New Year, Healthier You!!

January 2, 2015

For me, the best part of welcoming in the New Year is the promise of a new beginning, a fresh start, a blank slate, a canvas waiting to come alive, a new path to journey through, fresh snow to trample through.  Although  I am not really one to formulate New Year's Resolutions per se, I certainly welcome each New Year with an extra dash of hope and intention in the pursuit of better living, healthier eating and a balanced approach to the work-life equation.  In order to ensure that my enthusiasm for carrying out these promise-filled ideas does not start to waiver sometime near mid February when my energy seems to go somewhat stagnant, if not altogether frozen, in  the stark reality of the oppressively cold and long Winnipeg winter,  I follow some simple strategies for staying on course.

These strategies include writing down my intentions, daily, first thing in the morning and sharing my goals with a trusted friend or with my husband.  Research supports the notion that by "re-committing" to our intentions by reviewing them with ourselves on a regular basis we enhance our ability to stay focused.   Research also suggests that when we verbalize our goals and share them with someone else who may help to keep us accountable, we are also more likely to meet with success.  When I do "fall off the wagon", I try not to feel defeated and completely shattered.  I simply recognize the need to forgive myself for my shortcomings, and I review my values and my intentions and start anew.

Although it is best to have specific ideas in mind (helps to keep us on track if we are clear about where we want to be), it is easier to meet with success if we make our goals achievable.  Certainly, we may hope to eliminate processed sugar from our diet altogether, but it will always be more achievable if we start first with a less daunting "mini goal", perhaps eliminating that teaspoon of sugar from our morning coffee as an example.

There are numerous ways to improve your health and well-being in 2015, and most of them do not require a massive overhaul to your lifestyle, but rather some gentle fine-tuning is all that is required.  I have compiled a list of ten simple strategies to enhance your health and well-being this new year.  You may choose to commit to one, several or all of these simple strategies without a major time, financial or motivational investment!

Just Breathe
First and foremost, it is wise to improve your breathing strategy.  Most of us breathe inefficiently and this predisposes us to many physical and emotional health issues.  Ensure you are breathing deeply and mindfully, engaging your diaphragm.  Feel  your belly rise on the inhale and fall on the exhale.  Practice proper breathing technique several times a day and feel your mood improve, your muscle tension decrease and your energy rise.  For a detailed discussion on the importance of proper breathing, you may refer to my blog article "Breath is Life".

Stand/Sit Tall
Be mindful of the postures you inhabit throughout the day.  Whether you are at your desk, on your smart phone, walking your dog, or playing tennis, ensure that you are in an energy efficient and user-friendly posture that does not put undue stress on your skeleton or your organs.  Good posture promotes improved biomechanics, allows your organs to work more efficiently, elevates your confidence and promotes a more positive image both externally and internally. For more information on achieving good posture, refer to the blog posts "Stack 'Em Up, Part one and Part two.

Be Grateful
Research has consistently demonstrated that people who are grateful are happier, healthier, more energetic and have stronger immune systems.  As well, they complain of fewer physical ailments like headaches, nausea and stomach aches, and they have lower blood pressure readings and better sleep patterns.  An attitude of gratitude also serves us well emotionally with those who are grateful reporting less stress, reduced loneliness, a greater willingness to help and forgive others and a greater satisfaction within personal relationships.  We can easily improve our capacity for gratitude simply by bringing our awareness to simple things we are grateful for on a daily basis.  Perhaps we could start a little "gratitude journal" where we list our blessings daily, or perhaps we could simply make a mental list at the beginning or end of each day.  Alternatively, we could ask each member of our family to list one or two things they are grateful for at the beginning of each meal.  And of course, we can voice a genuine "thank you" to our loved ones or to complete strangers daily for simple little gestures like helping with the household chores or holding doors open for us at the grocery store.

Be Generous
Much like those who are grateful, those who are generous with their time, their attention, their talents or their resources demonstrate improved immunity and improved happiness scores.  The research also demonstrates that those who are generous report a decreased pain experience and improved cardiac health measurements (lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol levels, lower Body Mass Index readings, and reduced markers for inflammation).  Generosity does not spontaneously arise.  We must make a conscious decision to become more generous.  However, we can start with simple to manage intentions, such as giving our family and friends our full attention when they are speaking to us (put that smart phone down!!), smiling at all strangers we make eye contact with, devoting $5 from every pay period to a cause that you are passionate about, giving away books, clothing, furniture that you no longer need or want, volunteering one hour per week, etc.

