Most people think that living a healthy lifestyle is a challenge.
When you look at the super fit and healthy people out there, it can seem almost impossible to get what they have. Six pack abs and a 100-year lifespan appear out of reach to “normal" individuals.
But achieving those levels of health and fitness is really just about engaging in healthy behaviors on a routine basis.
Each of the habits in this post may seem small by itself, but over time they can have a snowball effect on your health.
The trick is to focus on making the healthy choice in any given moment, rather than looking at all the things you must do in the long term.
With that in mind, here is a list of habits and behaviors you can adopt that will add up to a healthy lifestyle. Where applicable, I’ve linked to external tools and resources to help you get the most out of each entry. Oh, and this post is seriously long (over 16,000 words), so you’ll want to bookmark it for future reference. Perhaps on StumbleUpon, wink wink.
If you know of any resources that would make this guide more complete, shoot me an email.
Update: There are a ton of links on this post, and for one reason or another, many of them will become broken. Sometimes, they will become broken for a day or two and then the page will come back up again. Other times the site just goes away. Unfortunately, I don’t have enough time to make sure all the links are always working or to find more resources to replace old ones. I sincerely apologize. But again, if you know of other resources to include, let me know.
Dietary Habits And Behaviors
Diet is often the most hated part of being healthy. Most people look at a diet as a temporary thing. After three months on some “diet", you can return to the way you used to eat.
I challenge you to think of your diet as a lifestyle of healthy eating rather than a horrible ordeal you must go through for a period of time, only to return to fast food burgers and french fries. You will be far more successful that way.
1. Make dietary changes slowly.
If you try to change everything at once, you will have difficulty adjusting to the new lifestyle. When you eat new foods or in different proportions, it takes time for your digestive system to get used to it, if ya know what I mean.
A healthier diet starts even before any food enters your mouth. There are many new habits you can adopt that will make healthy eating easier…for example, heaving healthy food in your kitchen at home.
You need to buy your food before you eat it, right?
2. Plan healthy meals in advance.
Come up with a meal plan for your week, so you know exactly what to buy at the grocery store and you are more accountable to yourself (and less likely to eat out and unhealthy restaurants). Here is a template that you can use, but if you eat more than three meals a day you will need to adjust.
It’s a good idea to know how many calories you are supposed to be consuming per day based on your goals and your lifestyle. Use this calculator to get an idea of this number. Everyone has different caloric needs and the formula is not 100% accurate, so don’t be too concerned with matching this number exactly. It’s just a good approximation for planning purposes.
You can write a plan down and post it to your refrigerator, but there are also plenty of free or paid online tools that can help in the process. First, let’s look at the free ones:
- BigOven is a free (or pay for an upgrade) mobile app that works on most smart phones and tablets. You can use it to organize your recipes, find new ones, and then drag and drop them into a calendar so you know what you are cooking for that meal.
- Epicurious is a huge database of recipes from top chefs around the world. These recipes are easily searchable by many categories.
- Foodily is basically a social network for people who love food. You still use it to find recipes, but it is more based on your personal network and food interests. In other words, it’s more of a community around sharing recipes.
- DinnerSpinner is a free mobile app (with paid upgrade) that lets you search for recipes by ingredient. Very good for finding recipes, but not as good for planning a week of meals in advance. Womp womp.
If you want some added functionality, there are many paid services that are still quite affordable:
- Menu Planner ($2.99) for the iPhone and iPad and Food Planner (free) for Android are very similar apps that allow you to plan out your menu for the week. The main downside of them is that it can take time to initially get them set up by adding recipes to them. Lifehacker has a good article about using these programs to make a weekly meal plan.
- Once A Month Mom is a subscription service ($8/month for a monthly membership, $6/month for yearly) that walks you through planning, shopping, cooking, and storing a month’s worth of food in your freezer. You can choose from different types of menus (paleo, vegetarian, etc.), and if you can’t handle a full month of cooking at a time you can scale down to five or ten day meal plans.
- MealBoard ($2.99) is an iPhone and iPad app that can store recipes, create meal plans, and do a whole bunch of other stuff. Reviewers seem to think it has a steep learning curve.
- Plan To Eat ($4.95/month or $39/year) does everything, from storing and importing recipes, keeping track of nutrition information, monthly meal planning, and organizing your shopping list.
If you want to be very thorough with tracking what you eat, you should skip down to #36 for more information and tools that will make being accountable and sticking to your meal plan even easier.
3. Shop with a list based on your weekly meal plan.
Once you begin planning your meals in advance, food shopping becomes much easier. Make a list of ingredients you need in order to cook your meals, and only buy those items.
Old fashioned pen and paper lists work great, but there are free tools that deserves special mention here:
- ZipList. It can be used for meal planning, but where it excels is organizing your shopping list. The tool, which syncs up from most devices including smart phones, can arrange your list by its urgency, the store it is in, or even the specific aisle! Plus, you can use it to send the shopping list to a family member who is going shopping for you. Very convenient.
- Fooducate and ShopWell let you scan products at the supermarket and then will give it a grade based on how healthy it is. This is useful especially for people who know very little about nutrition or who haven’t mastered the art of meal planning yet.
4. Go food shopping on a full stomach.
When you are hungry, you are inclined to buy far more food than you need, and you will likely buy unhealthy foods that you crave.
5. Spend most of your shopping time along the perimeter of the grocery store.
This is where the produce and healthier foods tend to be located. Don’t just wander through the aisles aimlessly. Only venture inward if you need something specific and you know where it is.
6. Stop buying foods that are marketed as healthy.
Chances are, they are not. And if it says “all natural”, that doesn’t mean it’s healthy either. You should spend time educating yourself about what makes a food healthy or not so you can spot the rampant BS in food advertising and packaging. In the meantime, a fantastic rule of thumb is to…
7. Only buy real foods.
In other words, purchase foods that come directly from nature and are minimally processed. This includes plants, fruits, meats, nuts, etc. It excludes things like refined grains and sweeteners, or foods that have ingredients that you can’t pronounce. Real foods are as close to their natural state as possible.
8. Buy wild caught fish, grass-fed meats, and free range eggs instead of their grain-fed counterparts.
Grain is not a part of these animals’ natural diets, and causes the animals themselves to be unhealthy. Not only that, but most of these animals will be given growth hormones and other chemicals to develop faster. This unhealthiness gets passed on to you when you eat them. Sadly, finding animal products that are fed a proper diet is both more expensive and more challenging. The following sites can help you find grass-fed meat near you:
If you can’t find producers in your area, you can buy these products online. Because it is more expensive, feel free to only partly switch over to these healthier animal products. Even just one or two meals per week will provide you with substantially more nutrition value.
9. Buy more organic foods.
Normal produce is sprayed with pesticides and other chemicals that are harmful to eat. Organic foods are certainly more expensive than non-organic, but luckily not everything you eat needs to be organic. The research on whether organic foods are more nutritious or not is mixed, but if you can afford it, it certainly won’t hurt. The Environmental Working Group publishes a list of the most important foods to buy organic each year, as well as foods with the fewest pesticides. And if you are really curious, here is a tool that lets you see how many and what pesticides are found in different foods. I can’t decide if it’s really creepy or really cool .
Staying hydrated is one of the most important things you can do for your health, but it is under appreciated.
There are a few things you can do to make the most of this area, most of which are pretty easy.
10. Drink a minimum of eight cups of water every day.
Some people say you don’t need to drink this much to stay hydrated, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. You won’t get water poisoning unless you drink a lot of water in a short period of time. The Institute for Medicine recommends that men drink about 13 cups of fluids and women drink 9 cups of fluids per day. This includes all fluids (including a substantial amount from food), but water is of course the best. If it is particularly hot and humid or if you exercise (and you should), you need to drink more. I’ve drank up to a gallon of water per day and I felt great doing it.
Try to keep water on hand at all times and sip it throughout the day. As a good rule of thumb, if you are drinking enough so that you never feel thirsty and your pee is clear or very light yellow, you are hydrated. Here is an online calculator that will tell you how many ounces of water you should drink today based on a number of factors.
11. Drink green tea.
I’ve already written extensively (and I mean extensively) about the health benefits of green tea, so I won’t repeat the reasons here. It is one of the most powerfully healthy things you can add to your lifestyle, plus it’s delicious. If you are extra sensitive to caffeine, are deficient in iron, have ulcers, or are taking certain medications, you shouldn’t drink green tea.
12. Don’t add cream or sugar to your tea and coffee.
That includes artificial sweeteners too. If you like your caffeinated beverages, drink them straight. You’ll grow to appreciate the taste and it’s healthier for you.
13. Stop drinking soda.
Seriously. Soda is one of the worst things you can put in your body. They contain lots of calories from high fructose corn syrup, which is killing you. And don’t drink diet soda either. The artificial sweeteners can be toxic, and they stimulate your appetite.
Cooking And Eating Healthier Meals
The way you prepare your meals is obviously a huge determinant of your health. By following some of these simple guidelines, you can have much healthier but still delicious meals all the time.
14. Cook meals in advance.
So many people resort to eating fast food or unhealthy snacks because they “don’t have the time to cook”. This problem can be addressed very easily by cooking several portions at once. Especially if you have a weekly meal plan (but even if you don’t), you can spend a little extra time on your Sunday afternoon cooking meals for the rest of the week. Then when you are hungry you just need to reheat them. BOOM! Problem solved.
