21 Simple Habits to Kickstart a Healthier Lifestyle

  • By Jennifer Mulder
  • 16 January 2014
  • 3 minute read
21 Simple Habits to Kickstart a Healthier Lifestyle | The Health Sessions

You can feel this growing sense of excitement bubble up: It’s time for a fresh start, with a healthy new lifestyle to unleash your full potential.

Inspired by all the success stories about former coach potatoes who ended up running a marathon in one year, you go all in. You work out at the gym five days a week and you start a juice fast before definitely cutting out all sugar, gluten, dairy, alcohol and caffeine all at once.

At first, the positive effects of exercising and healthy eating rub off on the rest of your life. You wake up early and refreshed and you have no trouble saying “no, thank you” to that piece of chocolate cake on birthday parties.

Until after two or three weeks, life suddenly throws you off course. After being up all night with your child, you’re desperate for another shot of caffeine, and you miss your yoga class because you’re so swamped with work. When you finally get home at night, you feel too tired to cook up a healthy bowl of quinoa with grilled vegetables.

Of course you’ll jump back in the saddle tomorrow, but you can’t shake that feeling that you’ve somehow failedIt starts to feel like a lot of effort to keep up this perfectly healthy lifestyle, and the next time life gets in the way of your resolutions, you automatically fall back into your old routine of crashing in front of the TV with a microwaved meal after a stressful day.

Does this story sound familiar?

A total transformation of your health surely sounds appealing, but too many drastic lifestyle changes at once usually isn’t the recipe for longterm success. Research shows we only have a limited amount of willpower each day. So when you want to improve your health, it’s much easier to focus on creating small, doable habits  –  those automated, healthy behaviours you do without thinking about it.

Start small: pick one tiny health habit at a time, until it’s a natural part of your routine.

To help you kickstart a healthier lifestyle without too much stress and effort, here’s a list of 21 simple habits that can make a big difference.

Kickstart Healthy Habits: Herbs
#1: Use herbs and spice to boost your health

1. Spice up your food with herbs

Adding herbs and spices to your meals is one of the tastiest ways to boost your health. Not only are these seasonings packed with antioxidants and other nutrients that protect your health, but herbs and spices can also be used to replace salt and sugar in recipes without sacrificing flavour. Spicy food may even help you control your weight, as studies show people eat smaller portions of meals with fat-burning chili peppers than of bland-tasting dishes.

So make a conscious effort to spice up your favorite foods. You can sprinkle cinnamon on your cappuccino, sip on a fresh mint tea or cook up a flavoursome dinner – make your own tomato sauce with garlic, basil and oregano; add ginger or turmeric to a stir fry; or toss fresh parsley into your salad.

2. Go for a walk in the park

Going for a 20-minute walk every day, especially in green environments, has many health benefits. Besides the more obvious invigorating effects of physical activity, moving around outdoors provides you with fresh air and exposes your skin to sunlight, which helps your body to produce vitamin D. A stroll through green surroundings is even an effective way to ease brain fatigue and to boost your happiness.

Make walking outside a regular part of your day: go for a stroll through a nearby park on your lunch break or after dinner, join Nerd Fitness’ Morning Mile Challenge or explore nature with a leisurely Sunday hike.

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3. Mind your mental diet

Since ‘we are what we eat’, we all know we have to chose wisely what we put into our bodies. But have you ever stopped to think about what you put into your mind every day?

According to the Buddha, “we are shaped by our thoughts; we become what we think.” Whether you’re angry, scared or aroused, your thoughts trigger neurochemical reactions in your body, preparing you to fight, flight or make love. Even more, what you think regularly shapes your deepest beliefs about yourself and the world – and what you believe ultimately steers your actions.

How does the information you consume all day long affect your thoughts and your mood? Does watching the news make you feel pessimistic about the state of the world? Do you get agitated from reading the flaming discussions in comment sections online? Are your shivering under the covers because that horror movie scared you more than you dare to admit?

The first step to cleaning up your mental diet is to become aware of what you fill your mind with. Notice how the books and magazines you’re reading, the articles you’re browsing online or the TV shows you watch every week make you feel. Take a good look at what kind of people you surround yourself with, both in real life and on social media. The goal is to spend less time with media and people that suck away your energy or create pointless drama and focus more on those who inspire and motivate you.

