NEW YORK — How can you make 2014 your healthiest, happiest year yet?
Sometimes trying to make sudden, drastic changes just doesn't work. That's why most New Year's resolutions are long forgotten by President's Day.
Based on the idea that it takes about three weeks to get comfortable with a new habit, we've mapped out a completely manageable 12-month plan to improve your health and well-being.
Just add one of these habits each month in 2014 and by year's end you'll be looking and feeling better than ever.
Each month, we'll run a Fitness Insider column specific to each healthy habit, which will look at the challenges of adopting each. We'd love your feedback and contributions too — simply follow us on Instagram (@dnainfonyc) or Twitter (@dnainfo), use the hashtag #2014healthyhabits.
What healthy habits are you trying to adopt this year? Get on Instagram, or Twitter, mention @dnainfo, tag it #2014healthyhabits, and share. You could also post a photo of you doing the month's healthy habit.
1) EXERCISE IN SMALL DOSES (JANUARY)
Stop beating yourself up about not getting to the gym more often and start squeezing your exercise in wherever you can.
Forget that old, outdated belief that a minimum of 30 minutes of continuous cardiovascular exercise five times per week is necessary in order to get measurable improvements in your health. Dozens of studies have concluded that short bouts of high-intensity exercise — as little as 16 minutes accumulated throughout the day — are enough to improve blood pressure, blood sugar levels, endurance and other important health markers.
Take just a few minutes each day to perform a set of squats, push-ups or Burpees and get off the elevator a floor early to take the stairs. For those of us who prefer the gym, a recent Swedish study found that although subjects averaged only 1.8 gym sessions per week, their bodies still got significantly better at burning fat.
The good news: Every little bit counts.
2) MEDITATE (FEBRUARY)
Regular meditation changes the structure of our brain and how our neurons interact with each other. These physical changes correspond with a long list of psychological improvements such as better stress management, anxiety reduction, addiction control, decreased depression and increased cognitive function. Regular meditators also enjoy improved blood pressure, pain response, stress hormone levels and even cellular health. To learn about the various types of meditation and how to get started, check out the DNAinfo Fitness Insider primer on meditation.
3) BREATHE (MARCH)
Breathing is the only involuntary bodily function that can also be voluntarily controlled and practiced anytime, anywhere. This makes it a uniquely powerful connector of the mind and body. Proper breathing maintains oxygen levels for energy production, balances pH levels in the body, and eliminates wastes and toxins. Unfortunately, the vast majority of us use only about 20 percent of our breathing capacity. As infants we breathe fully naturally, but as we become adults, the typical stressors of daily life and poor posture often result in shallow "chest breathing." Fortunately, with practice, "diaphragmatic breathing" — full measured inhales and exhales — can return as our norm.
To re-train your breathing, practice "4-7-8 breathing." Breathe in slowly through your nose to the count of four, feeling your belly expand as your diaphragm pushes down. Hold the breath for a count of seven, then slowly exhale through your mouth for a count of eight. Make a soft "whoosh" sound by holding the tip of your tongue against the roof of your mouth as you exhale slowly. Repeat for a total of four full breath cycles, working up to eight breaths twice per day.
4) EAT AN APPLE A DAY (APRIL)
The secret to a healthier diet is to change your focus from depriving yourself of the junk you crave to adding in nutrient-dense, fiber-rich foods that keep you feeling full and satisfied. Apples are a perfect example. In addition to the long list of vitamins and nutrients they provide, studies have found that certain compounds in apples improve fat metabolism.
5) EAT MORE GREENS (MAY)
Cruciferous vegetables and leafy greens are another "superfood" that most of us overlook. Arugula, bok choy, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, collard greens, cauliflower, kale and spinach are some of the more common veggies in this group, packed with fiber, protein and omega-3s as well as antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and detox-related nutrients.
6) EMBRACE OPTIMISM (JUNE)
There is a growing body of research supporting the health benefits of what I think of as "mental hygiene." In one study, after watching films that evoked positive emotions such as joy and contentment, subjects were able to see more possibilities and options in a given situation than those who had watched films that evoked negative emotions like fear and anger. Positive psychology researchers call this the "upward spiral" — a self-feeding pattern of happiness leading to success leading to more happiness.