If you failed to prepare your meals in advance and you find yourself stuck with a bunch of random ingredients, Supercook allows you to find recipes by typing in the ingredients you do have one at a time. This will help you improvise with whatever you have on hand instead of going out to a restaurant.
15. Eat at restaurants less frequently.
This is easier if you cook meals in advance, and it will save you a lot of money. You have no idea what they are putting in your food. Because most restaurants want to make the most tasty dish for the lowest cost, you can bet that there are all sorts of unhealthy things in your meal including food additives, unhealthy cooking oils, and loads of extra salt. Plus your own kitchen is probably cleaner.
If you do go out to eat, most restaurants will allow you to substitute a side of vegetables for the fries they would normally give you.
16. Don’t add salt to your meals.
If you are already eating mostly real, “whole” foods, this isn’t such a big deal. But until then, you should know that most packaged food already contains heinous amounts of sodium. According to the CDC, the average American consumes more than double the Adequate Intake of sodium (3436 mg vs. 1500 mg), and significantly more than the Tolerable Upper Intake Level (2300 mg). This raises blood pressure and could lead to heart disease and stroke.
17. Use healthier oils.
When cooking, you should look for oils that have a high smoke point, such as coconut and avocado oil. In general, saturated fats are the most stable under heat, so you should cook with those (I know, this goes against much of what you may have heard). Don’t use heavily processed vegetable oils such as canola, safflower, soybean, grapeseed, and so on. Extra virgin olive oil is an incredibly healthy choice for adding to foods and for low temperature cooking. Don’t use olive oil for high temperature cooking because it will oxidize and become very unhealthy.
18. Replace salad dressings with extra virgin olive oil or squeezed lemon or lime juice.
Most salad dressings are very high in calories, often from refined vegetable oils and sugars. Pretty much defeats the purpose of a salad, right? If you are opting for low calorie, use lemon or lime juice for some extra flavor. The best choice though is a small amount of extra virgin olive oil, because it drastically increases the absorption of the many fat-soluble nutrients in your salad.
19. Add a serving of vegetables to each meal.
Veggies are your best friend. They tend to be among the most nutrient dense of foods, meaning they have the most nutrition value per calorie. They fill you up faster and supply your body with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. What more could you want? Try to get a variety of veggies in your diet, and make sure to include leafy greens like spinach as well as cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli.
20. Have a balanced mix of carbohydrates, fats, and protein in each meal.
Many diets will demonize one of these macronutrients, but you need at least some of each. If you are eating real foods, the ratio probably doesn’t matter as much. That being said, try to have one source of each macronutrient in every meal.
Carbs are the least important to focus on because they are the most common in many peoples’ diets. The other two are more likely to be neglected. Everyone is different, but I’ve personally had great results with consuming about 40% of my calories from fat. That is more than you’ve probably heard, but results are results. If you hate doing math, you can use this calculator to find out how many grams of each macronutrient you should be consuming at each meal. If you are specifically trying to build muscle or burn fat, you may need to adjust your ratios according to your goal.
21. Eat your sandwiches open-faced.
You generally don’t want to eat too much bread (or too many calories), and two slices per sandwich can really add up. Instead, focus on what is inside the sandwich, focusing on the protein and veggies.
22. Use mustard instead of mayo, BBQ sauce, or ketchup on your sandwiches.
Mayo contains deadly trans fats, and BBQ sauce and ketchup are loaded with high fructose corn syrup. Mustard, on the other hand, contains cancer-inhibiting phytonutrients and is a good source of several minerals and omega-3 fatty acids.
23. Substitute quinoa or whole wheat products for “white” carbohydrates.
White carbohydrates are those made from white flour or sugar. Food labels are VERY tricky here, so be careful. Unless the first ingredient on the label says “whole wheat flour” or “100% whole wheat flour”, it’s a white carb. If it just says “wheat flour”, it is a white carb. You’ll also want to avoid added sugars, which you can find a list of here. Honestly though, quinoa is delicious, extremely healthy, and easy to cook, so you should consider making that your primary source of carbs.
24. Add probiotics to your diet.
Probiotics are live microorganisms that reside in your gut and benefit the host, aka you. These organisms may improve digestion and help fight off the “bad” bacteria, improving immune function. Not only that, there is evidence that (at least in mice, but likely humans too) that probiotics play a role in relieving anxiety and depression (source)! Yogurt (make sure it isn’t pasteurized) is probably the most convenient dietary source, but any fermented food contains probiotics. Kefir, sauerkraut, miso soup, pickles, tempeh, and kimchi are also good sources.
25. Eat more omega-3 fatty acids.
This one is so so so so so important for both your health and your happiness. If you are interested in more details on why omega-3’s are so important, check out that link. Some of the best sources include fatty fish such as salmon and sardines (wild caught, not farmed) as well as flax seeds and walnuts. Nosh on walnuts as a healthy snack and eat fatty fish at least twice per week.
26. Eat more spicy foods.
Hot peppers contain capsaicin, and the hotter the pepper, the more capsaicin it contains. This substance has numerous health benefits, such as fighting cancer, reducing inflammation, pain relief, congestion relief, improved intestinal health, cardio-protection, and increased fat burning. The Scoville scale is a measure of the quantity of capsaicin in a pepper, and you can use it to find the best sources. Jalapenos are good, but if you have the cojones for it you should try habanero peppers. That stuff is intense. By the way, you build up a tolerance to spicy food over time, so if you don’t like it now, try adding small amounts until you feel comfortable with it.
27. Season your food with healthy spices.
Besides adding flavor to your meals, some spices are among the most nutrient dense substances known to man. Of special mention are cinnamon, turmeric, and ginger. Cinnamon helps control blood sugar, and has been shown to reduce it by 20-30%. Turmeric is a potent anti-inflammatory and anti-carcinogenic. Ginger has many antioxidants and is a strong anti-inflammatory, but is most known for its soothing effects on your stomach. Mike Geary wrote a great article about 10 of the healthiest spices, and I highly suggest you read it.
28. Stop frying your foods, and use healthier cooking methods.
The high temperatures of frying causes starches to form advanced glycation end products, or AGEs, which are incredibly toxic and linked to both cancer and diabetes. Fried foods absorb a lot of fat in the cooking process (often unhealthy fats, depending on the cooking oil), and fried vegetables lose a lot of their nutrition value. Here are some resources on healthier ways of cooking:
- Healthiest ways of cooking and preparing common foods.
- Quick broil cooking method.
- Healthy saute cooking method.
- Healthy steaming cooking method.
29. Soak meat in a special marinade before grilling.
We all love barbecue, but grilling meat leads to a buildup of heterocyclic amines, benzopyrene, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. “What the hell are those!”, you ask? They are all highly carcinogenic chemicals that you don’t want to consume.
Luckily, you can prevent the formation of a lot of these carcinogens. Soaking meat in a marinade of alcohol (from wine or beer) and herbs (including rosemary, thyme, garlic, ginger, and chili pepper) for four hours decreased the formation of these substances by up to 90% (Source 1, Source 2, Source 3). A marinade including both alcohol and herbs will be most effective, but including just one or the other will still have a strong effect.
30. Start your day with a healthy breakfast.
By eating a healthy breakfast, you set a positive tone for the day by having made a good health decision right away. You wouldn’t want to spoil that by eating junk food the rest of the day, would you? Secondly, this will give you more energy for whatever you need to do later. Good deal overall.
A lot of people will screw up a day of healthy eating by scarfing down a pint of ice cream or a few donuts. Other people will think they ate healthy all day, but forget about the random small bits of junk food they ate between meals.
With a little bit of preparation, you can eat healthy while still satisfying your sweet tooth.
31. Replace the unhealthy snacks in your house with nuts, fruits, and veggies.
Wherever you go, keep a baggy full of dried fruit and nuts with you so you aren’t tempted to go to the vending machine. Chances are you like at least some of these healthy snacks, so just pick whatever your favorites are and keep them well stocked.
32. Replace your night time dessert with a piece of fresh fruit.
An apple is still sweet, and is a much better choice than ice cream. I know, this tip isn’t rocket science, but a lot of people forget that there are healthy options just as delicious as a bag of chips.
33. Learn to love dark chocolate as your primary “indulgence” food.
Dark chocolate is one of my favorite things in the universe. Almost everyone has heard that dark chocolate is healthier than milk chocolate by now. Aim for the highest percentage cacao as you can tolerate, and it should be at least 70% to get the health benefits. The bitterness of dark chocolate is an acquired taste. My brother used to dislike dark chocolate but recently he has built up a tolerance and now enjoys it!
The most well known benefit of dark chocolate is that it decreases blood pressure. But it does so much more than that! I’ve written a post about the less well known benefits of eating dark chocolate, which you should check out. Finally, dark chocolate is a high calorie food (one bar usually contains approximately 400 calories), so eat in moderation. Most research only used quantities of 100 grams or 3.5 ounces, and there is no evidence that health benefits increase with higher amounts.
Not everyone is trying to lose weight, but if you are, you must reduce your calorie consumption. Even if you don’t need to lose weight, caloric restriction has been shown to significantly improve longevity.
Either way, these tips are at least worth considering.
