Almost all our behaviours take the form of a habit. Some of these regular routines are great – brushing your teeth is important for avoiding a toothless old age – but others are not so beneficial: hitting the snooze button every morning means you always end up rushing and arrive at work already stressed.
We all have lots of habits that either enhance or impede our lives, but the good news is there’s always the opportunity to break unhelpful habits and create new, beneficial ones. Establishing good habits reduces the number of decisions you have to make each day, freeing up brainpower for more important tasks. It also reduces the amount of firefighting you have to do fixing problems created by bad habits. Research shows there are some habits that bring a wealth of physical and mental health benefits. Here are some of our favorites that are also super-easy to adopt.
The physical and mental benefits of exercise are so numerous and well established that if exercise were a pill, we’d all be trying to stockpile it. As well as helping you lose body fat and strengthen muscles and bones, exercise also protects the long-term health of the brain in two main ways.
Aerobic activity, such as running, swimming and cycling, increases blood flow to the brain, which brings with it oxygen and nutrients that the brain needs to stay in good working order.
Resistance training, such as bodyweight exercise or lifting dumbbells, increases the production of compounds in the brain that protect nerve cells from dying, and promotes the growth of new neural connections. A better-connected brain is faster and more efficient and this extra connectivity, if continued over a long period of time, can protect against the loss of brain volume as we age.
But physical activity isn’t only running or doing push-ups: the habit of simply moving more often is linked to longevity and better brain function as we age. If you can start getting into the habit of going for a 20- or 30-minute walk every lunchtime you will make significant progress to improve your health and well-being.
From a nutrition perspective eating more greens is probably the single most important new habit you can forge to enhance your health. Vegetables are packed with vitamins, minerals, fibre and other compounds such as phytochemicals that have numerous health-boosting qualities. Try to eat a fist-sized portion of veg with every meal if you’re a woman, or two if you’re a man – as an absolute minimum.
It’s also important to eat a wide range of vegetables, because each type and colour contains different combinations of essential nutrients. If you don’t like certain vegetables, experiment with different cooking methods or adding different herbs, spices or oils to make them more palatable.
Staying hydrated has repeatedly been shown to improve physical and mental well-being and performance. Research has found people encouraged to drink more water felt less fatigued, had better focus and improved mood, and felt less tired – all factors that promote a sense of well-being. Aim for around two litres a day, but more if you exercise, and carry a water bottle around with you so it’s easy to keep drinking all day long.
Getting into the habit of focusing your attention on what’s happening in the here and now can lower stress levels, stop you feeling overwhelmed, and improve productivity. Regular mindfulness practice can also reduce inflammation, induce calm and even protect brain health. If you’re new to the practice of mindfulness, start with just being more mindful at mealtimes.
It isn’t being dramatic to say loneliness kills. Despite the dizzying array of “social” media platforms, many people find they are more isolated and disconnected than ever. Loneliness increases your risk of heart problems, depression and cognitive decline. When people look back on their lives in old age one of the biggest regrets is neglecting relationships, and research shows the people who live longest have cultivated close relationships and are part of stable communities. Get into the habit of prioritising your relationships. Even if you have to schedule phone calls or make arrangements weeks in advance, it’s worth the effort because in-person contact with people who matter to you pays huge dividends to your well-being.
For many of us work is something we have to do to enjoy the rest of our lives. Maybe one day you could see whether your personal and professional interests could overlap, but for now it’s vital to remember that your job is not your identity, nor is it the extent of your capabilities. Explore that hobby that’s always interested you: learn to dance, play an instrument, learn a language, try something you think you’ll love. Don’t have enough time? Watch an hour less TV a night and now you do! Your new hobby will give you far more satisfaction and ultimately more likely to lead to greater happiness.
Written by Joe Warner for Coach and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.