Many of us consider the start of a new year as the start of the new-and-improved versions of ourselves. While this can be motivating and encouraging, it can also sometimes involve unrealistic and unhealthy attempts at weight loss.
"Holiday pictures may show unwanted pounds or make us realize we have gained a bit too much weight over the last year, so many people choose to make weight loss their number one goal for the upcoming year," Roger Adams, PhD, personal trainer, doctor of nutrition and owner of eatrightfitness, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
The media certainly doesn't help: Advertisements for weight-loss programs and gym memberships tend to pop up all over the place, from billboards on your drive to work to your phone's newsfeed.
While weight loss is certainly not a bad resolution to add to your list if you're outside the healthy range, it shouldn't be your only health goal. "Focusing solely on the number on the scale often leads to feelings of failure and not recognizing other ways to improve your health," Adams says. What's more: If you fail to lose the weight you hoped to, you might be tempted to give up on your health goals altogether.
At the end of the day, health should be a top priority all year round. Here, experts share some more realistic health goals that have nothing to do with your weight (but might help you lose some as an added bonus!).
1. Drink More Water
This might sound like an obvious to-do on your get-healthy list, but it's certainly not one to be overlooked. In fact, most of us aren't drinking enough water each day and it affects our health in myriad ways.
In addition to flushing out lingering toxins in our bodies, water helps every organ in our body function at its best, says S. Adam Ramin, MD, urologist and medical director of Urology Cancer Specialists in Los Angeles. "Water helps the kidneys remove waste from your bloodstream and urine and keeps your blood vessels dilated, allowing them to nourish the kidneys with essential nutrients," he says. "When your body is dehydrated, your kidney function can become impaired."
Plus, even mild dehydration can drain your energy, leaving you sluggish and tired, per the Mayo Clinic.
So how much water a day is enough to properly hydrate? The answer, according to Dr. Ramin, depends on the individual and their daily activity. For example, if you're an avid exerciser, you'll need more water than someone who remains mostly sedentary throughout the day.
"Generally, healthy people should aim for 30 to 50 ounces of water at consistent intervals throughout the day — not all at once," he says. And if you don't love the taste of plain water, try adding fruit to make it more interesting or opting for naturally flavored seltzer.
2. Eat More Fruits and Veggies
Instead of focusing on the scale, Adams suggests focusing on your plate. "Set a daily goal to consume three or more servings of non-starchy vegetables and two or more servings of higher-fiber fruits each day," he says. "Non-starchy vegetables — such a green beans, broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus, etc — tend to be lower in calories than most foods, have more fiber and are more filling." They're also packed with healthy vitamins and minerals.
High-fiber fruits, like apples and pears with the skin on, make healthy snacks or desserts. Your body digests them more slowly, which can help you better control your appetite. Also, Adams says the added fiber helps improve cholesterol levels, colon health and even digestion.
One December 2019 study published in _The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition _found that eating two apples (a high-fiber fruit) each day helped lower cholesterol and reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes or stroke in adults with mildly high cholesterol.
3. Increase Non-Exercise Activity in Your Day
Exercise is important, but for far more than just weight loss. In fact, exercise helps reduce your risk of nearly every kind of disease, especially common ones like diabetes, high cholesterol, heart disease and cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
If you're having trouble allocating enough time in your busy schedule to head to the gym, Adams suggests setting healthy goals to increase non-exercise activity throughout the day. This includes things like taking the stairs instead of the elevator, or parking farther away from the store so you have to carry your heavy groceries a bit longer.
These quick bursts of movement weaved into the day are known as "high-intensity incidental physical activity," or HIIPA, according to a September 2019 editorial in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. HIIPA can improve your fitness and may even improve your heart health and respiration, even if you're only getting in a few minutes each day.
"This will not only limit the negative effects of prolonged sitting, such as an increased risk of chronic diseases like obesity, heart disease and diabetes, but it may actually energize you and eliminate food cravings brought on by fatigue," Adams says.