34. Eat only until 80% full.
This is the practice of hara hachi bu, which the Okinawans observed. The result? Almost 29% of Okinawans lived to be 100 years old, which is a rate four times higher than those living in western countries (Source). Of course, other factors (many of which you can find on this blog post) certainly contributed, but caloric restriction definitely played its part. “But then I’ll still be hungry!” you say? It takes about 20 minutes after eating before your brain registers that you are satiated. While you might still feel a little hungry for a few minutes, you will feel comfortable very shortly.
I know this is difficult for many people (myself included), so here are some resources that will help you.
35. Experiment with intermittent fasting (IF).
There are many different variations of IF, but they all involve occasionally going for a length of time (usually around 24 hours, but can be more or less) without consuming any calories, and eating normally the rest of the time. The way I have done this is picking one day per week where I eat dinner at a certain time and then don’t eat again until the same time the next day. While this isn’t easy, it’s nowhere near as hard as you think. Plus it has been shown to have similar life extension benefits as caloric restriction, without having to count calories day-in-day-out.
Since many people are curious about IF and I am no expert, I’m including a few pieces of literature that may help you get started.
- Mark’s Daily Apple has a great post on the science behind the many benefits of IF.
- He also has a very basic and easy to understand post on the different ways to practice IF.
- The IF Life has a more detailed guide on two common ways to practice IF, and includes answers to some FAQs.
- Finally, John Berardi has a free ebook that goes into much more detail on IF. If the other resources intrigued you already, take a look at this. It’s a journal of his own self-experimentation with IF and what he learned from the results.
36. Keep a food journal and measure how much you eat.
If you keep track of your eating patterns, you will be surprised at how much you learn about yourself. Incredibly, the practice of recording daily food intake doubled the amount of weight loss experienced by dieters (Source). When you have to write down what you eat, it makes you more accountable and encourages you to eat fewer calories.
Maintaining a food journal can be as simple and low-tech as carrying a notebook around with you, but there are many tools you can use to improve your journaling experience.
In college I took a nutrition class where we had to keep a food journal, and we used SuperTracker to log our food intake. The tool was very thorough but a little bit hard to use. It’s the only one of these tools I’ve actually used a decent amount, so it gets special mention. That being said, there are many other free tools you can experiment with, including:
- MyPlate, from livestrong.com
- FitDay, which seems very popular
- Nutritiondata.com has a searchable database of foods, including a detailed analysis of micro and macronutrient content.
- TheCarrot.com has all sorts of tools for tracking your diet and exercise. Highly versatile.
- MyFitnessPal, which I used for about a week as an iPhone app. It was also decent, but I don’t have enough experience with it for a proper review.
- There are even more tools you can use for food journaling at #48 on this list.
Physical Activity Habits And Behaviors
Getting enough physical activity is not only necessary for having a fit body, but also for living a long and healthy life. Regular physical activity helps prevent cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, hypertension, obesity, depression, and premature death (Source).
Unfortunately, most people who are inactive don’t know where to start. Seeing bodybuilders at the gym is intimidating, and you might not even know how to do a proper push up.
It’s so easy to make excuses and remain inactive, but there are simple things you can do (without being an expert) that will help get you moving while you begin to educate yourself.
Squeezing Physical Activity Into Your Schedule
The most common excuse for not exercising is the classic “I don’t have time!”
Luckily you don’t need to spend 2 hours in the gym every day to get in a good workout. In fact, there are very effective workouts you can do in 20 minutes or less!
On top of that, you can make small adjustments to your habits in order to spend a little more time being physically active. The mere act of breaking up sedentary time by standing up is enough to significantly decrease your metabolic risk (Source). We’ll go into easy ways to be less sedentary in this section.
37. Take advantage of short but very intense workouts.
You have a lot of options here, you don’t need a gym membership, and some of these don’t even require any equipment. Besides convenience, high intensity training has been shown to be more effective than other forms of training (Source). The key principle of high intensity interval training (HIT) is alternating short periods of maximal effort with less intense recovery periods. A few possibilities would be jump rope workouts, sprinting, and circuit training.
Instead of going into detail about all the types of workouts you can do, here are a few resources to help you:
- Greatist has a very informative infographic detailing the benefits of HIT and three different protocols for applying it.
- Tabata training is a style of workout that can be completed in only four minutes, but is very challenging. Learn how to design your own Tabata workout here.
- Nerd Fitness has a killer article about how to start doing a bodyweight exercise circuit training regimen.
- Bodybuilding.com has a good introduction to jump rope workouts. And here is a video that demonstrates many more advanced jump rope exercises.
- Zombies, Run! ($7.99) is an app and game that gives you missions that involve being chased by zombies and require serious interval training workouts.
38. Take the stairs instead of the elevator.
It only takes an extra two or three minutes at most, and sometimes is even faster. Climbing stairs is actually great exercise, and if you make a habit of it, you will be a far more conditioned person.
39. Whenever you can, walk.
If you simply can’t walk to where you need to go, make a point to park further away from your destination and walk the extra block or two. Similarly, you can get off of the bus or subway one stop early and walk the rest of the way. At work, you can get up and go to someone’s desk instead of using your instant messenger. Change the channel on the TV itself instead of using the remote. Be creative.
40. Do housework.
Instead of hiring someone to do it for you, you can get some low intensity physical activity by doing it yourself. Housework, besides being necessary, can add up to burn some calories. Gardening can be especially fruitful (see what I did there?). See how many calories you burn from common household activities here.
41. Exercise during TV commercials.
You might as well make the most of the 25% of TV time that otherwise would be wasted. You don’t need to do anything too crazy here. Just drop down and do ten push ups during each commercial break.
42. Do a short workout before you shower.
You shower every day, right? Just take five minutes before you hop in and do a few bodyweight exercises. Consider doing one round of the circuit from the Nerd Fitness article above.
Get involved in games or sports that keep you active and that are fun for you. Play with your kids if you have them. If you can get both pleasure and exercise at the same time…well, that’s awesome! Mark’s Daily Apple has a very persuasive post about why spending time playing is so important.
If you aren’t in the habit of exercising regularly, it can be a challenge to get yourself motivated enough to follow through. Although not foolproof, there are a number of ways to make sticking to an exercise regimen far more likely.
44. Find a workout partner.
This won’t work for everyone. I’ve only had one workout partner who ever truly motivated me (shout out to my friend Bubba who got me a lot stronger that one summer). That being said, many people swear by it, and it can make you far more accountable when someone else is involved. When choosing a training partner, look for these characteristics. You can also use FitLink to search for a suitable workout partner by area code.
45. Put on your gym clothes.
This trick seems silly but it has been the most effective motivational technique I’ve ever used. When you are feeling wishy-washy about whether you want to work out, just change into your gym clothes. You don’t have to work out after, but somehow once you are suited up you are far more likely to be in the mood. I end up working out approximately 70% of the times that I don’t feel like it because of this psychological trick.
46. Create a backup plan for when obstacles spring up.
What are the most common triggers that make you not want to work out? You can probably come up with a few big ones for yourself. Some common triggers might be that it is raining outside, you already showered that day, you are tired, or you feel pressed for time. For each one of your triggers, come up with a “Plan B” that circumvents the problem.
If it is raining outside, you can work out at your home instead of going to the gym. I recommend the circuit training workout from the Nerd Fitness post in #37.
If you already showered, you can do a workout that won’t make you sweaty. Try yoga, walking, pilates, or even bodyweight exercises with longer rest periods to keep your heart rate low enough to prevent you from sweating.
When you are tired (not physically sore, just tired), you can shorten your workout. If you would normally spend 45 minutes doing something, commit to 15. Getting your body moving is likely to energize you enough to finish your workout anyways.
And if you feel like you don’t have time, go back to #37 and choose a short, high intensity workout. Tabata training only takes about four minutes but it’s still killer.
47. Learn to push through your own discomfort.
The techniques above are band aids, but in the long term, you must adjust your mindset. Morita Therapy teaches you to act despite the negative feelings you are experiencing rather than fighting the feelings themselves. I have written about motivation before, so if you want to learn about Morita Therapy and other tricks to help you take action, check it out.
You can also try using the Gym-Pact app, which allows you to earn money when you check in to the gym and lose money when you miss scheduled workouts. Strong incentive, obviously.
Maximize Your Workout Results
Not all workouts are created equal.
And while getting in any amount of physical activity is better than nothing, there is no reason not to get the most out of the exercises you are doing.
The techniques in this section are designed not to get you moving, but to make whatever you are doing more effective. Keep in mind that a number of these are fairly technical, so get ready to nerd out.
48. Have an exercise journal.
Within a month of me starting mine, all my major lifts improved drastically. It will keep you motivated, allow you to see your progress (see #55), help you identify sticking points, find out what things work best for you, and keep you focused on your goals. I used a written journal (if you prefer a pre-made one, you can buy BodyMinder and keep track of three months of workouts at a time), but there are also online tools that may make your life easier:
- Many of the food journaling tools from #36 also keep track of exercise.
- Fitocracy turns fitness tracking into a game where you compete with others and can “level up”. The social networking aspect of this service is what sets it apart.
- FitNovo ($32.85/year) helps you plan for specific goals such as losing 20 pounds or running a marathon. You would use it to keep track of both fitness and nutrition.
- If running is your thing, the RunKeeper app uses the GPS in your phone to keep track of your distance, speed, etc. And you can control your music from within the app itself.
