January is one of my favorite months. As a healthcare and wellness provider, it warms my heart to see the sincere effort that so many people invest in their wellness at the start of each year. So often, however, I’m met with heartbreak by early spring, as over-zealous New Year’s Resolutions are abandoned because of lack of time or energy. If this sounds eerily familiar to resolutions you have made in the past, let me offer an alternate plan for you. Lofty wellness goals that include rising at the crack of dawn for hours of exercise, drastic changes in diet that abandon all sugars, carbs, meats or cooked food, or supplement regimes that require multiple pill boxes are hard to maintain, often lead to complete abandonment, and are overwhelming. So this year, I recommend that you set smaller goals that can be maintained and that will lead to better health through all of the seasons of the coming year. Let me suggest a few small goals that pack a big punch.
START WITH 10 DAYS.
One of the most daunting aspects of a New Year’s Resolution is its unforeseeable completion. It’s amazing how quickly, however, that our bodies get used to positive changes, so I have patients set a 10-day goal. Whatever the goal might be (to stop smoking, decrease alcohol consumption, eat less sugar, eat fewer carbohydrates, etc.) start with complete avoidance, which is a huge challenge for your willpower, but do it just for that 10-day period. This requires 10 days of discipline, and then if all ability to restrain from that habit is gone, you can return to it. What I’ve seen for most people is that after 10 days of restraint (and sometimes fewer than 10), you probably won’t return to it. Your body will no longer have the same cravings, and for most habits you’ve survived the first few days of withdrawal and you’ve come out on the other side. It’s common sense: when you give your body a long enough break from detrimental habits, you feel better. When you feel better, your mind and body are going to drive you towards those same choices.
This is especially true for fat, sugar, and carbohydrate cravings, and I use the same method in striving for a complete nutritional overhaul. Nutritional information is at all of our fingertips, and I’m aware that most people know how to eat a nutritionally sound diet of whole non-processed meals high in vegetables, lean meats, fish, and beans, and low in simple carbohydrates, red meats, and dairy. But knowing this and doing it are two different things. For most, however, a “clean diet” for 10 days of avoiding sugar, sugar substitutes, processed foods, wheat, dairy, and alcohol (eating vegetables, minimal fruit, fish, lean meats, healthy oils, and legumes) will greatly reduce sugar and fat cravings by helping to stabilize blood sugar levels. After the 10 days, you simply begin to moderate those avoided foods back in. You’ll likely find that it is easier to moderate them in at a healthy level.
10 days is also long enough for many people to determine whether or not they have food intolerances. If you suspect that you are having symptoms related to your ingestion of wheat, avoid it completely for 10 days. Monitor for changes in your health in the 3-4 days after you re-introduce it, and you might get confirmation that you are right. If you suspect multiple food intolerances (i.e., wheat, dairy, or eggs), take them all out for 10 days and when you start to re-introduce them, do so one at a time, separated by 4-7 days, again looking for any resurgence of symptoms that went away during the 10 days. The most common food intolerances are to wheat, dairy, soy, and eggs, but remember, the more foods that you eliminate, the longer it will take to re-introduce them after the 10 days.
If a lack of exercise is your downfall, commit to exercising every other day for the 10-day period (assuming your doctor agrees you are okay to do this). You’ll likely already feel great at the end of the 10 days, and the 3 days per week that you should be exercising on an ongoing basis will become easy to maintain.
MIX UP YOUR EXERCISE ROUTINE.
If you are already an avid exercise participant, keep up the good work, but also don’t forget that varying your activity and routine can make a big difference in your health outcomes. Interval training is a great way to progress to the next level of fitness. Interval training is simply alternating short bursts of higher intensity exercise with lower intensity exercise. If you walk on a regular basis, incorporate short bursts of jogging or fast walking.
Bursts can be as short as 30 seconds separated by several minutes at your normal intensity. Benefits include burning more calories per workout and the development of a higher aerobic capacity (which translates into better cardiovascular health). If you want a more precise plan, a trainer can help formulate a maximum and minimum intensity and interval time based on your health and heart rate.
As important as it is to have a mostly clean diet and to exercise on a regular basis, it’s arguable that both are superseded by the importance of getting adequate sleep. Most people (although not all) need 8-9 hours of sleep per night. Lack of sleep has been associated with disturbances such as metabolic disturbance, weight gain, depression, and cardiovascular risk, just to name a few. If you know that you are a restless sleeper, you are waking early or having difficulty falling asleep, or if you are sleepy during the day, correcting your sleep should be your first priority in the New Year.
Hormonal deficiencies, sleep apnea, environmental factors, pain, and stress can all contribute to sleeplessness. Tell your doctor about sleeplessness as it is vital to your health to try to rule out possible causes. And if it is at all avoidable, don’t sacrifice your sleep for your exercise regime.
EAT MORE FOODS.
Okay, for most of you I don’t really want you to try to eat more food. I do want you to try to eat more variety and try to focus on more super foods. Super foods are foods that pack a powerful nutritional punch, such as salmon, dark fruits (blueberries, pomegranate, etc.), avocados, green tea, chia seeds, sweet potatoes, and leafy greens.
If your busy life right now precludes you from choosing a more encompassing resolution, than pick a small one like adding a new super food every week. Add a handful of blueberries to your breakfast. Have an avocado for lunch.
Strive for eating salmon twice per week. With this method, you will not only increase the nutrients in your diet, but you’ll also likely replace less nutritious foods as you add in each super food.
New Year’s resolutions don’t have to be daunting! This year, start with one of these “small” goals . . . and reap the benefits all year long.
Stay healthy and be well!
– Amy Whittingon, NMD