4. Set Aside Time for Self-Care
The fast-paced, high-pressure world we live in today leaves very little, if any, time for us to relax and truly feel at peace. For this reason, it's important to carve out time in our busy schedules for self-care.
"Even a few minutes of an engaging and pleasurable activity can lift negative mood states, clear the mind for more accurate and effective problem-solving and support energy needed to face challenges that inevitably occur," notes Mayra Mendez, PhD, LMFT, a licensed psychotherapist at Providence Saint John's Child and Family Development Center in Santa Monica, California. Mendez recommends carving out self-care time in the most natural way possible.
"For example, when doing routine, mundane tasks such as cleaning house, sorting mail, filing papers, clearing out and decluttering, doing dishes or preparing meals, add in pleasurable alternative tasks such as listening to your favorite music, singing along with a favorite song or reaching into your imagination and drawing out thoughts of recent positive experiences and interactions," she says.
She also suggests scheduling activities and tasks mindfully. "If reading is something that brings you joy, plan to schedule in 20 minutes of reading time two to three days weekly," she says. "Share your agenda with loved ones and be mindful to follow through as a way of being true to yourself."
Self care can also look like volunteering in an area that interests you and that adds meaning to your life, learning about a subject of interest or committing a day or two to engage in a hobby or preferred activity that is non-obligatory.
5. Increase Quality Sleep Time
A whopping 35 percent of Americans are getting "poor" or "only fair" sleep quality, according to a December 2014 survey by the National Sleep Foundation. Too little sleep has a profound effect on your health, particularly your brain health.
"Study after study has shown that even an hour or two less sleep each night for just a few consecutive nights can have effects on the brain that last longer than those few days of disrupted rest," says Vernon Williams, MD, sports neurologist and founding director of the Center for Sports Neurology and Pain Medicine at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles, California. "From delayed reaction times that can put you in danger while driving or working to fatigue and depression, 'burning the midnight oil' can have serious health and brain repercussions."
Make brain health a priority by aiming for seven to nine hours of sleep each night, as recommended by the National Sleep Foundation. One of the easiest ways to score more sleep is to stick to a schedule, according to certified sleep science coach Chris Brantner, the founder of the sleep research site SleepZoo. "Doing so will help your body expect when it is officially bedtime, so you should have an easier time falling and staying asleep," he says.
Another tip is to make a to-do list before going to sleep. One January 2018 study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that putting pen to paper before bed can help you derail worries, get better sleep and be more productive.
Brantner also suggests avoiding coffee in the afternoon or evening. "While it might make you more productive, caffeine can ruin your sleep since it stays in your system for about six hours," he says. He recommends sticking to one to two cups a day, ideally in the mornings, so it does not interfere with your sleep.
6. Commit to Engaging in Genuine Social Interactions
Whether you consider yourself an introvert or an extrovert, all humans crave sincere and meaningful relationships. The problem is that the day-to-day aspects of life can get in the way of staying in touch and spending quality time with the people we care about. That's why it's important to make the time for social activity.
Some health benefits of being more social may include opportunities for sharing ideas and exploring new thoughts and actions generated by exchanges with others, experiencing breaks from situations of work or daily living stressors and increased exposure to camaraderie with trusted others, notes Mendez.
One April 2009 study published in the Journal of Counseling Psychology found that an increase in social exposure can reduce symptoms of depression. "Consistent and daily exposure to social contact that involves conversation, storytelling, sharing of thoughts and feelings, drawing shared inferences and problem-solving promotes cognitive functioning and stimulates brain activity," adds Mendez.
When possible, try to carve out time to talk to your friends or family on a regular basis. "Be realistic about frequency and timing to not set yourself up for failure by creating a schedule that is not doable given competing life demands," she says. "Pull away from technology, social media, television and texting and make a conscious effort to reach out and engage in face-to-face interactions such as joining a social club, gym or book club."