- Ease into 5K ($2.99) is a training program that takes you from beginner to running five kilometers in eight weeks.
- BodyDaemon is a free and easy to use fitness journal where you can record every aspect of your workout and body measurements. There is also an active community and you can create nifty graphs with it.
- Strength and Body is a free fitness journal/blog network. It has a very easy workout entry tool and lets you search your workouts by their specific type, which makes keeping track of progress easier. It allows a huge amount of customization and is personalized.
- MyFitnessJournal is a free tool for keeping track of fitness and nutrition. Ease of use is a huge plus with this one.
- Fitness Journal (prices range from $3.95/month to $89.95/three years), a comprehensive fitness and nutrition tracker, is probably the most feature rich tool on this list.
49. Make sure you exercise with proper form.
Perhaps you are groaning about how obvious this one is, but most people fail to perform their exercises correctly. If you don’t use correct form, you are more likely to get injured, less likely to get stronger, and guaranteed to look like an idiot. For any exercise that you plan on performing, make sure you know how it’s done first. Here is a very comprehensive database of exercises with descriptions and videos of them being done right.
50. You should primarily be doing compound exercises in your workouts.
These are exercises that utilize more than one muscle group. Compound exercises are functional; they train your nervous system as a whole in addition to just the individual muscles. The “big three” for weightlifters should be squats, bench press, and deadlifts. If you are very careful about form, try doing olympic lifts like the clean and press. If you prefer bodyweight exercises, focus on things like push ups, pull ups, body squats, dips, and burpees. And if you are up to the challenge, Beast Skills has tutorials on intense acrobatic exercises. What I’ve listed here is a starting point; there are many more compound exercises you can do.
51. Unless you are a bodybuilder, avoid isolation exercises.
This is the converse of the previous point, but it deserves its own spot. Amateurs will spend countless hours doing bicep curls and wonder why they aren’t getting ripped. Isolation exercises help to sculpt specific parts of your body. They are useful for aesthetics and rehabilitation purposes only, so unless you are a physique athlete or doing physical therapy, you are probably wasting your time. In the worst case scenario, isolation exercises can actually increase your chance of injury. Dr. Kareem Samhouri can explain this better than I can, so check out his 7 worst exercises to avoid.
52. Give yourself time to recover from workouts.
Some people actually over-train by not giving their body enough time to recuperate from their workouts. Don’t do this; you’ll waste a lot of time at the gym and are more likely to get injured. Recovery involves both leaving enough time between working out the same muscle group as well as taking the occasional week off to let your body “reset” itself.
Short term recovery strategies involve proper nutrition (see #54), hydration, and getting quality sleep. Don’t exercise a muscle that is sore, and don’t do heavy compound lifting more than two days in a row without taking a day off. Long term recovery involves giving your body a week off every once in a while, usually every four to eight weeks.
If you doubt the power of sufficient recovery, check out this case study of how Tim Ferris gained 34 pounds of muscle in only 8 short workouts.
53. Warm up before and cool down after your workout.
Most people shrug this off and consider it a waste of precious workout time, but it is very important for reducing your risk of injury as well as improving your performance. Let’s start with the warm up.
Your warm up is designed to prepare you for the workout ahead. Therefore, the way you warm up will vary depending on what you plan to do in your workout. Start with five minutes of light cardio to get your blood flowing and to elevate your muscle temperature. Then you will be doing 5-10 minutes of dynamic stretches, or moving stretches, that take your body through full ranges of motion. Sadly, I could not find a single database with a large list of dynamic stretches (if you know of one, do tell), but here are a few resources to help you find appropriate stretches for your workout:
- Bodybuilding.com has a guide for a number of the common dynamic stretches.
- Although there are no pictures or videos in this article, you can find descriptions of a few more unique dynamic stretches. If you think one of them will be useful to you, look it up on youtube.
- This post has pictures and descriptions of how to do some of the more common dynamic stretches.
When you’ve completed your workout, leave a couple extra minutes for a cool down, which will decrease muscle soreness. If your workout was cardio, do the same cardio at a lower intensity for five minutes, and then do some leg stretches. Otherwise, you’ll want to immediately start doing static stretches (the typical gym class stretch-and-hold kind) for the body parts that you worked out. To find the right stretches, you can use:
- This list of static stretches from bodybuilding.com, which currently has 95 stretches.
- For a high quality, pre-designed, full body stretching routine, check out this beginner’s stretching guide at Nerd Fitness.
54. Learn the basics of workout nutrition.
There is a lot of controversy in this field, and the science behind the “ideal” pre, during, and post-workout meals is far from conclusive. A workout uses a lot of energy, so you need the right fuel. Exercise depletes the glycogen stores in your muscles and liver, and then you get exhausted. The primary goals of your workout nutrition are to keep your energy level up during your workout, replenish your glycogen stores as quickly as possible after the workout, and to stimulate protein synthesis. So…how do you do that?
First, we’ll take a look at pre-workout nutrition. Since it takes about four hours for carbohydrates to begin being stored as muscle and liver glycogen, a carbohydrate-rich meal four to six hours before a workout will help ensure that your glycogen stores are topped off. Shortly before your workout, you should consume a light protein and carbohydrate supplement to maximize protein synthesis. This pre-workout protein has been shown to be even more effective than post-workout protein, but both help.
During long bouts of intense exercise (more than one hour), you should consume a drink containing both carbohydrates and electrolytes, such as Gatorade. Most exercise sessions probably aren’t long enough to warrant this, so staying hydrated is the main priority while you work out. You should be consuming fluids regularly throughout your workout. Don’t wait until you are thirsty.
After your workout, your first priority is to consume some protein, possibly with some fast acting carbs. The protein is what you really need in order to stimulate muscle protein synthesis, but the carbs will drastically improve the rate at which your glycogen levels are restored. Remember earlier when I said sport nutrition is a controversial subject? Some people suggest that you occasionally fast after your workout, because this stimulates the release of human growth hormone. Feel free to give that a shot too.
The protein source you use matters. Essential amino acids, and particularly branched chain amino acids (BCAAs), are the primary regulators of muscle protein synthesis. Both whey protein and BCAA powders are effective supplements for your protein needs. Carbohydrate powders such as maltodextrin can be mixed with the above proteins to make your pre and post workout supplements. You can also use milk, juice, or fruit as your carbohydrate source. Here are some recipes to help you make your own supplemental shakes.
Finally, if you are uncomfortable taking supplements, chocolate milk is a great substitute that contains a good mix of proteins and carbs.
55. Incorporate progressive overload in your workout regimen.
The human body has the amazing ability to adapt to whatever stresses it goes through. If you put your body through a challenging workout, your body will adapt, and the workout becomes easier the next time. Your fitness has improved. But at a certain point, the same workout will no longer put any significant stress on the body. If you keep repeating it, your workouts will no longer improve your fitness.
Progressive overload means that you gradually increase the amount of stress you put on your body. By continually increasing the stress, you force your body to continue adapting (stronger lifts, more muscle, increased endurance, etc.). Every time you work out, aim to somehow increase the stress you put on your body.
There are many ways to do this. Lift more weight, do more sets, add some repetitions, increase the number of exercises you perform for a given muscle group, or decrease the amount of rest time between sets. If you are running, you can increase the distance or your speed. The best way to increase the stress of your workout will vary depending on your goal, but you should always be improving no matter what. Oh, and make sure you are still using proper form (#49).
56. Get creative and vary your exercise parameters.
Your body adapts very quickly to the stresses you put on it, which is why you use progressive overload. The goal of progressive overload is to increase the intensity of your workout, and you may vary certain exercise parameters to do so. But you also want to add variety to your workouts for its own sake. You see, after a few weeks, your body adjusts to doing the same type of workout, even if you incorporate progressive overload. Damn, the human body is impressive.
How do you continue to progress even after your body has adjusted to your workout? Change it up! Every four to eight weeks, you should completely revamp your workout. A lifetime of optimal training will require dozens of different styles of workouts. Of course, you don’t have to change that frequently to see results, it’s just optimal. Most people have a hard time coming up with enough creative ways to change up their workouts, so here are a few ideas that might help:
- Here is a list of common exercise parameters you can vary. You can change anything on that list, but here is a simple example. You’ve been working out four specific lifts during the previous month, aiming for three sets of ten reps each. Next month, you can use the same exercises, but do five sets of five reps instead.
- Try “negative” reps. Normally you focus on the concentric part of an exercise, which is when the muscle shortens to overcome resistance. Negative reps use the eccentric portion of the movement. If you are doing a bench press, the concentric part is when you push the bar up, and the eccentric is when the bar comes down. When you do negative reps, you focus on making that descending portion of the exercise take longer.
- Try “isometric” exercises. These exercises are done in static positions. For example, you can hold the top position of a bench press for a certain period of time and count that as one rep.
- Try doing “complexes”, where you perform one rep of several different exercises right after each other and count that as a set, then repeat. Here are some examples of how to do complexes.
- Feel free to completely change your workout. Switch from bodyweight circuit training to power lifting to hill sprints to whatever you want.
Miscellaneous Physical Activity Habits
Here are some things you can do that I couldn’t quite fit into the other categories.
57. Take 30 minute walks.
Do it for the sake of taking a walk, and not just to squeeze a little bit of exercise into your daily activities. Even though you might feel as though taking a walk is a waste of time before you do it, everyone loves to take walks. Walking is a calming, pleasant activity that anyone can do and doesn’t require any equipment.
