Sooo…about those New Year’s Resolutions. Though most of us have the most noble of intentions, not to mention dedicated wallets (Americans will spend a projected $5.6 billion this year on resolution-related stuff and services), the statistics are grim: 75 percent of us ditch our goals to become fitter and healthier, all by the second week of January. For intentions that are born with the brightest of hope, the reality is downright depressing.
We’re here to combat these dismal trends by offering 12 low-to-no-cost (and, more importantly, achievable) ways to stay healthy and well throughout the year. Mind you, these are not the secrets to losing 20 pounds in 20 days or reaching a higher state of being during your lunch break. Instead, we’ve discovered little ways to tweak your days (and nights) that yield a high impact when it comes to getting — and staying — healthy.
Because, as it turns out, the road to fitness or even a feel-good you isn’t paved with grueling bootcamp workouts or perfecting a six-minute mile; it’s about innovative ways to carve out pockets of time in even the most hectic of days and treat our bodies and brains. The result? A leaner, clearer-minded you without the burden (or potential disappointment) of having to meet lofty goals. Read on for R29's month-by-month guide to a fitter, happier, healthier you.
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January: Go TV-Free
No matter how you slice it, TV is a horrible motivator when it comes to exercise — and we're not just talking about those cupcake shows, either. A University of Alberta study showed that the hysterical and grueling workouts in weight-loss TV shows not only failed to motivate viewers to exercise more, it turned them off to the whole idea completely. So if you're watching The Biggest Loser in hopes of motivating your own workouts, you're more likely to avoid the gym in general.
Rather than forming your goals and motivations around the miracle transformations seen on TV, the study's researcher, Tanya Berry, suggests recalibrating expectations to yield more attainable results. “When you start exercising, you might not be losing weight, but you lose the visceral fat — the fat that packed around the internal organs — and that’s the dangerous fat," she says. "The stuff we find unattractive, the subcutaneous fat, isn’t necessarily unhealthy. It just doesn’t look good. If you start exercising, the first fat you lose is the internal stuff that is dangerous, but you don’t see that, so you still see a muffin top. People may quit because they think they may not be achieving anything. But, they’re achieving huge things for their health — even if it’s not quite as obvious.”
In short, Berry reminds us what TV programming won’t: “The simple message, if you want to see positive benefits, is do a little bit [of physical activity] and once that’s easy, do a little bit more.” Yet another reason to flip the switch, if only for a month.
February: Do A Drink Swap
Americans between the ages of 20 and 39 consume 336 calories a day in sugary drinks — that’s more than 15 percent of one’s daily calories. It’s not hard to figure out why: with an ever-expanding array of tasty non-alcoholic beverages on the market, it’s becoming increasingly hard to nix bottled teas, juices, flavored waters, energy drinks, sports drinks, and smoothies (whew!) in favor of calorie-less, sugar-less, flavor-less... water. Excuse us if we're not exactly salivating.
If you can't get into guzzling H2O, cut nearly 100 grams of sugar out of your daily diet and still find the flavor you want with these satisfying swaps. Craving a fizzy, flavor-packed drink tinged with sweet and sour? Switch your soda for a kombucha or chia seed drink, which has up to 50 grams less sugar per 16oz bottle. While juice blends and pre-made smoothies can seem super healthy (hey, some of it’s green!), fruit juice can be a deceptively high source of sugar. Odwalla Superfood, for example, packs 37 grams per serving, while whipping up your own concoction of cucumber, celery, watercress, lemon, ginger, and cayenne will wield only 6 grams of sugar.
Finally, if you’re in desperate need of an energy surge, swap the Red Bull, Monsters, and energy shots — or even coffee, for that matter — for a stimulant tea (like greens, whites, blacks) or yerba mate shots. They have little to no sugar, plus they pack antioxidants and polyphenols, which can help protect damaged cells. In the short term, you'll feel better; keep up the habit, and you could slow down the aging process for years to come.
March: Get Lean And Strong (Without Lifting Weights)
A hectic schedule is the kryptonite of a regular workout routine. With vacations, holiday schedules, and life getting in the way, it can become bafflingly easy to fall off the exercise wagon —and crazy
hard to get back on. Combat the phenomenon (and the shame spiral it inevitably inspires) by learning these do-'em-anywhere muscle-strengthening exercises that require only your body as resistance (and a few minutes a day) to keep strong—no matter how hectic your schedule gets:
Reknowned yoga teacher and May I Be Happy
author Cyndi Lee suggests trying easy yet effective poses like Twists
(which tone the waist hips and neck and help detox the organs) and Locust Pose
(which builds strength in thighs, buttocks, and the lower back).
