When it comes to getting healthy, it’s not all about working up a sweat. In fact, there are tons of practical and beneficial habits you can work into your day-to-day that have nothing to do with hitting the gym or making rounds on the ClassPass circuit.
Some of these lifestyle adjustments involve eating more mindfully, which includes techniques like slowing down as you eat and paying attention to signals that let you know when you’re full. But getting enough sleep, reducing stress and cutting back on alcohol are all important too.
“Our environment, our habits and our mindset are almost just as important as what it is we are putting in our mouths. And we have to realize that,” said Lisa Young, a registered dietitian and adjunct professor of nutrition at New York University.
Here are some tips for boosting your health that have nothing to do with burning calories, but are almost guaranteed to leave you feeling better:
1. Slow down at meal time.
These days, everything we do ― eating included ― tends to happen at hyper speed. And it’s simply not good for your health. Nutritionists advise slowing down and chewing each bite of food somewhere between 20 and 30 times, which makes it easier to digest and absorb. In fact, the more you break down the food in your mouth, the more you’re going to absorb in the intestine, said Kelly Johnston, a registered dietitian and health coach at Parsley Health.
For the sake of digestion, try setting aside a bit more time so you can eat your meals in a less hasty way, even if it’s not 20 to 30 chews per bite of food.
“I always say the first line of digestion is your mouth, and chewing is such an important part of that,” Johnston said. “The less work you do in your mouth, the more work you have to do in your stomach and intestine, which can cause bloating downstream, constipation and just more work for the intestine.”
Eating at a slower pace also gives you more time to register fullness, which can lower your chances of overeating.
“Challenge yourself to take at least 15 to 20 minutes to finish a meal, because that is how long it takes for your gut to tell your brain it’s full,” said Tracy Lockwood Beckerman, a registered dietitian in New York City.
2. Limit your distractions while eating.
Despite the fact that more than half of Americans eat lunch at their desks each day, nutritionists say this isn’t the best choice for your health. For one, the body has trouble prioritizing digestion when you’re stressed.
“The uptick of the stress hormone cortisol may cause nutrients to become poorly digested and disrupt the normal digestion process,” Beckerman said.
We get it though: Sometimes you have no option other than to work through lunch. In these situations, Young suggested planning exactly what you’re going to eat. This can help you avoid overeating, which seems to happen way too easily when you’re focused on your screen rather than the food you’re putting in your mouth.
“The problem when you eat mindlessly is that you don’t even realize that you’ve eaten,” Young said.
3. Eat whole rather than processed foods.
Ultra-processed foods are often high in sodium and added sugars and come with long lists of ingredients, many of which do little in terms of benefiting your overall health. Making a real effort to swap processed for whole foods is a great way to get healthier. Consider focusing on foods that exist in nature like vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, healthy fats and high-quality proteins like beans, fish and meat.
“Processed foods have fillers, stabilizers and thickeners that can disrupt your body’s ability to soak in essential vitamins and nutrients from real foods,” Beckerman said. “You’ll be able to deliver and maximize the purest forms of nutrients to your body when you can eat whole foods.”
4. Get enough sleep.
When you’re trying to squeeze in time for everything possible in life ― work, social commitments, family, exercise, cooking healthy meals and more ― maintaining a healthy sleep schedule is often pushed aside. But getting enough sleep probably deserves a higher spot on your list of priorities. After all, this is the time of day where your body relaxes and repairs.
The exact amount of sleep varies from person to person, but somewhere around seven to eight hours a night is a good target, Johnston said. You surely know this from experience, but when you don’t get enough sleep, your body struggles the next day.
“Research shows that if you don’t get enough sleep, you automatically usually have an elevated blood sugar the following day because you haven’t metabolized well,” Johnston said.
Meanwhile, sleep deprivation disrupts the balance of the body’s hunger and satiety hormones, which can lead you toward that bottomless-pit feeling where you eat and eat but don’t feel full, Beckerman explained. Not getting enough sleep also leads to low levels of leptin, a hormone that helps regulate the body’s energy balance by inhibiting hunger. The result? Increased cravings of sugary and sweet foods, Beckerman said.
5. Find a way to let go of stress.
Some stress is good for you, especially the type that appears when you’re excited. But chronic stress, the kind that feels inescapable, can have a ton of negative effects on the body, from depression and anxiety to gastrointestinal problems and cardiovascular disease. For the sake of your health, it’s important to find a stress-relieving habit you can turn to regularly to balance the daily demands that drain you.
For some, this release can have to do with exercise, like going for a walk or going to a yoga class. For others, it might mean journaling, meditating or talking to a close friend. Really, the method is up to you as long as you take some time to yourself to let some of the stress fade away.
“Just recharging your battery is so important,” Johnston said.
6. Cut back on alcohol.
Besides contributing to those dreaded hangovers, drinking more than the recommended amount (up to one drink a day for women and two for men) can increase your risk of cancer and high blood pressure, as well as contribute to poor sleep, overeating, impaired cognitive function even after the alcohol leaves your system and earlier signs of aging, like wrinkles and broken blood vessels.
Many types of alcohol are also super sugary, which can lead to weight gain and problems with blood sugar levels. Additionally, alcohol and sugar can both negatively impact “the health of our gut and our microbiome,” Johnston said.
Alcohol also impairs the efficacy of the hormone leptin, which as mentioned earlier, plays a role in keeping you full.
“This imbalance influences our powerful brains towards convincing us that we want more carbohydrate heavy and greasy meals,” Beckerman said. So, while there’s usually nothing wrong with a drink here and there, it’s best to keep it to a minimum.