But regular walking is also incredibly good for you. A prospective study found that two or three walking sessions (on a golf course) per week resulted in improved physical performance, improved body composition, and increased HDL cholesterol (Source). Regular walking also helps control hypertension and slows the process of osteoporosis (Source). This is one of the simplest habits you can adopt to improve your health.
58. Go hiking more often.
All the benefits that walking provides, hiking will give you more. Really, hiking is just walking but out in nature, usually on more varied terrain and for a longer period of time. Don’t know where to go hiking? Chances are there are plenty of trails near you. Use these tools to find them:
- Trail Link helps you find trails that are located along railway lines. Kind of random, but whatever.
- Localhikes.com has a list of trails near U.S. metropolitan areas.
If you are new to this (or even if you have some experience), you should check out this beginners guide to hiking. Pay special attention to the points about preparation and safety. Hiking can be dangerous if you don’t take the proper precautions, so you must take it seriously.
59. Go barefoot.
The barefoot running movement is still small, but it is gaining traction. Traction, get it? Anyways, the point behind barefoot shoes is that they more closely mimic the way humans evolved to walk than real shoes (Source). Therefore, people who wear barefoot shoes should be less likely to get injured, though the evidence is not entirely conclusive (Source1, Source2). Having never used them myself, I can’t say too much about them. Here are two very informative posts about barefoot running from people who actually know what they are talking about:
- This is Tim Ferris’s experience with barefoot shoes, plus some of the evolutionary theory behind them.
- Here is a good introduction to barefoot running, including who should or shouldn’t practice and how to get started.
60. Wear a weighted vest.
The idea here is that they add to your body weight and thus increase the amount of work your body must do to move around but still maintain proper bodily balance to avoid injury. Anything you do, be it resistance training, cardio, or just walking around, will challenge your body more and improve your fitness. On the other hand, if worn improperly, weighted vests can increase the chance of joint pain or shoulder injury.
Wearing a weighted vest or weighted clothing in general is controversial and certainly not for everyone. Before deciding to purchase one, do some research and find out if it is right for you. To start you off, here is the Wikipedia article on weighted clothing.
61. Improve your posture.
It doesn’t matter if you are doing this for the health reasons or just to look more confident and attractive; either way, you should be paying attention to your posture. Poor posture can lead to many health complications including neck and back pain, slipped discs, and bad circulation.
Try to keep your ears, shoulders, and hips in alignment with each other when sitting, and include your knees and ankles while standing. Having strong abdominal and lower back muscles improves posture, so consider adding exercises that focus on those areas to your workouts. For more detailed instructions on improving your posture:
- An easy to understand infographic that covers good posture in any position from Greatist.
- Art of Manliness has a good introduction to maintaining posture, including a neat exercise at the end.
- If you work in an office, you should set up your workstation ergonomically.
Most normal people should focus on using non-technological ways to improve their posture. That being said, if you want a little extra help, you can spring for one of these apps:
- Upright ($2.99) lets you know when you are slouching. Just calibrate it and then put your phone in a shirt pocket or tie it around your neck. I know, slightly inconvenient.
- If you are willing to spend a little bit more, LUMOback ($149) includes a sensor that you wear around your waist that will also alert you when you fall into poor posture.
62. Start doing yoga.
I thought I would hate it, but I was hooked from my very first class. Yoga is great for you. In fact, it may be as effective or better than exercise at improving almost every health related measure except for fitness (Source). To find yoga classes near you, check out:
You should take a class with an actual instructor before you start doing too much yoga yourself. But once you have some of the basics down, your smart phone can help you out.
- Here are 12 yoga apps you can download, covering various aspects of yoga.
- All-in Yoga ($.99) is one that I found useful when I started doing more yoga on my own.
Lifestyle Habits And Behaviors
Your health depends on so many things besides diet and physical activity. The two most prominent, sleep and stress management, are addressed here, along with other miscellaneous factors that impact your health.
Improve Your Sleep Habits
Getting a good night’s sleep is an often neglected aspect of your health. Sleep tends to be the first thing that is sacrificed in a busy person’s life, but this is a huge mistake.
In this section, you will learn some of the most effective tips that can help you get quality sleep.
63. Wake up at the same time every day.
Doing this one thing alone will practically ensure you regularly get a good night’s sleep. Unfortunately, it’s not a very easy thing to do, at least for most people. You must do this every day, including weekends. Using this method, it doesn’t matter when you go to sleep. This system is self-regulating, because if you got very little sleep one day, you’ll be tired and go to bed earlier the next day. It can take about ten days to two weeks to get completely used to it. If you want to go all out with this, you can also determine what is your perfect bed time given a time you plan to wake up.
64. Go to bed at the same time every night.
I don’t think this is as practical as waking up at the same time each day, but if it works for you, go for it. When you condition yourself to have a certain “bed time”, you will naturally feel more tired as that time approaches. The advantage of this method is that your will power tends to be a little better at night than the moment after you wake up, so it’s easier to commit to a bed time than a wake time.
65. Consider your sleep cycles.
Instead of thinking of the amount of sleep you get in terms of hours, consider it in terms of 90-minute sleep cycles. To get all the benefits of sleep, you must complete full cycles. If you have a given time that you want to wake up, you can determine the ideal time to get to sleep by counting back in 90-minute increments. Everyone has different sleep needs, but this means you will probably want to go to sleep 6, 7.5, or 9 hours before you need to wake up.
In addition, waking up in deep sleep will leave you incredibly groggy. It’s much better to wake up during a lighter phase of sleep, which will leave you feeling more alert. There are apps that can help you with this, of course.
- Sleep Cycle ($.99) is one that I used with great success for about a year. Leave your phone on the corner of your bed. Based on the amount of movement it detects, it can determine what phase of sleep you are in and wake you up in light sleep. Side benefit: I found that I often had an extra half hour in my morning to do whatever I wanted!
- Sleep Time (Android) is a free app that works the same way as Sleep Cycle, though I have not tried it. There is also an iOS version.
66. Stop eating heavy meals before bed.
Forcing your body to digest a big meal makes it harder to relax, and therefore harder to sleep. You should avoid eating a significant meal for at least two hours before bed. But if you are hungry at night, you don’t need to deny yourself a snack. That being said, some foods are better for your sleep than others. Avoid greasy, spicy, and sugary foods, as well as anything that tends to promote indigestion for you. The best foods are ones that contain tryptophan, such as nuts and dairy. Magnesium also has a calming effect, so you can have small portions of foods that contain it. The key point though is to not eat a lot right before bed.
67. Stop doing anything in your bed except for sleep and sex.
This tip also relies on the power of conditioning. You want your body to know that when your head hits the pillow, it’s time to either nod off or get it on.
68. Create a better sleep environment.
The National Sleep Foundation has a good introduction to creating the right sleep environment. To summarize, you should block out unwanted noise, keep the room slightly cool, make sure your room is dark enough, and have a comfortable bed. I’m sure you can do a lot to improve in this area, and I will provide a whole bunch of resources here to help you with this.
- White Noise is an app that can help block out unwanted noises using its own ambient loops.
- Simplynoise.com will provide white noise off of your computer.
The ideal sleep temperature for most people is between 60-68 degrees Fahrenheit, but people do differ. Figure out what works best for you. My old roommate always had a light fan aimed at his head, and that worked for him.
- Use a sleeping mask or blackout curtains.
- Make sure the LED lights from whatever electronic devices you have running are nowhere near you. Keep them out of the bedroom if possible. There are products that can block out these lights.
69. Be sensible about your caffeine intake.
Everyone responds to caffeine differently, but you should probably avoid consuming caffeine after dinner. You should also generally moderate your caffeine intake, because it can stay in your system and affect your sleep even if you don’t realize it. I’ve written a very thorough guide on how to quit caffeine if this is a problem for you.
70. Avoid bright lights before bed.
Your body uses light as a cue for regulating your sleep cycle. Light prevents your body from secreting melatonin, the hormone that makes you tired. I know it’s hard, but you should try to stop using your phone, tablet, Kindle, and laptop for two hours before you plan on going to sleep.
If you are like me and can’t stand to put away your computer, there is a free program you can download that adjusts the color of your computer’s display based on the time of day in order to make it more sleep friendly. It’s cool to see it in use, and it definitely helps. You can get it here.
71. Before bed, prepare for the next day.
A lot of people, myself included, have difficulty falling asleep because their mind is racing with thoughts of what they need to do in the future while they are laying in bed. To avoid this, set aside a few minutes before you get in bed where you write out a to-do list for the next day. Not only will this slow your mind down, but it will help keep you organized and be more productive in general.
72. Use progressive muscle relaxation.
This is a stress management technique, but it is very effective for promoting sleep and doesn’t require the use of drugs (Source). Here’s how you do it (more detailed instructions here). First, while laying in bed, try to relax your entire body. Next, go through each specific muscle group one at a time and make it as tense as possible, relaxing it before moving on to the next one. Start with your forehead and move all the way down to your toes. When you are finished, check your body and see what parts are still tense. For each of these muscles, repeat the tension and release three or four times.
73. Take naps strategically instead of arbitrarily.
Most people don’t realize it, but napping is pretty complicated. Taking a 90 minute nap has completely different effects than a 20-minute power nap. Luckily, I’ve already written a detailed guide on how to take strategic naps in order to get the benefit you seek.
