Most of us start out each new year with at least one resolution related to improving our health. It’s no wonder, considering how much holiday feasting and cheersing takes place leading up to January 1. And after a very long and stressful 2020, it seems like everyone is fired up to get back on track with our weight, fitness routine, sleep habits, and more. Our mission, should we choose to accept it: Have our healthiest year yet.
The thing is, trying to do a complete lifestyle overhaul in one shot can be overwhelming—and, sometimes, not even necessary. In fact, small changes are the key to long-term success, according to nurse and health coach Tara Allen, R.N., C.P.T., F.N.S. “They are doable and the confidence you feel after keeping your word to yourself allows for more goal setting and goal crushing,” she says. “These small changes not only lead to big shifts in mindset and hope, but they start to stack on top of one another, creating a snowball effect as you move in the direction you’re looking to go.”
So what small changes will help make 2021 your healthiest year yet? Here, experts share 11 to consider starting with.
1. Drink half of your weight in ounces, every day
“Staying hydrated is essential for a well-functioning body and influences metabolism, digestion, satiety, energy levels, mood, sleep quality, and your immune system,” says The Vitamin Shoppe nutritionist Brittany Michels, R.D.N. She recommends aiming to drink half of your weight in ounces each day. So, if you weigh 155 pounds, you’d aim to drink 77.5 ounces (or roughly 10 cups) a day.
Since it’s not always easy to remember to drink water, create a plan. Michels recommends drinking a large glass of water as soon as you wake up to get a jumpstart on the day and packing a water bottle when you leave the house. “If you need reminders on busy days, consider setting a water alarm,” she adds.
2. Incorporate deep breathing into your daily routine
Breathing is something many of us take for granted because it happens automatically—but it is incredibly important. “Breathing deeply allows us a touchpoint to access otherwise off-limit aspects of our biology,” explains Allen. In fact, research published in the Journal of Human Hypertension found that slow and regular breathing can actually help lower blood pressure and heart rate.
Allen recommends spending a few minutes each day practicing deep breathing. “Breathing slowly and deeply in and out through your nose is an excellent way to calm down when you’re feeling stressed,” she says.
3. Plan your workouts the night before
Just like you’d pick out an outfit for the next day, Roger E. Adams, Ph.D., doctor of nutrition and owner of eatrightfitness, recommends preparing what type of workout you’ll do (and where and when) the night before. “Pack your gym bag and get your workout clothes ready and figure out your plan,” he says. “When you have a firm plan in place you leave nothing to chance, which automatically makes you more committed to whatever it is you’re doing.”
4. Get your phone out of your bedroom
As tempting as it might be to scroll through your social media feed in bed at night, doing so may interfere with your ability to fall asleep. Research, including a 2019 study published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research, suggests that smartphones can suppress your body’s natural production of melatonin, the hormone that helps you wind down before bed. “Sleep is when our body does such important cellular clean-up work, so it’s crucial that we pay attention to this part of our day,” says Allen. (You can’t have your healthiest year yet without quality sleep!)
She recommends setting a bedtime alarm for 30 minutes before you want to fall asleep. This way you know when to put your phone away and head to bed.
5. Choose one day of the week to prep healthy meals
Prepping the majority of your meals in one day can go a long way in ensuring you fuel yourself with the right vitamins and nutrients throughout the week. “By planning your meals in advance, you can avoid those late-night fast food runs and know that you always have a healthy option waiting for you,” Adams says.
He recommends getting creative with your planning. “You could plan to do a Meatless Monday with quinoa and lentils, turkey Taco Tuesday, grilled chicken salad on Wednesday, throw leftovers on a ready-made pizza crust with some tomato sauce and cheese for a pizza on Thursday, and then have pan-seared tilapia and peppers on Friday,” he says. “This simple preparation will help prevent you from falling into having the same thing each night, as well as prepare your shopping list so you know what to buy at the store.”
6. Meditate for 10 minutes once a week
If you’re feeling particularly stressed (who isn’t after 2020?), consider meditating—even just once a week. “Meditation can decrease cortisol levels, improve your overall sense of well-being, and improve your attention and focus,” says naturopathic doctor Katy Firsin, N.D., medical director of Coastal Natural Medicine in Connecticut.
“Just 10 minutes has been shown to have an impact on our brains.” If you are new to meditation, use an app like Headspace or YouTube video to get started.
7. Take the longer route
Whether it’s parking farther away from the store or taking the stairs instead of the elevator, every little bit of movement adds up. “Some people have an all-or-nothing approach with exercise; they want an hour to work out or they won’t move at all that day,” says Allen. “Sneaking in little ‘exercise snacks’ throughout your day leads to a desire to add more movement to your routine in the coming weeks and months.”
8. Add a fruit or a vegetable to every meal
Of course, nourishing your body is a must if you want 2021 to be your healthiest year yet. Whether you follow a certain diet philosophy or not, everyone can benefit from the phytonutrients, vitamins, minerals, and fiber we get from fruits and vegetables. That’s why Allen recommends incorporating produce into every single meal.
“This doesn’t have to be difficult—it can be as simple as adding berries to your oatmeal, throwing some frozen peas in as you cook up pasta, or roasting up veggies on a sheet pan and keeping them in the fridge to throw in salads and soups,” she says.
9. Go on a walk outside every day
Even if just for 10 minutes, walking outside each day guarantees you a tiny dose of the exercise and sunlight exposure (hello, vitamin D) your body craves. Considering the fact that approximately 50 percent of the world’s population is deficient in vitamin D, every little bit helps.
Light exposure also helps regulate your circadian rhythm, helping you feel more alert during the day and sleep better at night. If possible, Allen recommends getting bright light exposure for up to 10 minutes early in the day. (Yes, cloudy days provide enough light!) “This can improve things like depressive symptoms, seasonal affective disorder, blood sugar control, mood, energy levels, metabolism, and sleep quality,” she says.
10. Give Intermittent Fasting a Shot
You’ve probably heard of time-restricted eating (TRE) or intermittent fasting, which involves eating within a set period of time. “Research has shown that doing this alone increases sensitivity to insulin, one of our fat-storing hormones, in just three weeks,” says Firsin. She recommends starting with a 12-hour eating window. (For example, you might have your first meal at 8 a.m. and finish eating by 8 p.m.)
From there, “if you feel comfortable, progress to a 10-hour eating window, beginning at 10 a.m. and finishing at 8 p.m., for example,” she says.
11. Eliminate negative people from your life
If someone in your life makes you feel bad in any way (physically, mentally, or emotionally), give them the boot in 2021.
“Toxic people can have a bad impact on your mental health, so for you to have the healthiest start to 2021, it’s best to spend time with people who lift you up, not pull you down,” says Alessandra Kessler, C.H.H.C. and founder of Healthy Body Healthy Mind. “Such people can dim your shine.”