Written by Jessica Cassity
Illustrations by Gillian Macleod
You don’t have to think big to be healthier in 2014. In fact, you might want to think small. Researchers found that when people made one easy lifestyle change, they were more effective at pursuing their objectives than when attempting multiple adjustments. One little change, one giant reward? Count us in. Now, repeat after us for a brand-new you.
Resolution #1: "This year I'll beat stress by practicing my breathing."
There's never a week that won't bring on some kind of stress-inducing scenario. But when anxiety starts to set in, just remember to take a deep breath. Then go ahead and take a few more.
“Breathing is one of the most important connections between your mind and your body,” says Keri Tuit, Psy.D., an assistant professor of psychiatry at Yale University. When the pressure starts mounting—your teen won’t practice the piano or she gets a poor grade on an English test—you go into fight-or-flight mode, and your brain releases a cascade of tension- triggering hormones that cause the heart to race. But you can reverse that process by lengthening your inhales and exhales, which has a twofold outcome: Measured, deep breathing automatically slows down your heartbeat and relaxes your entire body, she explains.And as you concentrate on your breathing, you become less focused on your worries, making recovery from stress easier.
To practice this soothing strategy, start taking more measured breaths through your nose, inhaling for 5 seconds and exhaling for 5 seconds. Try this exercise at various intervals throughout the day—and whenever you feel stressed—for 2 or 3 minutes at a time, concentrating on filling and emptying your lungs completely. “Before long, you’ll find that you don’t become stressed as often, and when you do, you’ll have an easier time managing the problem,” says Tuit.
Resolution #2: "This year I'll lose weight by choosing balanced snacks."
All too often, we select snacks based on how easy they are to carry in a purse. But the truth is that the healthiest mini meals require a little bit of prep. “Many common options—pretzels, cereal, even fruit—are primarily carbohydrates,” says Paul J. Arciero, a professor and director of the human nutrition and metabolism laboratory at Skidmore College. Problem is, filling up on only carbs can cause your blood sugar levels to soar—and eventually crash— which leaves you feeling hungry soon afterward.
Stop the noshing cycle with snacks that offer a balanced ratio of protein and fat. Some protein can be hard to digest, which means your body works harder to burn more calories (about 25 per every 100 consumed, he says). And a little healthy fat, like the monounsaturated fats in nuts and avocados, can aid digestion and increase your body’s absorption of nutrients.
First decide on a protein—which usually contains a little fat too—then add a carbohydrate. We asked Bonnie Taub-Dix, R.D.N., author of Read It Before You Eat It, for five options under 300 calories. Bonus: When you munch on a satisfying snack—as opposed to one that’s just so-so—you’re less likely to overeat.
Resolution #3: "This year I'll exercise more by doing mini workouts."
You don't have to carve out a 30-minute block of time to reap the benefits of physical activity. In fact, research shows that smaller increments (think 5- to 10-minute bouts) of vigorous exercise might be even more beneficial for your fitness, blood pressure and cholesterol levels than longer sweat sessions.
Segmented, intense workouts may also be more effective at helping you slim down, says Michele Olson, Ph.D., professor of exercise science at Auburn University at Montgomery, because your metabolism can stay elevated after each bout of exercise—even if the session is short. Simply put, the more afterburns you have, the more calories you burn.
“Start working toward your 30 minutes of activity in the morning, especially with some higher-intensity exercises that will rev up your metabolism, like jumping jacks or a few morning sprints down your street and back,” says Olson. Aim for three to five short sessions a day, spaced at least an hour apart. Track your minutes with a stopwatch on your phone each time you resume exercising. You may discover that you can cobble together that elusive 30 minutes of time after all. Here’s how one day could play out.
Resolution #4: "This year I'll be happier by hugging my friends and family."
Your teen may resist being hugged—especially if he's around his friends—so steal a cuddle before school. “Physical touch can instantaneously boost your mood, strengthen your immune system and reduce stress,” says Paul Zak, Ph.D., director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University. By holding your loved ones, even for a few seconds, you create a deep connection with them while also giving yourself an emotional boost. “Your skin is awash with tiny touch receptors—cells and nerves that fire up the brain’s mood center,” says Zak. “When you stimulate these receptors, your body produces less of the ‘stress’ hormone cortisol, and releases more of the ‘love’ hormone oxytocin.”
The more sensors you stimulate, the greater your oxytocin output, which is why a hug makes you happier than a handshake. There’s also a “dose-response” relationship between who you embrace and how happy you become. Happily wrap your arms around a neighbor and you’ll get some good feelings; hug your sister and those warm-and-fuzzy feelings will skyrocket. Zak recommends giving out eight hugs a day, noting that, unlike with medicines, you never have to worry about overdoing it.
Resolution #5: "This year I'll sleep better by using relaxation techniques."
From cooking breakfast to running errands, it may feel like there's never a moment when you're not going at full speed. Unfortunately, if you’re constantly wound up during the morning and afternoon, you’ll have a harder time decompressing later on, says Douglas Kirsch, M.D., a neurologist and sleep specialist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.
“One of the best ways to stem the rush of thoughts and worries and ease your mind before lights-out is to employ progressive muscle relaxation,” says Kirsch. It forces you to focus on your body, which calms your mind and primes you for sleep. (Good news: It also helps you drift off again when you wake up in the middle of the night.)
Begin by lying in bed about 10 minutes before you want to doze off. Flex your toes and hold for 5 to 10 seconds while breathing slowly through your nose. Release the hold and start again, this time tensing and relaxing the muscles in your feet, then your calves. Work your way up your body, ending with the muscles in your face. Relaxing the body physically helps you transition to sleep, says Kirsch.