4. Eat veggies with two of your meals

Eating plenty of vibrant veggies is a key element of a healthy lifestyle. But it’s not always easy getting your five a day, especially if you have to get it all in at dinner time. So why not make a small effort each day to add vegetables to not one but two of your meals?

You won’t just benefit from the wide range of health-boosting nutrients, but thinking of how you can fit veggies into your breakfast of lunch helps you make overall healthier food choices too. I mean, it’s hardly tasty to add greens to a bowl of artificially coloured cereals or greasy snack, right?

Luckily, consuming more vegetables can be as simple as mixing spinach into your morning eggs, putting slices of tomato and sprouts on your regular sandwich and having a glass of fresh beet-carrot-apple juice. For more ideas, check out 40 Delicious & Easy Ways to Eat More Vegetables Every Day.

21 Simple Habits to Kickstart Your Healthy Lifestyle | The Health Sessions

5. Give yourself a bedtime

Waking up feeling energised after a good night’s sleep is high on most of our wish lists, and yet it can be so challenging to head to bed in time to make that happen. Just one more email to check, one last chore to do, just five more minutes staring mesmerized at the screen…

Pinpointing when it’s time to go to sleep can help you get in sync with your body’s natural sleep-wake cycle and keep a more regular sleep schedule. According to happiness author Gretchen Rubin, giving yourself a bedtime is one of the secrets to more happiness and energy. So what are you waiting for? 🙂

(And if you still need convincing why you should prioritize getting seven or eight hours of shut-eye each night, have a look at this horrifying picture of what sleep deprivation will do to you.)

6. Practice gratitude

Being thankful for the little things that are going well in your life is one of the most powerful techniques to feel happier. Studies have shown time and time again counting your blessings every day trains your mind to focus on the positive  – and being optimistic in turn is strongly related to an overall better health.

This week, try this simple gratitude exercise from Martin Seligman’s positive psychology book “Flourish” and see how it makes you feel: “Every night for the next week, set aside ten minutes before you go to sleep. Write down three things that went well today and why they went well.

7. Pack healthy snacks

It’s an all-too-common scenario: As 3pm rolls around, you find yourself craving that chocolate chip cookie to beat the afternoon slump. But although sugary or fatty snacks can give you a temporary boost, they will quickly lead to a blood sugar crash that saps your energy. Keep your energy levels stable throughout the day by carrying healthy snacks with you. Plain yoghurt, a piece of fruit, raw unsalted nuts or a boiled egg are all convenient and portable bites, but you could even jazz up your snack supplies with homemade treats like Green Kitchen Stories’ sesame seed super bars.

Healthy Snacks
#7: Pack Healthy Snacks (Photo by Annelies Verhelst)

8. Floss daily to add years to your life

Did you know that your oral health can affect your overall wellbeing? Practicing good oral hygiene doesn’t just protect you from tooth decay and gum disease, but it also helps clear away harmful oral bacteria that are linked to heart disease and pregnancy problems. Fortunately, it’s easy to take good care of your mouth, teeth and gums:

  • Brush your teeth at least twice a day, 20 minutes after a meal.
  • Floss daily.
  • Drink soda and (fresh) juices through a straw to help avoid cavities.
  • Replace your tooth brush every 3 months and visit your dentist for regular check ups.

Not only will this practice bring you a beautiful smile, but flossing daily can add years to your life.

9. Set up your surroundings for success

Sticking to new habits can be challenging. We’re used to automatically respond to everyday cues in our living environment  – just think of checking your phone each time you’re waiting for the bus or buying popcorn at the cinema even when you’re not that hungry. But you can also use this principle to your advantage, by designing your surroundings in such a way that it triggers the desired behaviours.

As James Clear writes in his article on “Environment Design”:

“Here’s an easy way to apply environment design to your own life: think about your environment in relation to the number of steps it takes to perform a habit. To make good habits easier, reduce the number of steps to do them. To make bad habits harder, increase the number of steps between you and the habit.”

How can you put this clever advice to good use? You could place a bowl of fresh fruit on the counter if you want to make healthier food choices, have your running shoes waiting for you by the front door or set the alarm on your phone to remind you to take deep belly breaths and quiet your mind for 5 minutes. Which changes in your surroundings will you make to improve your health and happiness?