So how do you spark those positive emotions? The answer is different for everyone but the common denominator is to spend time every day focusing on what you love. Make time every day for the things that bring joy to your life, whether it's a special relationship (your spouse, your kids or your dog), an activity like playing music or a sport, writing or photography. Perhaps the simplest thing to do is to start a daily gratitude practice. People using journals to record three to five things they love reported more satisfaction with their lives than a control group.
7) KNOW YOUR FITNESS AGE (JULY)
The system called VO2 max, which measures how well your body delivers oxygen to your cells, has been shown to be closely related to life span. Think of it as your fitness age. Until recently, calculating your VO2 max accurately was an expensive and daunting task. But Norwegian researchers recently tabulated a variety of test results including waist circumference, resting heart rate, exercise habits, age and sex, as well as the lab-tested VO2 max of 5,000 subjects, to create an online calculator. Take the test (you'll need 5 minutes, your waist circumference and your resting heart rate) to see how your fitness age stacks up against your chronological age. Take the test again after integrating our 12 health boosters.
8) FLIP OUT (AUGUST)
From simple yoga inversions like legs up the wall, to more complex endeavors such as hanging upside down in AntiGravity yoga, turning your body upside down for a few minutes daily, gives you a fresh perspective on life and provides a host of solid health benefits. Unless you have certain medical conditions (unmedicated high blood pressure, some heart conditions, neck injuries, recent stroke, detached retina, glaucoma or epilepsy), employing gravity is a good way to send a rush of blood and oxygen to your brain, increase mental function, and improve concentration, memory, and processing abilities as well as supporting the flow of lymph. (A key part of the immune system, lymph acts as a garbage collection system eliminating toxins and bacteria.)
9) GET OR GIVE A MASSAGE (SEPTEMBER)
It may seem obvious, but studies confirm that massage is an effective treatment for reducing stress, pain and muscle tension. Perhaps more surprising, findings also indicate that a moderate pressure, Swedish-style massage can be helpful for anxiety, digestive disorders, fibromyalgia, headaches, insomnia related to stress, nerve pain, soft tissue strains and temporomandibular joint pain (TMJ). Even a 10-minute chair massage can lower your blood pressure, slow down your heart rate and enhance mental performance.
Worried about the cost? Trade massages with a friend, since massage appears to benefit both the giver as well as the receiver. Can't find a massage partner? Self-massage works too. Any activity that stimulates pressure receptors boosts your health: massage the soles of your feet by walking on sand or an uneven surface, scrub yourself with a loofah or roll a tennis ball along your limbs.
10) LOVE YOUR WORK, FIND YOUR PURPOSE (OCTOBER)
Research at Harvard University has established that viewing our work as meaningful is associated with feelings of joy and excitement. Finding meaning and purpose in your work also correlates with lengthened lifespan, fewer psychological disorders and better physical health. While it may seem intuitive that we are happiest when we live consistently with our virtues and use our signature strengths to craft our lives, it's also supported by an abundance of positive psychology research. So if you don't currently love your job, look for ways to infuse it with meaning.
11) NURTURE LOVING RELATIONSHIPS (NOVEMBER)
Stable, loving relationships — not just with a spouse or partner but also with friends and relatives — have been shown to result in fewer doctor's visits, less anxiety, depression and substance abuse, lower blood pressure, better pain control and stress management, and a longer, happier life. This doesn't mean that singles are doomed to miss out on all these positive effects. It's the quality of relationships that makes the difference, not the simple fact of being in one. So brush up on communication skills, learn how to manage conflict, talk out negative emotions instead of letting them accumulate, engage in challenging and exciting activities regularly, get and give hugs, and celebrate each other's successes.
12) MIND YOUR MEDS (DECEMBER)
According to the CDC, there is an unprecedented and alarming rise in accidental prescription drug overdoses sweeping the U.S. Although many types of prescription drugs are abused, prescription painkillers are the culprit in the vast majority of cases.
If you take any medications, check with your doctor and pharmacist to be sure you understand the side effects of each of your prescriptions, especially in combination with other pain relievers, anti-anxiety medications and with alcohol. Whenever a new medication is prescribed check with your pharmacist to be sure the new drug won't interact with any others you're already taking.
What healthy habits are you trying to adopt this year? Post a photo of you doing the month's healthy habit.
Get on Instagram, or Twitter, mention @dnainfo, tag it #2014healthyhabits, and share.