby amping up our immune systems and even stimulating our bodies to burn more fat!
Dr. Brody encourages her patients to take any opportunity to step outside for a breath of fresh air, even when it's cold. But an important reminder: "If it's very sunny where you live, be sure to protect your skin. And make sure that you have good supportive shoes." It's a good tip to keep a spare pair of athletic shoes in the trunk of your car anyhow, whether they're for an impromptu walk or a walk to the gas station.