Manage Your Stress
Stress is not just a psychological concept, but also a physiological one. Stress isn’t all bad; it helps motivate you in threatening situations. That being said, the fast pace of modern society has led to persistent or chronic stress, which has some serious physical side effects.
Stress releases the hormone cortisol (as well as other hormones), prompting the fight-or-flight response. Elevated cortisol has been linked to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, reduced immune function, and cognitive impairment (Source). Another study pointed out that cortisol increases risk of osteoporosis, intestinal problems such as ulcers, and could potentially have negative effects on almost every regulatory system in the body (Source). If all of this is making you want to rip your hair out, keep in mind that stress also slows the speed of wound healing (Source).
I hope you are convinced that managing your stress is integral if you want to have good health. Plus, it’s probably worth noting that all of these stress reducing techniques will make you a lot happier.
74. Identify your triggers or sources of stress.
Many of these are probably obvious to you and don’t require any serious analysis, but some can be harder to find. Knowing what stresses you out is an important step in permanently reducing the stress in your life.
Write down the top ten things that you believe are adding stress to your life right now. Carry a notebook around with you for the next week, and every time you feel yourself getting more stressed out, make a note of the time and what situation prompted it. Also note how you responded to it and if anything you did made you feel better. Once you have a list of your primary stressors, you can more readily change your response to them.
Stress Check is an app that can measure your stress level in real time by calculating your heart rate variability. This can be a serious aid in figuring out what your stressors are, though it is not necessary.
75. Get organized and set priorities and deadlines.
This post isn’t specifically about productivity, but having some organization in your life can go a long way towards reducing your stress. Obviously this is a big topic, and I’m no expert. There are a lot of organizational systems out there, such as Getting Things Done, that you may want to check out. In the meantime, Zen Habits has a useful post with basic tips for getting organized.
There are also a million and one technological tools that can help you get organized:
- Evernote is pretty much a miracle, and lets you capture, store, and search for any type of information you can imagine. If there is one tool you should learn to use, this is it.
- Todoist is a minimalist, easy to use way of creating to do lists.
- Like I said, there are tons of resources, and I’m not familiar with most of them. But chances are you will be able to find something useful for whatever you need on this list of 100 tools for getting organized.
76. Reduce the clutter in your life.
All the extra “stuff” that you have adds stress to your life, but it’s hard to really understand this until you’ve gotten rid of a lot of your extra baggage. Everything you own is another thing to keep track of and to worry about losing or breaking. Detach yourself from unnecessary material items. Here is a good introduction to how you can reduce clutter. Last summer I went through my room and got rid of nearly half of my things (and that’s just the beginning), and you have no idea how much better it made me feel. Most of the stuff that you think you need is completely unnecessary.
77. Follow the Two-Minute Rule.
This is a technique made popular from the Getting Things Done system. Any time there is a task that you come across that you can complete in two minutes or less, do it immediately. Otherwise it just stays on your mind and adds unnecessary stress. You might as well just get it over with now.
78. Take a break whenever you feel stressed.
In those moments where it all just seems like too much, it’s best to step away for a moment. Do anything but whatever it was that was stressing you out until you feel a little bit better. In my opinion, the best thing to do is a simple breathing exercise. Close your eyes, try to relax, and take ten deep breaths. For each breath, count to four as you inhale, hold it for a four count, and exhale for another four. This works wonders almost immediately.
79. Learn to say “no” to requests.
People are constantly asking things of you, and it’s tempting to always say yes. After all, you don’t want to disappoint them, right? Unfortunately, there are only 24 hours in a day, and you simply can’t do everything. Respect yourself and your own time. Recognize your own values and priorities. When you say no, you want to be polite but firm. You can’t be wishy-washy with a “maybe, but…” or anything like that. Then try to come up with an alternative solution for the other person’s request that doesn’t violate your own needs.
80. Avoid people who stress you out.
Sometimes this is difficult or impossible, but usually there is something you can do to avoid the people who cause you the most stress. Once you’ve identified your stressors (#74), you should have a good idea who these people are. Keep your distaste for these people to yourself unless you absolutely have to tell them in order to get rid of them. Usually there are better ways than confrontation.
81. Spend more time in nature.
The great outdoors is a wonderful resource for de-stressing. I’ll bet you intuitively recognize that being out in nature tends to have a calming effect, but there is also research to back it up. A prospective study found that spending time in a forest reduced hostility and depression, while increasing feelings of liveliness, particularly in more stressed out individuals (Source). There is also evidence that any engagement with nature, from seeing it on TV to actively participating in nature (gardening, etc.) makes us feel better (Source).
82. Play with your pet.
Enjoying the company of animals is a great way to take your mind off of something that stresses you out. This is going to be more effective if you are an actual pet owner, but most people (people who like animals, at least) feel better in the presence of furry little critters. Although actual research is preliminary, there is some evidence that exposure to companion animals decreases the physiological response to stress (Source1, Source2, Source3).
83. Give yourself a hand massage.
Massage in general is a phenomenal way to reduce stress, although getting an actual massage can be fairly expensive and requires an appointment. Luckily, you can reduce your stress at any time for free by giving yourself a hand massage. A five minute hand massage can reduce perceptions of stress immediately (Source), and regular hand massage may reduce stress and even decrease the chance of a mid-life crisis (Source). So, how do you give yourself a massage?
- Here is a very basic guide on how to give yourself a hand massage (with pictures).
- You can also learn more about self-massage in general, not just for your hands.
Moderation And Balancing Your Lifestyle
There are a lot of things you can incorporate into your lifestyle that will help make it more balanced and healthy.
84. Quit smoking.
This is probably the most obvious item on this entire list, and it’s probably also the most challenging. I’ve never had to go through this process so I can’t give any personal advice, but there are so many people out there who have quit and want to help. Here are a few things to get you started:
- Before quitting, it can be helpful to know what you are up against.
- Create a personal stop smoking plan.
- Another step-by-step method for quitting.
- There are many organizations dedicated to helping people quit smoking. Here is a list. Better yet, make it two lists.
- Smoking costs a lot of moolah, and it can be motivating to know how much money you are saving as you cut back. You can use this calculator to determine the financial cost of smoking.
- NCI QuitPal is an app that has numerous features that help you change your behavior and quit smoking.
- QuitSTART is an app that seems focused on how to manage and deal with cravings.
- MyQuitCOACH can be used to design and implement your personalized quitting plan, as well as monitor your progress along the way.
85. Drink in moderation.
Moderate drinking is defined as no more than one drink per day for women and two drinks for men. Excessive alcohol consumption is one of the absolute worst things you can do to your body. But moderate drinking has been shown to be cardioprotective and decrease all-cause mortality (Source1, Source2, Source3). Feel free to drink a little bit if it’s something you enjoy.
If you are a heavy drinker, you need to cut back. Many alcoholics have acquired a physical dependence. If you are one of them, you should quit under medical supervision. Here is some more information that might help:
- Create a plan to quit drinking.
- Another plan for quitting drinking.
- List of resources for recovering alcoholics and their families
- Find treatment centers and other resources
86. Minimize the use of pharmaceuticals.
In 2009, drug overdose became the leading cause of accidental death (and the sixth most prevalent overall) in the US, with 38,329 deaths reported (Source). The majority of these deaths involved prescription drugs. Remember: just because something is legal or even prescribed does not mean it is safe! And it’s not just abuse of prescription painkillers; all pharmaceuticals have risks, many of which a lot of people are unaware of. Make sure any time you take a drug, you know exactly what you are getting yourself into.
There are three specific classes of drug which are potentially dangerous and so common they deserve special mention: NSAIDs, acetaminophen/paracetamol, and antibiotics. NSAIDs such as aspirin and ibuprofen are often used daily by people without even thinking about it, despite the clear evidence that their use can cause stomach problems such as ulcers, and increase the risk of cardiovascular disease (Source1, Source2). Acetaminophen, the active ingredient in Tylenol, is the most common cause of acute liver toxicity, which is often fatal (Source1, Source2). Acetaminophen can be found in many OTC drugs and is potentiated by alcohol, so you may not even realize how close to toxicity you come. It’s just flat out bad for your liver. Antibiotics are certainly necessary in many cases, but are highly over-prescribed, leading to drug-resistant bacteria. Plus, there is evidence that a single administration of antibiotics leads to long-term or even permanent damage to the healthy bacteria in your gut (Source).
The moral of the story is this: don’t take pharmaceutical use lightly. If at all possible, avoid the use of painkillers and other non-essential medications. When you do use pharmaceuticals, read the labels and take them as prescribed.
87. Decrease exposure to toxic chemicals in your environment.
There are all sorts of chemicals in the products that you use that can be harmful to your health. It would be impossible to completely eliminate exposure, but you do yourself a favor by reducing it. These chemicals come in all shapes and sizes and we don’t fully understand the effect they have on our health. There are entirely too many chemicals and unknowns for this section to be truly comprehensive, so I will focus on the general category of “xenoestrogens”, substances that mimic estrogen in your body.
- Here is a list of xenoestrogens and their sources, and a few simple steps for avoiding them. The steps may be simple, but they aren’t easy.
- Here is an FDA report on BPA, one of the most common xenoestrogens that is found in plastic bottles and other sources. Here is a short guide on how to avoid BPA.