21 Simple Habits to Kickstart Your Healthy Lifestyle | The Health Sessions
Photo by Maria van Door

10. Drink a glass of water first thing in the morning

Do you find yourself reaching for a cup of coffee as soon as you wake up? It might be interesting to experiment how starting the day with a simple glass of water makes you feel. Although a moderate consumption of caffeine doesn’t seem to have the dehydrating effect once assumed, drinking a cup of coffee first thing in the morning – when your production of the energy-regulating hormone cortisol is at its peak – can lead to building a tolerance to its stimulating effect. Water is still the most recommended, non-caloric way to maintain the balance of fluids in your body.

Do you find water too boring or cold in the morning? Try starting your day with a cup of luke-warm water with lemon juice – a holistic practice that is said to soothe the digestive system, boost your immune system and hydrate your lymphs.

11. Fit several short bursts of physical activity into your busy day

You’ve probably read the headlines last year about how our sedentary lifestyle is slowly killing us. If you have long commutes or sit behind a desk all day, like so many of us, it might be a good idea to start sneaking in more active moments into your schedule. Get into the habit of gently stretching yourself as you get out of bed, doing standing push-ups as you’re waiting for the tea to boil or knee-bends when you’re brushing your teeth. At work, take the stairs and try to get up from your chair every hour – even a short walk over to the printer or coffee machine will get your blood flowing again. Come up with out-of-the-box and fun ways to fit in some gentle exercises every day!

12. Schedule buffer time

Are you often rushing from appointment to appointment? Somehow things like getting ready for work, commuting or meetings always take longer than we expected. But being late can be pretty stressful. Your days might run a lot more relaxed if you plan extra pockets of time into your busy schedule. Try getting up 5 minutes earlier, plan extra time just in case you get stuck in traffic (again) and don’t schedule appointments back-to-back but leave a little space between events. Less stress!

13. Cut down on sugary drinks

More and more research shows that refined sugar wreaks havoc on our health. One powerful way to limit your intake of this sweet poison is to cut down on soda, (fresh) juice and energy drinks. Most of these beverages contain 5 to 10 teaspoons of sugar, which leads to (a vicious circle of) spikes in your blood sugar levels that can cause long-term damage to your body. Unfortunately, diet soda is not a healthy alternative to regular soft drinks. Artificial sweeteners trick your body into thinking you’re consuming real sugar and that confuses your metabolism, resulting into burning fewer calories while craving even more sweets and refined carbs.

If you want to cut down your sugar consumption, start with swapping your soda and fruit juices for plain water (flavoured with slices of citrus and mint if you like), fresh vegetable juice or green smoothies, unsweetened (nut) milk or coconut water. You could also slowly learn to enjoy your warm beverages without added sugar or sweeten your tea and coffee with green stevia.

14. Wash your hands properly

This is such an obvious piece of health advice that it’s often overlooked, but a study cited by the World Health Organization estimates that washing your hands saves more lives worldwide than any medical intervention. At yet, few of us wash our hands properly – as in: scrubbing vigorously with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Reduce your risk of getting sick from infections and food contaminations by washing your hands after you visit the bathroom, whenever you sneeze and before and after you’ve handled food. A small effort that can make a big difference for your health!

15. Develop meaningful connections

Modern technology enables us to communicate with friends and strangers all over the world. And although I love using social media to stay up-to-date with loved ones who live far away and meet new friends online, nothing replaces real-life meet-ups with deep conversations, hugs and laughter.

Our brains are wired to connect. Loneliness – whether it’s from social isolation or feeling alone in a room full of people – can weaken your immune system and set the stage for a range of (chronic) illnesses, while spending time with friends and receiving social support during tough times boosts your happiness and overall health.

So take inspiration from the late Mother Teresa and “Spread love everywhere you go. Let no one ever come to you without leaving happier.” Make time each week to deepen your relationships with your family or hang out with your friends. Put down your phone, be fully present and really listen to your loved ones when you’re together. Laugh! Be kind to everyone you meet: looking people in the eye, smiling and a genuinely friendly attitude can make all the difference in their day – and yours.

Wellness Rituals
#20: Enrich your life with wellness rituals (Photo by Annelies Verhelst)

16.  Eat mindfully

The next time you’re thoughtlessly gobbling your food, ask yourself: am I hungry or am I eating because I’m bored/stressed/thirsty/it’s dinner time?