Eat Mindfully
Often when we are eating, we are multi-tasking...sitting at our desks, trying to get more work done or checking our phones for messages and looking for news or entertainment.  This distracted eating behaviour can easily lead to over eating, poor digestion and a less than adequate meal-time experience.  By simply putting our phones away, walking away from our desks and making meal time a sensual ritual, we can reduce our tendency to over-eat, increase our enjoyment of the food we are eating and therefore be satisfied with less and improve our digestion.  First, appreciate the appearance of your food.  If you are the one preparing it, make it look appealing and put it on a small white plate.  We eat with our eyes first and this visual gratification is the first step in the process of eating mindfully and feeling satiated with less. Next, smell your food.  The sensation of flavour is really a combination of taste and smell and when we fully utilize our senses, we improve our ability to enjoy the sweetness, tartness, tanginess or bitterness of the food we are eating.  And lastly, chew your food well.  One good practice is to put your cutlery down between mouthfuls and really focus on the bite that is already in your mouth.  Chew your mouthful of food until it is liquefied and has lost all of its texture.  This will ensure that the digestive enzymes in your saliva have broken the food down well and this will improve the absorption of nutrients in the intestines and reduce your risk of bloating, gas and stomach ache.  Start your journey towards mindful eating with one "mindful meal" per day and watch your experience with food evolve in a very positive way!

Move It...daily
There is no conventional medical or alternative prescription that has the ability to provide as many health benefits (without any serious side effects yet) than regular exercise.  The Canadian Society of Exercise Physiology recommends an accumulation of a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate -to- vigorous intensity aerobic physical exercise per week, performed in bouts of a minimum of ten minutes or more at a time.  The benefits of adhering to these guidelines include an overall improved quality of life, reduced risk of chronic illness, increased longevity, improved metabolism, improved cardiorespiratory and muscular fitness, decreased stress, anxiety and depression, improved digestion, increased bone density, graceful aging with maintenance of strength, agility and brain function in older adults and improved quality of sleep !  This sounds like a marginal investment for exceptionally generous returns.  Get moving !  If you are new to exercise, start with 25 minutes per day and you will have met your minimum requirements and allowed for a gentle warm up each day.  If this already sounds like too much, break up your exercise sessions into two 12 minute sessions per day and the returns will still be yours to enjoy.  For example, a 12 minute walk up the stairs vs. using the elevator at the office is one simple way to include movement into your regular routine.  Similarly, a walk to your local convenience store vs. hopping into the car may be a refreshing way to deal with an inconvenient trip.  One of my favourite strategies when I am short on time is to read my professional material on my tablet while I do a vigorous incline walk on the treadmill.  Although this type of "distracted" workout does not give me as much psychological benefit, it does at least give me the physical benefits and ensures that I am moving enough to reap some rewards.

Love Someone
The notion that love has healing powers has been a well accepted notion in the realms of philosophy and religion since the beginning of time. The medical world has been very interested in looking at the relationship between love and well-being for several decades now.  Most of the research that has been done has been carried out on married couples, but it is likely that the benefits would extend to any close, loving, stable and intimate relationship.  To date, the research has demonstrated that those in stable, connected marriages report fewer medical visits, less anxiety and improved stress management, less substance abuse and fewer headaches and back aches.  As well, individuals in stable marriages demonstrated lower blood pressure, increased pain control mechanisms, faster wound healing, increased longevity and reported greater satisfaction/happiness with life in general. It is believed that these benefits are mediated through the autonomic nervous system which controls the availability of beneficial hormones such as oxytocin,  endorphins, dopamine and vasopressin.

Make Love to Someone
Apparently, the emotional and physical benefits of sex extend far beyond the obvious fact that "getting busy" regularly improves our mood and counts as physical activity.  In a study carried out in Scotland, study participants who reported a lovemaking frequency of 3-4x per week were perceived as being 7-12 years younger than their actual age by unbiased, uninformed observers who looked at the participants through a one way window.   Apparently we really do obtain a youthful glow with regular sex .  Goodbye botox and restylane ! Hello lover ! Lovemaking has also been linked to improved testosterone and estrogen balances in men and women, reduced risk of prostate cancer in men, improved bladder control in women, improved immune system function,  reduced blood pressure readings, improved sleep patterns and decreased pain experiences in men and women.  As well, women who reported regular sexual activity reported lighter periods and fewer menstrual cramp issues.  So, it is well worth our time  to say "yes" to our partners or to seek them out for some good lovin" more often!