7. Learn How to Better Manage Stress
Stress in life is inevitable. We have little to no control over the majority of stressors in our lives, but we do have a say in how we manage stress and let it affect our day-to-day life.
Too much stress is unhealthy, as it releases the hormone cortisol in our bodies that can negatively affect blood pressure and metabolism, among other things.
Try to regularly engage in mindfulness activities so you can better recognize the signs of stress in the body, advises Mendez, who adds that the keys to managing stress are sleep and down-time. "Increasing thought about setting limits and adding calm and pleasure time to life goes a long way in supporting stress management," she says. "Engaging in activities such as mediation, yoga or any physical activity such as biking, swimming or walking helps the body reduce cortisol levels and improves overall health."
Read more: 8 Ways to Beat Stress-Induced Belly Fat
8. Cut Back on Alcohol
Chances are, you enjoyed more than your usual share of alcoholic beverages during the holiday season. It's a good idea to cut back as the new year approaches, as drinking beyond the recommended limits per day — two drinks for men and one for women, according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans — is dangerous to your health.
"Excess alcohol can lead to liver failure, cancer, infertility and affects work and relationships negatively," says Kristine Arthur, MD, internist at MemorialCare Medical Group in Fountain Valley, California. "If you aren't sure how much you are drinking, keep a journal for one month of every drink you have and see where you are at the end of the month. It can be eye-opening."
9. Improve Your Posture
Maintaining good posture is not only crucial when exercising, since it helps ensure good form, but also in everyday life. In fact, bad posture is one of the top causes of chronic aching backs, according to Neel Anand, MD, professor of orthopaedic surgery and director of spine trauma at Cedars-Sinai Spine Center in Los Angeles.
"Good posture, with the spine aligned straight over the pelvis, helps maintain the body's natural curves, while a hunched posture can pull the muscles and add additional stress to certain areas," he says. "The upper back muscles will become overly developed and as the lower back and core muscles try to compensate, horrible back pain may ensue."
To prevent this from happening, Dr. Anand recommends looking at yourself in the mirror until you become more comfortable with the feel of good posture. Certain exercises can also be helpful, specifically ab exercises, such as planks and crunches.
"The torso is a combination of muscles that all work together, and if the muscles in the front (the abdomen) are weak, guess which ones must pick up the slack — the lower muscles at the back of the torso," he says. "Weak abdominal muscles end up diverting the extra stress around back, which leave the muscles overworked, sore and painful."
To master the perfect plank, start by lying on your stomach on the floor, place your feet shoulder width apart and come up into a position like you were going to do a push-up. "Instead of going down into the push-up, hold the plank position for about 30 seconds and then repeat three times (with a short break in between)," says Dr. Anand.
Crunches can also help enhance posture. "Start these by lying flat on the floor on your back, bend the knees at a 90 degree angle and focus on bringing your head and chest up to the ceiling," Dr. Anand says.
Is This an Emergency?
- Mayo Clinic: "Water: How much should you drink every day?"
- The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: "Two apples a day lower serum cholesterol and improve cardiometabolic biomarkers in mildly hypercholesterolemic adults: a randomized, controlled, crossover trial"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Physical Activity Prevents Chronic Disease"
- British Journal of Sports Medicine: "Short and sporadic bouts in the 2018 US physical activity guidelines: is high-intensity incidental physical activity the new HIIT?"
- National Sleep Foundation: "Lack of Sleep Is Affecting Americans, Finds the National Sleep Foundation"
- National Sleep Foundation: "National Sleep Foundation Recommends New Sleep Times"
- Journal of Experimental Psychology: "The effects of bedtime writing on difficulty falling asleep: A polysomnographic study comparing to-do lists and completed activity lists."
- Journal of Counseling Psychology: "Depression and Everyday Social Activity, Belonging, and Well-Being"
- Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion: "Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020: Appendix 9. Alcohol"