The wellness industry is booming. Every time we open a newspaper, magazine, search engine or social media platform (and especially in January), we’re reminded that NOW is the time to build a better self (or even your 'best self'), whether it’s 500 sit-ups each morning or cold-water swimming before completing your gratitude journal.
But, for most people you don’t have to run ultramarathons or spend lots of money to look after yourself. Instead, why not make just a few small, practical, straightforward changes to your daily routine that are scientifically proven to have long-lasting effects on your physical and mental wellbeing. Some of them are obvious, but it doesn't mean we should ignore them!
1. Sleep well
Yes, yes, we know it’s easier said than done. But getting 7-9 hours sleep is the single best way to look after yourself. A good night’s shuteye keeps the brain sharp, improves mood, and reduces insulin levels, which in turn reduces stress. There’s no such things as a guaranteed good night’s sleep, but there are steps you can take to improve your chances. Aim for the same bedtime every night, and try to avoid daytime naps. Get some exercise. Keep the temperature in your room relatively cool (between 15-20˚c is recommended). No caffeine after 2pm, and try to cut out screen use in the hour before bedtime. There are lots of other tips, but most importantly it’s about trying to stick to a routine and identify little ways that help you switch-off before you hit the sack!
2. Get outside
We all know that spending time outside is good for our physical and mental health. Sunlight has a huge range of health benefits, including increasing vitamin D and helping with melatonin production that aids sleep. Research suggests that just 15 minutes outside each day can improve mental health. And, if you’re outside, you’re likely to be moving around, which is also beneficial. Nobody’s asking you to sell your house and live in the park (which, to be honest, would be bad for both your physical and mental health) but just getting into the great outdoors for a short while every day is an easy win that is all-too-often overlooked.
3. Drink water
Drinking water is good. It keeps us alive, which is definitely beneficial for our health. But drinking lots of it is even better. if you don’t stay hydrated throughout the day, your energy levels and brain function start to suffer. Drinking lots of water can also help with weight loss, by improving your metabolism. It’s good for your skin, too. The precise amount we should drink varies depending on a number of environmental and physical factors, but a good rule of thumb is to get through at least 2 litres of water every day. Try keeping a refillable water bottle next to you, and sipping it at regular intervals, rather than just when you feel thirsty. And no, a cheeky sauvignon blanc does not count.
4. Eat some chocolate
Okay, some regimens are harder than others. But don’t take this as carte blanche to plough through six Mars Bars in a sitting. This needs to be dark chocolate, with a minimum of 70% cacao, and you should limit yourself to just a few pieces. Dark chocolate is loaded with nutrients that can positively affect your health, and is one of the best sources of antioxidants you can find. One study showed that eating dark chocolate more than five times per week lowered the risk of heart disease by 57%. It can also boost mood. Hell, it’s chocolate, of course it boosts mood!
5. Eat slowly
Life moves pretty fast. Sometimes it’s all we can do to shovel down a meal before it’s time to go to a meeting, or put the kids to bed, or watch Homes Under the Hammer repeats on UKTV Gold. But there are proven health benefits to taking your time over a meal. First of all, if you eat too quickly, your body doesn’t realise it’s full until you’ve had too much food, so eating slowly should help you to consume smaller portions. Secondly, taking time over your food will allow you to appreciate it more and, if you’re in company, allow you time to talk to others. If you're alone, it will give you a few moments of quiet reflection in a hectic world.
6. Have walking meetings
We all know the feeling of sitting in a meeting towards the end of the working day (especially a Zoom one), feeling our eyelids growing heavy as some blowhard drones on about blah and blah. But, if your meeting is just with one or two people, and doesn’t involve reams of pie charts and endless note-taking, why not take it outside and walk and talk? Walking will not only have physical benefits, but it means you’re outside (see above). And, even better, it’s proven that exercise and fresh air will help your creative thinking.
7. Take vitamin D supplements
Yes, we want you to spend more time outside to get your vitamin D from the sun’s rays. But, with the best will in the world, we still live in northern Europe, not the Caribbean (dammit) and even the most outward-bound types might struggle to get enough vitamin D when it’s another drizzly January day and the sun sets at half-past breakfast. According to UK Biobank data, 55% of people in the UK are deficient in vitamin D, the vitamin linked to the production of serotonin, the ‘happiness hormone’. Vitamin D also strengthens bones, helps the neuromuscular system, and boosts immunity.
8. Take the stairs
This is another easy win that won’t make a dent in your time or your wallet. Walking up a few flights of stairs, rather than taking a lift, gets your heart rate up, boosts circulation, and gives you an energy boost. It’s a mini-workout in the middle of the day. It will also improve alertness, so you’re less likely to be found snoozing over on the job.
9. Have a cold shower
You know all those loonies who go wild swimming all year round? Turns out they’re onto something. But you don’t have to smear yourself in goose fat and plunge into the north Atlantic on a December morning. Just turn the shower temperature down. All the way down, mind – you get nothing from a tepid shower, sadly. The water has to be below a brrrrisk 15˚C. It’s not entirely pleasant, but the benefits are huge: Improved circulation, increased metabolism, boosted immunity, increased alertness, and faster recover post-workout. And more and more people are discovering that immersing yourself in cold water can have help to alleviate anxiety and depression.
The best method is to have a normal shower and then, at the end, turn it to cold. Then simply stay under for as long as you can. Try and do a little longer each time, up to around three or four minutes. People with weaker immune systems and those with serious heart conditions should consult their doctor before taking cold showers.
10. Eat raw vegetables
Don’t worry, we’re not advocating that you eat an onion like an apple, or shovel down a raw leek at lunchtime. But uncooked vegetables such as carrots, spinach leaves, lettuce and peppers means you get more enzymes, vitamins and minerals required for good health. This should result in more energy, better skin, improved digestion and a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. Also, a study from the University of Otago suggests that eating raw fruit and veg may also improve your mental health. “Our research has highlighted that the consumption of fruit and vegetables in their unmodified state is more strongly associated with better mental health compared to cooked/canned/processed fruit and vegetables.”
Like we say, you can pick and choose which ones of these fit best with your lifestyle. Ideally, we want to see you holding a meeting in an outdoor shower while slowly eating raw carrot washed down with a fermented drink, but if that seems like a bit much, we get it. But something is better than nothing. A journey of a thousand miles begins with single step, as Lao Tzu said. I just hope he was wearing a step counter and had his FitBit turned on...