Emotional (over)eating and mindlessly putting food into your mouth are an important cause of unhealthy eating habits and weight gain. Time for a new approach: try to be fully present when you’re eating and really enjoy your meal. Make a rule not to eat on-the-go anymore or to quickly stuff a sandwich down your throat behind your desk. Sit down when you’re having a bite and eat from a nice plate – no boxes or bags. Chew slowly and try to really notice how your food smells and tastes.

If you’re an emotional eater, stop for a second and become aware of why you’re suddenly craving comfort food. Find better ways to feed your emotions – call your best friend when you feel down or lonely, or wind down with an evening stroll or warm bath after a stressful day.

17. Create a healthier home

Think of small ways how you can make the place where you spend so much time just a little healthier:

  • Keep toxins out of your home. Aim to use natural materials like wood and organic fabrics, prevent molds by repairing leaks and swap your chemical cleansers for less harmful products. Another good tip is to air out your dry-cleaning by an open window before you hang your clothes back into your closet.
  • Take off your shoes when you get inside.
  • Bring the outdoors inside! Open your windows regularly to let in some fresh air and buy air-purifying plants.
  • Rearrange your cupboards so your healthy staples are always within sight and within reach. Over time, replace your standard, not so healthy ingredients for wholesome alternatives – like swapping white rice for brown rice or quinoa.

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18. Get out of your head

We spend such a large part of our days consuming and analysing information, planning and thinking about all kinds of problems and possible solutions. But being inside our heads all the time can lead to informational overload and mental fatigue, not to mention rumination – a major risk factor for depression and anxiety disorders.

Let go of your worries for a while and get back in touch with your body. You can refresh your mind by pottering around in the garden or going for a run. Working with your hands is also an effective way to get out of your head – take up knitting, baking wholesome cakes or doing odd jobs around the house. Maybe now’s a great time to pick up that hobby you always want to do?

19. Focus on ‘crowding’ out instead of ‘cutting out’

Do you get that rebellious feeling in your gut when someone advises you to quit eating junk food for good, stop watching TV and get off the couch? Rigorously cutting out beloved comfort foods or activities often leaves you wanting that pizza even more than before. So why not focus on adding healthy habits to your routine instead of thinking about all the things you supposedly can no longer do?

When you get excited about making your own popcorn during movie night or having zucchini pancakes for Sunday brunch (trust me, they’re really good), you no longer have room in your belly for the bag of potato chips or greasy fry up you’d usually eat. You can practice ‘crowding out’ by picking one healthy swap or trying one new healthy ingredient each week, that automatically leaves less space for unhealthier options.

21 Simple Habits to Kickstart a Healthier Lifestyle | The Health Sessions

20. Enrich your life with little wellness rituals

Do you dream of having a luxurious and relaxing spa holiday, but you can’t find the time or money? Create the same uplifting effects from your own home with little wellness rituals. Think of dry brushing your skin before your morning shower to stimulate your circulation or adding a few drops op essential oil to your warm bath. When you come home from a stressful day, you could put on some soft music and gently give yourself a reflexology foot massage. Seek some inspiration online about which holistic rituals you can start fitting into your schedule!

21. Unplug

“The oddest thing about whats happening right now is that we’ve stopped living our lives & we’re just recording them.” – George Clooney in Esquire Magazine

We’ve all happily embraced the endless possibilities that modern technology offers to stay connected and entertained 24/7. But as the video below shows, it’s important to set boundaries for ourselves about how to use today’s gadgets and media to our benefit, not become a slave of it. Taking a digital detox is related to many healthy habits on this list, like getting enough sleep, preventing information overload and deepening your connections with others.

Set little rules for yourself: maybe you want to set your phone on airplane mode after 9pm or you turn off all your electronic devices one hour before bedtime to help you sleep quicker and deeper. Or perhaps a technology-free rule at meal times or an unplugged Sunday work wonders for your wellbeing – whatever works best for you! Just know when it’s time to forget your phone and enjoy life as it’s happening in front of you.

Which (one!) simple habit will you start building today to kickstart your healthier lifestyle? 

This blog post contains affiliate links to resources you might find helpful, at no extra cost to you. All opinions are my own. 

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