- The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics has an FAQ on what to buy, resources for finding out what is in your cosmetics, and a list of approved companies to buy from.
- A guide to avoiding chemicals in your sunscreen.
88. Spend more time in the sun for vitamin D.
Most people think of vitamin D as “the other thing that is good for my bones”. Did you know that in addition to protecting against multiple bone disorders, vitamin D helps prevent muscle weakness, more than a dozen types of internal cancers, multiple sclerosis, type 1 diabetes, and many other diseases (Source)? If you didn’t, you might be alarmed that in the US, 36% of young adults and 57% of general medical inpatients are deficient. The numbers are even higher in Europe (Source).
While you can get vitamin D from food sources and supplementation, the best way is to let your body produce it naturally through exposure to sunlight (without sunscreen). There are many factors that make this complicated, such as latitude, skin pigmentation, and the season, so there is no simple recommendation for how much sun exposure is optimal. Here is a decent rule of thumb: get daily sun exposure of 10-30 minutes on a large portion of your body during the middle of the day. For more information on vitamin D:
- A very informative scientific literature review of vitamin D and its health implications.
- Information on what vitamin D does in your body and the best food sources.
- Some guidelines for ideal amount of sun exposure while avoiding risks of skin cancer.
89. Exercise your mind.
A balanced lifestyle requires an attitude of lifelong learning. The world changes rapidly, and you should constantly be learning new things to adapt. Plus, being more knowledgeable can make you a more interesting person and better conversationalist (although it doesn’t make up for poor social skills). Learning can expand your world by improving your skills and opening your mind to more than one side of an issue. The brain appears to follow the “use it or lose it” principle, because of the phenomena of brain plasticity. Essentially, your brain creates new connections and becomes more efficient as you use it. And while preliminary, there is some evidence that a more cognitively active lifestyle can reduce the risk of dementia (Source). Here are some ideas to get you started on exercising your brain:
- Learn more about brain plasticity and how to take advantage of it.
- Take up new hobbies or skills. I suggest learning a new language. While not entirely comprehensive, you can find some ideas for new hobbies here.
- Lumosity.com has all sorts of brain training games.
- More info on brain training
90. Watch less TV.
I’m well aware that there are many great shows out there, and it’s ok to watch some of them. But excessive TV watching has a number of negative effects. Every hour you spend in front of the tube increases your risk of dying from all causes by 11% (Source). Watching less TV means less exposure to ads and to a lot of negativity in the news. TV disrupts your social life by taking you away from the real people around you. Finally, heavy TV viewers report less life satisfaction, higher material aspirations, and more anxiety (Source).
It can be very challenging to cut back on TV, but here are two suggestions that might help. First, you can decide to allow yourself one hour of TV watching for each hour you spend active during the day. That way you must incorporate physical activity into your life in order to watch. Second, you can follow a “no TV while eating” rule. Eating is possibly the most common time that people watch TV, and you can drastically cut back by not allowing this. Plus it makes you a more mindful eater.
91. Have a morning routine.
The morning routine has many benefits to your lifestyle, and I highly suggest you implement this along with waking up at the same time every day (#63). Use this time to exercise or accomplish whatever productive things you need to do that day. I’ve already written a complete guide to morning routines, where you can learn everything you need to know about making this time as effective as possible.
92. Brush your teeth twice a day and floss at least once.
It took me a while to start flossing, but since I started I’ve never looked back. My teeth just feel so much…cleaner! Bad breath is terrible for your social life, and this simple habit will do a lot to keep halitosis at bay. Good oral hygiene may also benefit your heart. Periodontitis, or inflammation of the gums, affects 30-50% of the adult population in the US, and is considered a significant risk factor in cardiovascular disease (Source). People who rarely brush their teeth have a significantly higher chance of having a cardiovascular event (Source). Worst of all, poor oral health is associated with an increased risk of both cardiovascular and all-cause mortality (Source1, Source2).
Besides the connection between oral health and general health, having gum problems just sucks. You certainly don’t want that, whether or not it influences your heart. Visit your dentist regularly, brush and floss, don’t consume so much sugar, blah blah blah. Want a little more detail?
93. Practice good hygiene.
This should go without saying, but you should not be a festering cesspool of gross. Good hygiene keeps you smelling like a socially respectable person, helps prevent the spread of infections, improves food safety, and just makes life more generally clean and pleasant. Shower every day (fine, you can skip a day here and there), wash your hands after going to the bathroom or before handling food, keep your living space relatively clean, etc.
Happiness And Mental Health Habits And Behaviors
Being happy is of course a worthwhile endeavor in and of itself. But why should it be included in a post about becoming more healthy?
There is a large body of research connecting positive feelings and happiness to better health. One way happiness improves health is by it’s relationship to psychosocial factors such as better relationships, more emotional/practical support, and adaptive coping mechanisms (Source). But it’s not just these factors.
Higher well-being, independent of health related behaviors, is associated with a decreased risk of coronary heart disease (Source). In addition, subjective well-being significantly predicted a lower risk of all-cause and natural-cause mortality (Source).
How is this possible? Greater happiness is associated with decreased bodily response to stress, including lower cortisol and ambulatory heart rate (Source1, Source2). Happiness has also been associated with better immune response, better cardiovascular function, and improved sleep (Source). And these results are independent of negative feelings; it’s not just a matter of avoiding depression and anxiety, because good feelings exert their own protective effect.
Clearly, becoming happier is in the best interest of anyone who wants to live a healthier life.
Personal Habits And Behaviors For Happiness
The techniques in this section are all things that focus on you. Applying what you learn in this section will help you both get more out of life and appreciate what you already have.
94. Practice gratitude.
Practicing gratitude is without a doubt the best and most simple way to become a happier person. You have a ton to be grateful for, whether you realize it or not. You are reading this right now, which means that you both have a computer and can read. That puts you ahead of a lot of people. And I’m sure if you think about it for a moment or two, you can come up with dozens more reasons why you should be grateful. Gratitude has been clearly linked with higher subjective well-being, and there is significant evidence that the relationship is causative (Source1, Source2). In other words, practicing gratitude will make you happier (whether you are already happy or not), and not the other way around.
What are the best ways to cultivate gratitude? The most well researched and supported method is by keeping a gratitude journal, or writing a daily list of things you are grateful for. This is a pleasant, self-sustaining activity that has been proven to increase happiness considerably. For a more short term boost in mood, a general contemplation of gratitude is effective, but habitual practice is necessary for long term benefit. Another good strategy is to express gratitude to somebody else. For example, you can write a thank you letter to someone who has done something nice for you.
Need more help with this? Gotcha covered:
- Sonja Lyubomirsky, a leading researcher on the science of happiness, shares more details on how to put these gratitude techniques into practice.
- Grateful160 is a tool that I have used and found very effective. I have it email me once a day, and I reply with some thoughts on what I am grateful for at that moment. At the end of the week it sends me the previous week’s entries to look back at, which is very nice! You can have it send you reminders up to four times per day as either an email or text message.
- There are also apps that can help you keep a gratitude journal. Gratitude Journal ($.99) and Gratitude Rock ($.99) are two examples of fairly simple ones. Thankful For is a free one.
- Gratitude Stream is different in that it not only allows you to log your grateful thoughts, it also shows you a stream of grateful thoughts from around the globe.
- Live Happy is an app designed by Sonja Lyubomirksy that allows you to log happiness, contact people with thank you messages, and do a bunch of other happiness-promoting activities.
95. Follow your passion and do things you love.
In other words, you need to create meaning in your life. People who believe that their life has a meaning or purpose report higher life satisfaction and psychological well-being (Source1, Source2). Not just any random meaning will do, however. Your life purpose must be consistent with who you are as an individual, or else it won’t do much to benefit your happiness (Source). Discovering the meaning in your life is no trivial task, but it is well worth the effort. Here are some resources to help you:
- I suggest you start with this philosophical discussion of happiness and life meaning.
- Finding your own personal meaning starts with a thorough understanding of yourself and your values. Learn how to find your values and then use them to write your own personal mission statement.
- Steve Pavlina suggests you do a particular exercise to find your life purpose in about 20 minutes. Realistically, it will take longer than that, but it is still a very useful exercise.
96. Set goals and actively work towards achieving them.
This is a natural extension of finding meaning in your life. The goals that you should be working towards must be in alignment with your values and purpose. Whatever your goals are (so long as they are consistent), I encourage you to pursue them wholeheartedly. That being said, only certain types of goals actually improve long-term happiness. Extrinsic goals such as attaining wealth, status, attractiveness, or fame don’t make you happier; in fact, they might even make you less happy. On the other hand, intrinsic goals such as intimacy, personal growth, better health, and contributing to the community do lead to long term gains in happiness (Source). In addition, the goals must be your own, rather than something you feel pressured into (Source).
Given that background, what are good ways to set and achieve goals?
- When setting goals, consider the SMART acronym: specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound. Learn more about SMART goals and how to use those criteria on its Wikipedia page.
- After you’ve set your goals, you need a good framework for how to work towards them. I’ve written a lengthy post that covers the absolute best way to achieve your goals.