Sit Quietly
We live in a loud, busy world.  Never in the history of mankind has the world been so filled with noise and our days so occupied with an onslaught of auditory and visual stimulation. It is rare that we would experience much silence, if any at all, in our daily routines unless we specifically carve out this time.  I discovered the profound benefits of sitting quietly each day when my children were younger and I was somewhat overwhelmed by the busyness of full time work responsibilities and full time parenting duties.  My spirit craved quiet time alone, with no external distractions and no social or familial responsibilities.  Somewhat by accident, I discovered that by getting up 15 minutes earlier than I normally would, I could start my day alone, peacefully, quietly, just sitting with my morning coffee and my daydreaming mind.  During particularly challenging periods, this 15 minutes became time for meditation.  I continue with my practice of sitting quietly every morning to this day and it is a natural, non-negotiable part of my morning ritual no matter where I am in the world or in my life.  I find it energizing, grounding, restorative and absolutely essential to maximize my productivity and my patience for the day that lies ahead.

Relatively recent research supports my "idle" time.  Recent research utilizing neuro-imaging technologies has revealed that contrary to old assumptions, a great deal of meaningful activity is occurring in the brain when we are sitting quietly, doing nothing at all.  This mental downtime is essential to an array of mental processes and neuroscientists now believe it is essential to replenish attention and motivation and to encourage productivity and creativity.  As well, they speculate that it is essential to both achieve our highest level of performance and simply form stable memories in everyday life.  Neuroscientists have labelled this network of brain regions that are active when we are not focused on the external world and the brain is wakeful at rest as the Default Mode Network (DMN).  Although the DMN's full role is not yet understood, neuroscientists believe it may play a role in synchronizing all parts of the brain to prepare for conscious activity, and that this "neural dark energy" as it is referred to, may ultimately be revealed as the very essence of what makes us tick.

Don't believe you have time in your day to create "quiet time" ?  It is simpler than you imagine it to be.  You can create deliberate mental breaks in your day by utilizing the "in-between" moments of daily life to turn away from your smart phone and let your mind wander internally....the bus ride to and from work, the grocery store line up, lunch alone, a morning bath vs. a shower.  Just disconnect from the outside world and take a quick trip into your inner world.  Enjoy the fabulous landscapes of your inner self !!


Play Outdoors
 Our modern lifestyles have separated us from nature and many of us spend as much as 90% our days indoors despite our own intuitive recognition of the physical and emotional benefits of spending time outdoors.  David Suzuki simply summarizes that playing outdoors will make us happier, healthier and smarter. We can easily share stories from our own lives when a walk in the forest, a picnic on the river, or a bike ride in hilly terrain proved to be incredibly restorative and invigorating.  Scientists from the diverse fields of biology, psychology, neurosciences and horticulture have been investigating the specific methods by which nature improves our well-being in recent years.  Slowly we are starting to recognize the physiological mechanism by which nature nurtures our vitality, creativity, restores our mental energy, improves our cognition and connects us to life.  It appears that positive stimulation of the autonomic nervous system is the method by which time spent in nature mitigates these favorable effects and also reduces our blood pressure, strengthens our immune systems and decreases our stress levels.  One study in Japan found that a three day stay in a forest increased the number of cancer fighting proteins in subjects for approximately 30 days.  One study (Ulrich 1984) found that patients recovering from surgery in rooms with a window facing a natural setting had shorter hospital stays and took less pain medication that those whose windows faced a brick wall.  A study out of the University of Illinois looked at public housing in Chicago and found that participants who had rooms with a view of grass and trees had fewer aggressive conflicts, fewer episodes of domestic violence and procrastinated less than participants who had a view of a barren concrete courtyard.

I certainly manage to get outdoors every single day in favourable weather, but it is more challenging when the weather is less than cooperative.  It is good to know that even looking out the window and seeing the snow covered trees can offer some benefit !!  On the more inviting days, I simply "kill two birds with one stone" as they say, by taking my exercise out of doors or by enjoying a picnic in the park or in my own backyard.

May 2015 prove to be peaceful, healthy and joyful.  May you find more time for love, movement and quiet time.  May you greet each day with a good dose of gratitude and generosity, letting your breath guide you through the days and your fine posture move you gracefully.  May you taste, smell and chew your food with joyful awareness and may you make your way outdoors more often!


Live well,
Stay Strong,

Anna

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