And, believe it or not, planking isn't just an old Internet fad. Chantill Lopez, Pilates teacher and educational director and author of Moving Beyond Technique
for a full-body tone and strength builder along the spine and joints. Build one — or all — of these into your routine twice a week, and you'll be counting down the days until bikini season.
April: Ditch Your Diet (Really!)
Admit it: most of us only notice a fluctuation in weight if it’s severe — like next-pants-size-up severe. But Stanford University Researcher Michaela Kiernan, PhD, says it’s important to pay attention to our weight management and health habits under normal circumstances, not when we're putting every calorie under a microscope.
So instead of committing to another diet in our pursuit of getting lean, may we suggest an un-diet? With an un-diet, you'll pay attention to how your body and brain act when you’re in maintenance mode, then fine-tune those habits to be a bit healthier you. Kiernan found that women who learned such “stability” skills before dieting wound up keeping weight off longer after shedding pounds than those who dove into a diet without, say, getting comfortable with weighing themselves every day. This, along with other maintenance mode practices
, Kiernan says, “gives people a taste of what it’s like to maintain with a more consistent and relaxed awareness, rather than 'I’m on a diet, I’m off a diet.' It’s the idea of fine-tuning your behavior as opposed to more extremes."
More importantly, Kiernan says that the goal of learning to manage and maintain weight without the burden of a so-called “diet,” is to make changes you know you can stick with. "For example," she says, "Trying to find low fat replacements for high-fat target foods. If you don’t like the taste of replacement food, you can get through it for three months, but over time you’re going to miss food, make that comparison and fall off the wagon. Make sure you enjoy those day-to-day changes." Because if you're happy and you know it, the excess weight stays off.
May: Have A Sunny D
As of early last year, at least half of Americans were estimated to have insufficient vitamin D levels. Then, a few months back, guidelines were changed, reducing the recommended amount of vitamin D in our bodies. Confused yet? Us, too. And it’s just one nutrient — so why all the fuss?
Unlike the regulatory and advisory groups, the benefits of this sun-powered vitamin are unflappable: it has been shown to battle everything from depression, cardiac disease, and viral infections (possibly explaining why we tend to lose battles with common colds in the winter) to asthma, diabetes, and arthritis, which is quite a spread. To make sure you’re maximizing on the benefits of vitamin D (and other key nutrients), get your levels tested and your doctor’s recommendations for how much (if any) you might need to take supplementally when you report for your annual checkup.
Does this mean you need to toss your SPF on those first sunny days of May? Absolutely not — but a little sunshine (and D-rich foods such as cheese, eggs, and fish) can do the body good.
June: Embrace Your Inner Mean Girl
Researchers, workout gurus, and glossy magazines have been touting the benefits of working out with a friend for years. Been there, done that, right? But new research shows that you’ve got to choose your running mate wisely — and the last person you should ring up is your BFF.
It turns out that the not-so-nice aspects of working out in tandem (hello, competitiveness!) can do even more to help us reach our fitness goals than hitting the lap pool with a dear friend. A recent Kansas State University study showed that exercisers worked out longer and more intensely when they exercised with someone they perceived to be a better performer. The better-than-you buddy system worked to achieve even higher output when people worked on the same team in an activity in which score was kept. Makes sense, since nobody wants to be the weakest link in a team.
Up the ante in your output by joining a community intramural team or sports class offered by the local junior college. Just be sure to think big when you enroll in a class; even if you haven’t played tennis since high school, skip the novice classes for the next level up. If you’re like participants in the study, it can boost your performance by up to 200 percent.
July: Step It Up
We all know that walking, biking, and taking public transportation isn’t just good for the environment, it’s good for our health. But working a little more intention into your daily commute is a no-brainer way to increase your lean with very little adjustment to your daily routine.
If you walk or bike to work (or even to the subway station), strap on a heart rate monitor and stride or pedal faster. Increasing your heart rate by a measly 10% will help you burn 21 more calories per ten minutes when navigating your usual route. Step up your pace every weekday for a month, and you'll erase 800 calories or more just by going about your business.
Drive to work? Cut your time behind the wheel by parking farther away from your apartment or office. That might not sound like much, but it adds up: researchers from the University of Illinois found that if people drive one less mile per day, they can reduce their body mass index 24% more than when cutting 100 calories a day.
August: Slow Your Roll
We live in a you-can-make-it-if-you-try culture, so it’s only natural for many of us to fall into the do-or-die, no-pain-no-gain mindset — especially when it comes to being in shape. But our need for speed may be quelled by new research, which kindly and quietly nudges us into the slow lane when it comes to both consuming and burning calories.