96. Appreciate the beauty around you.
We are often so absorbed by the chatter going on in our minds that we fail to see or appreciate the beauty that exists all around us. To truly appreciate the beauty of something, you need to be able to focus your attention on that thing fully so as to actually process it effectively (Source). Some people are more naturally inclined to notice beauty around them (artistic types, for example), but the rest of us must consciously devote time to the appreciation of beauty.
The best way to do this is through the “noticing game“, an idea I’m borrowing from Lori at TinyBuddha. The object of the game is to notice your environment in as much detail as possible. You can do this by looking at the panorama or the whole of the scene around you, or you can hone in on one specific item and appreciate its beauty.
By the way, I highly recommend the move Cashback if you want to get an interesting perspective on beauty. Warning: there is nudity. It’s on Netflix if you want to see it.
97. Meditate for at least five minutes per day.
You are more than welcome to go above and beyond five minutes, but this can sometimes be tough for beginners. There are many different kinds of meditation, but the general idea is to get your mind to focus on one thing and one thing only for a period of time. When your mind wanders, gently bring it back to your focus. The easiest thing to focus on is your breath. Here are a couple of beginner’s guides to meditation:
- A guide from The Conscious Life
- A guide from Lifehacker, including some podcasts and tools to help meditate
- Here is a free online meditation timer where you set an amount of time and pick some soothing music that will play in the background for the duration of your meditation.
- Here is a list of apps that can help you with your meditation.
98. Use cognitive reframing to change your negative thoughts to positive ones.
When you experience an event of some kind, it does not have inherent meaning. Its meaning is a function of the way you perceive and think about the event. Let’s say I approach a pretty girl and try to start a conversation, but she ignores me and walks away. My first reaction might be along the lines of: “Oh no! She rejected me! Something must be wrong with me.” But an equally valid and much more positive interpretation might be: “Hmm…well I guess she is in a bad mood today. Oh well, her loss.”
Learning to recognize your negative thoughts and then quickly change them to more positive ones is a great skill to have for boosting your happiness. You can learn everything you need to know about cognitive reframing here.
99. Write about your negative emotions and experiences instead of holding them in.
While you may think that writing about negative experiences will make you feel worse, it is a much better method of coping than ruminating over them in your mind. In fact, writing about negative or traumatic experiences has been shown to have marked effects both on life satisfaction and various health markers (Source). This can be even more effective when you try to see the silver lining in the negative experience, but the very act of writing alone seems to make a difference.
100. Make your first thought of the day: “Great things will happen today.”
You should always start each day on a positive note. Interestingly enough, more optimistic people have lower cortisol secretion upon awakening (Source). I’m not recommending here that you be unrealistically optimistic; thinking that something great will happen on a given day is completely within reason. Having positive expectations about the future predicts higher success rates (Source). If you anticipate good things happening to you, they are more likely to happen.
Interpersonal Relationships And Happiness
Cultivating a thriving social life is one of the best things you can do for your happiness.
101. Spend time actively socializing with friends.
Everybody needs some amount of alone time, of course. But having a strong social network is critically important, and should not be neglected. Social capital, or the strength of family, friendships, and religious and community ties supports both well-being and physical health (Source). From a health standpoint, social relationships have been associated with lower mortality and greater chance of recovery from disease (Source).
I also read a very interesting paper that tried to measure the well-being derived from social relationships and translate it into a financial amount. It determined that an increase in the level of social interaction with friends and relatives is worth up to an extra 85,000 pounds per year. This effect is partly due to how little we actually value money for our happiness, but that’s a separate issue. Feel free to read the paper for more discussion of these results.
102. Allow yourself to express positive emotions through laughing and smiling.
This is a particularly big problem for many men out there who feel like they need to seem “tough” at all times. Suppressing positive expression requires a continuous effort to manage your response to your emotions. Plus it leads to a sense of incongruency between your inner experience and outer expression, which causes negative feelings (Source).
Being able to express positive emotions has both health and happiness related benefits. Laughter is an effective method for coping with distress. It leads to less anger and more enjoyment, feelings of dissociation from the distress, and better social relations (Source). Even forced laughter can lead to a temporary boost in happiness (Source). A genuine smile increases happiness and can also help your heart recover after a stressful event (Source).
There is one final study I want to mention before moving on. Researchers took baseball cards and determined the “smile intensity” of the players, and found that it was linked with longevity. This is obviously an imperfect study, but they were able to use a lot of public information available on these players and the fact that they all had the same occupation to control for many variables. Interesting!
103. Be a more giving person.
A lot of people think they don’t have the time or money to give to others, so they hoard what they have instead of sharing it. While this is a completely understandable viewpoint, it is also a huge mistake. This mindset stems from imagining scarcity rather than abundance. What if instead of looking at life as a zero-sum game, you recognized that giving away what you have can actually leave you with more than what you started with? Learn more about the abundance mentality.
There is scientific evidence to support this. Your subjective sense of “time affluence” can be increased by giving your time away (Source). And that is in comparison to wasting time, spending time on yourself, or even getting a windfall of free time! Similarly, spending money on other people resulted in greater happiness than spending it on oneself (Source). People don’t just say generosity makes them feel better because they are “supposed to”; giving to others activates the pleasure center in the brain (Source). This inclination towards altruism may be evolutionarily hardwired into us. Toddlers under the age of two experienced more happiness when sacrificing a treat and giving to someone else than either giving away a treat they found or eating the treat themselves (Source).
The moral of the story is that you should share what you have not just because it is the right thing to do, but because it is intrinsically rewarding. What you give doesn’t have to be money or time. You can also give other people compliments.
104. Have more sex.
I’ll bet you don’t need too much convincing that this will boost your happiness . In one study, the happiness-maximizing number of sexual partners to have had in the past year is one, and more sexual activity predicted more happiness (Source). This might suggest that married couples are happier than single individuals. There is evidence that this is the case, but it appears that happier people tend to get married more than unhappy people, so it is uncertain whether getting married would actually make you happier (Source). Sex is also an integral part of marriage; sexually inactive marriages tend to be less stable and less happy (Source). Some people speculate that casual sex in young adults can be psychologically damaging, but this is not the case (Source). To summarize my findings: be sexually active and you will probably be happier. Duh.
Let’s stray from the obvious for a moment. It turns out (safe) sex can also be very good for your health! Some benefits include reduced blood pressure, better immune function, and lower heart attack risk. Very nice!
105. Assume that other people are friendly and have positive intentions.
If you remember correctly from #103, being kind to others appears to be genetically hardwired into us humans. The natural inclination that people have is to be altruistic. Given that, doesn’t it seem like a perfectly rational thing to assume that other people have positive intentions? I think it’s obvious that trusting others and assuming that they are friendly will lead to an improved social life. There is also evidence that being more trusting is intrinsically valuable and may cause an increase in subjective well-being (Source).
Let’s forget about scientific arguments for a moment. Finding the positive qualities in other people is an important part of your personal development. As you get better at finding the positive aspects of other people, you become more proficient at finding the positive aspects of yourself. If you are interested in learning more, I’ve written a detailed post on how to see the good in other people.
106. Learn to forgive others and let go of grudges.
One of the hardest things you can do is learn to forgive others who have wronged you in some way. Think for a moment about what unforgiveness actually is. The refusal to forgive someone else is a self-imposed stressor. By not forgiving someone, you are essentially punishing yourself for what the other person did to you! When put this way, doesn’t holding a grudge seem like a stupid idea?
And if refusing to forgive someone is a stressor, you might expect it to have some negative health effects as well. Both forgiveness (the specific act) and forgivingness (a disposition or personality trait) have been found to improve the body’s physiological response to stress through lower blood pressure, heart rate, and quicker recovery from acute stressors (Source1, Source2, Source3). A word of caution though: people who will only conditionally forgive others, such as in exchange for compensation or an apology, have increased mortality risk (Source). You must be willing to let go of your grudge regardless of the other person’s response.
Cultivating a forgiving attitude is no easy task. A helpful first step is to find the positive intention behind the other person’s actions (see #105). Beyond that, here are a couple of blog posts I think will be useful:
- Here are 30 suggestions from TinyBuddha blog readers.
- You can read a very interesting perspective on forgiveness along with a step by step guide to forgiving someone on the Deliberate Receiving blog.
- Perhaps even more challenging than forgiving others is forgiving yourself after you have wronged someone else. I’ve had a particularly trying experience with this, and I wrote about how to forgive yourself over at TinyBuddha.
107. Get yourself out of toxic relationships.
A toxic relationship is one in which the other person drags you down, makes you feel angry, or drains your energy in some way. When you are involved in one of these relationships it can be hard to see and accept it for what it is, particularly when you are more emotionally invested in it. A toxic relationship doesn’t have to be romantic; certain “friends”, family members, or coworkers could be toxic to you as well. So, how do you extricate yourself from a toxic relationship?
- The first step is to accept that you are in one. Here is a list of signs that your relationship is toxic (romantic relationships, specifically).
- Here is a more general set of indicators that you are in a toxic relationship, plus some advice on how to deal with it.
- Finally, here is a step by step guide to getting out of your toxic relationships.
I spent about 80 hours in the past week writing this 16000 word behemoth, and consequentially have been neglecting my health. That’s why I’m going to keep this conclusion short
A healthy lifestyle is built on a foundation of healthy habits. You don’t need to change everything about yourself at once. Just pick something from this list that resonated with you, apply it consistently until it is easy, and then pick another one. It’s as simple as that.