Three Strategies to Improve Your Health in the New Year
I’ve had the pleasure of working with hundreds of higher education administrators and leaders over the past 20 years or so. The health habits of those administrators in many ways mimic those of the general population. Some routinely wake up at 4:30 a.m. and go for a five-mile run, are very conscious of what they eat, and get eight hours of sleep every night. Others attempt to fit some physical activity into their routines, try but don’t always succeed at eating healthy foods, and sometimes get as much sleep as they should. And some are completely sedentary, eat far too many fatty and processed foods, and don’t prioritize quality sleep.
Most of the articles I write are about online education, as I’ve served as the director of online education at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse for the past 11 years. However, before that I was a faculty member in a Department of Exercise and Sports Science where I taught a variety of courses related to health and wellness. So, I welcome opportunities to write about health-related topics and encourage people to think about improving their health, whenever I can. Here’s my advice to you.
Move a little more
Roughly 80 percent of Americans don’t get enough physical activity. People offer a myriad of excuses why that is the case. I don’t have time. I don’t like to exercise. I don’t like to sweat. It is too hot outside. It is too cold outside. I don’t like going outside. My tummy hurts. My shoes are worn out. I don’t have the energy. I’m too old. We will always, without much effort, be able to come up with an excuse not to be active.
Instead of telling people how much physical activity they should get every day or every week, I generally encourage people to strive to incorporate some movement and activity into their daily routine. This could include doing yardwork, shoveling snow, walking your dog, playing a sport with your child, going on a leisurely bike ride with your partner or spouse, walking to work, playing a round of golf, hiking at a state park, going to a Zumba class, etc. The options abound!
Some other ideas to think about to help you be more physically active would be to find something you really like to do and do it at a time that is convenient for you. Exercise with a friend, child, sibling, coworker, or significant other to help keep you accountable. Add your daily dose of physical activity directly in your calendar and guard that time like it is your most important engagement of the day. Consider incorporating walking meetings into your daily or weekly routine at work. I started utilizing walking meetings about 10 years ago, and I love them!
Improve your zzzzs
Nearly three quarters of people report having trouble falling asleep at least once a month and about 10 percent report difficulties sleeping on a nightly basis. This is a concern—roughly one-third of our life is spent sleeping and that one-third can have a dramatic effect on the other two-thirds of our waking hours.
Most sleep experts recommend we get seven to eight hours of sleep a night, and there are many health benefits to getting adequate sleep. These benefits include: being more productive at work, getting sick less often, improved memory, elevated mood and energy levels, maintaining an optimal weight, improved learning and memory, increased longevity (living longer), ability to cope with stress, improved heart health, and improved athletic ability.
Keep in mind that what works for one person to improve the quality of sleep might not work for another, but many sleep experts agree on the following strategies. Establish a nightly routine before going to bed. If you are a parent, you likely have a nightly bedtime routine for your child; establishing routines can be beneficial for adults as well. Evaluate your sleep environment. Most people sleep better if their sleep environment is cool, dark, quiet, and comfortable. Finally, avoid stimulation before going to bed, whether that be drinking caffeinated beverages, engaging in vigorous exercise, or watching the latest installment of The Fast and the Furious movie series.
While eating healthier is easy to recommend, it is not always easy to implement. Our society consumes too much sugar, sodium, and saturated fat, so attempting to reduce our consumption of these items is a great place to start.
One way to do this is to shift our shopping habits. When grocery shopping, attempt to purchase more whole foods: foods that look like they did when they were grown and harvested. Remember packaged foods tend to be higher in sugar, sodium, and saturated fat. Another idea would be to limit consumption of fast food. Notice I didn’t say completely eliminate fast food, which might be challenging as roughly 25 percent of U.S. adults consume fast food on a daily basis. And I confess, once every week or two I swing into a fast food restaurant for a burger and fries. Or, try to make slightly healthier choices when choosing the fast food option, as there are usually some healthier selections on the menu.
Food preparation can also be a challenge. Most of us have busy schedules—we work a full day and then start chauffeuring children to soccer practice, dance, piano lessons, karate, choir, debate club, 4-H, etc. Often the last thing we think about is what we will be making for dinner.
One strategy working professionals use to ease the load of preparing food is to use crock pots or slow cookers. Add the contents of the meal you are preparing prior to leaving for work in the morning and by the time you arrive home that evening the meal is cooked. Another idea to help decrease prep time is to set aside a few hours on the weekend to prepare three to five meals for the week ahead.
One last thing
I am not going to encourage you to come up with a list of New Year’s Resolutions, which in my opinion happens a bit too often this time of year. However, I will encourage you to think about your health and, after doing some reflection, attempt to identify just one area where you might be able to make a positive change. Find something that will result in you moving a bit more, sleeping a bit better, or improving your nutritional habits. Best of luck and have a healthy 2019!
Brian Udermann, PhD, is director of online education and professor of exercise and sports science for University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. He is a member of the Academic Leader advisory board.