Recent studies have proven that eating slowly gives the brain more time to realize that your belly is full, leaves diners more satisfied with their meal, and causes diners to drink more water in between bites. In fact, taking 30 minutes to dine twice a day can cut monthly calorie intake by more than 4000 calories.
But the argument for going slow is even more surprising on the exercise front: University of South Carolina researchers have found that jogging a manageable 10 or 11-minute mile increases overall longevity more than dashing out a more rigorous eight-minute mile. So ditch the stopwatch and ease on down the road — the slower pace may just mean more enjoyable meals and sweat sessions. Besides, don't the dog days of summer call for a bit of leisure?
September: Take On Some "Homework"
A personal trainer, sushi chef, housekeeper, dedicated skin guru: these are all luxuries that for the most part, solidly stay in our “If I were rich and famous” lifestyle list. Even if we can’t employ a staff to keep we looking fabulous, we can get personal attention from the pros. Your yoga instructors, Pilates teachers, and spinning gurus have all trained and certified themselves to a high skill level — so why not be a teacher's pet and tap into their expertise?
Connect with your teachers personally by arriving 15 minutes early to your group class. Explain your fitness goals or body ailments and ask for other resources and tips that are specifically tailored to you. For instance, you could get your yoga teacher’s favorite YouTube instructional videos or five equipment-free exercises you can do on the road.
It’s likely your teacher will not only provide some customized direction, but play your cards right, and she may even work a few postures or choreography into class with you especially in mind. Just be sure to give thanks (or tokens of appreciation) to your fitness aid to keep the relationship gracious and miles away from Mooch Town.
October: Pick Up "Smoking"
The smoker’s playbook may be filled with risky behavior, but there’s one thing that puffers got right: exiting the building every few hours to light up. The frequent breaks are enough to make the rest of us jealous.
Instead of begrudging your co-workers need to quell an oncoming nic fit, why not join them? Rather than light up, use the 10 minutes to speed walk around the building or block. You’ll come back just as calmed as your co-workers, and you will have burned about 60 calories as well. (Visit this walking calculator
to see how many calories you will burn based on your weight and speed). What’s more, if you fake two smoke breaks a day, five days a week, you’ll burn about 2500 calories per month — and pave the way for a clearer mind when back in the cube as well. No ifs, ands, or butts about it.
Other office-time health boosts? Use the bathroom on another floor. This not only ensures that you climb a flight of stairs or two to reach the WC, but also helps avoid those chatty co-worker types who try to catch up when between the stalls. Finally, spark those frequent bathroom breaks by emptying (and refilling) your water bottle with frequency. Trips to the water cooler create another opportunity for movement, while providing a healthy heaping of hydration to boot.
November: Fall Back (Asleep)
We’ve long been told that the superduo “secret” of staying (or getting) lean, toned and healthy is diet and exercise. But several studies completed during the past year have shown that the winning combination to a healthier life is actually a trifecta. The missing ingredient? Sleep.
Studies have shown that when we squeeze in mere four or five hours of sleep, our brains freak out about food. The first sign: appetite-regulating hormones in our bodies are thrown off kilter after sleep deprivation, and fail to send the “I’m satisfied” message after a meal or snack, which causes us to consume even more than we normally might. What’s more, the part of our brains that respond to the salty and sugary stuff in junk food, and see it as a reward, kicks into overdrive after five hours of sleep (vs. eight or nine), often causing us to choose unhealthier foods the morning (and day) after.
Bottom line? When the clock changes from Daylight Savings Time to Daylight Standard Time, don't just grab that "extra" hour once. Instead, aim to go to bed half an hour early and wake half an hour later. Sleeping well will allow your brain and body to communicate about hunger and food cravings clearly. Dreamy.
December: Get Disconnected, Get Smarter
During the holidays, it seems like you can't see a screen without seeing someone's Instagrammed fruitcake. But communing with nature — not our Facebook profiles, Twitter feeds or iPads — makes for a more creative brain, according to a University of Kansas study. Researchers found that backpackers scored 50 percent higher on a creativity test after four days in the wild and without smartphones, iPods, or laptops.
Tech breaks in general allow our brains more space to contemplate, consider, and wonder about what is happening around us — something that the next tweet or tab online doesn’t provide time to do. Though it may feel scary (who doesn’t feel naked without her phone?), ditch the gadgets and take a nature break. It may inspire and motivate you in ways your social network never would.