Ten ways to improve your mental and physical health

Ten ways to improve your mental and physical health

Let’s face it: for most of us, resolutions fail. Who hasn’t been gung-ho at the end of December, making plans for the year ahead, promising to be more active, eat better, and booze less, only to fizzle out before the month is over?

This year, I got a headstart in November by attending The Life Delicious urban wellness retreat, led by founder Catherine Roscoe Barr, a personal trainer whose expertise is underpinned by a neuroscience degree. The retreat was held over a weekend at Stretch yoga studio in Chinatown, where Roscoe Barr took a dozen of us through an interactive presentation and exercises (both physical and mental) to inform and educate us about how we can transform how we think (manage stress), move (combat sedentary behaviour), and eat (plus hydrate) to improve our overall health and well-being. One month into 2016 and my goals—not resolutions—are unwaveringly on track.

Click through for just 10 of the transformational things I learned.

Don’t think it; ink it

Don’t think it; ink it

Even as a writer, the very idea of “journalling” seemed to me like yet another thing to do. (Plus, I hate the word.) But spending just a few minutes writing stuff in a “mood, food, and fitness” journal has helped me tune into my overall health and wellness.

For instance, every morning, instead of reaching for my iPhone, I quickly write down a a couple of things, such as how I feel when I get up:

  1. How I feel (really depends on how much sleep I got the night before, which I write down too);
  2. What I plan to eat for the day (when you menu plan, it’s easier to stick to sensible eating);
  3. How I plan to move for the day (a high-intensity interval training class, walk in the woods, even cleaning the bathroom).

Then I follow up through the day and note how I feel after eating certain foods (energetic, sluggish), exercise (energized, fatigued), etc.

Why it works: It helps me focus my day from the get-go, and reviewing previous entries lets me pinpoint patterns. It’s not rocket science, but when you tap into how you feel and why you feel that way, it’s easier to do more of the good stuff.

Stop multitasking

Stop multitasking

I’m an excellent multi-tasker. And I’m also a fabulous procrastinator. Of course, doing the former is a great way to do a lot of the latter too. But inevitably, when a “busy” day working comes to a close, I’ve completed a ton of little things, and not many big things.

The truth is, multitasking is not effective and sends many people off on unproductive tangents. Roscoe Barr advises to single task instead. Now I focus on one thing at a time, using the tried-and-true (for me) Pomodoro Technique®. I set the app timer on my computer (download it for free) for 45 minutes and work on just a single thing. I do not answer texts, check email, grab a cup of coffee, or do anything else. After 45 minutes, the timer “dings” and I take a five-minute break. That’s when I respond to emails, troll though Twitter, do some stretching, and so forth. That five minutes of downtime is just as critical as the 45 minutes of focus time, so don't skip it! I’ve found working for 45 minutes straight to be a challenge since my attention starts to wane around 25 minutes, but it’s getting easier. Not only has my productivity improved significantly, working has become a much calmer, focused experience for me.

Download your to-do list

Download your to-do list

If you’re like me, you have a running to-do list in your head. But do you remember 100 per cent of those priorities, large or small? How many times has a forgotten task added unnecessary stress to your day? And how do you avoid interrupting your single-tasking so that you don't forget these important, but not necessarily urgent, to-dos?

“Download them,” says Roscoe Barr. That means jotting the tasks down in your journal (or in the notes section of your iPhone) and getting back to them later. Your list might include a reminder to make a dentist appointment, a work task, an exercise goal—anything. The key is to get the info out of your head so you can silence the mental chatter. Try it, especially if you are prone to waking up in the middle of the night or too early in the morning. For me, this little piece of info has been the single most valuable trick I’ve learned.

Join the anti-sedentary revolution

Join the anti-sedentary revolution

It sounds radical, but resolving to move more is actually easy. If you work in an office, for example, chances are you’re sitting for long stretches every. Why is sitting so bad? It can create poor circulation, says Roscoe Barr, which in turn can lead to serious heath issues like diabetes, heart disease and obesity, not to mention flagging energy and focus.

Sneak in little bursts of physical activity (even if you already have a solid exercise routine) throughout the day, advises Roscoe Barr. Do the plank during your five-minute Pomodoro break, take the stairs, and so forth. Why does it make a difference? These movements boost blood flow, which helps remove waste from our bodies. Overall, physically activity amps up all our body processes, with the added benefits of happiness and productivity.

Be a one-percenter

Be a one-percenter

“Banish the all-or-nothing mentality,” says Roscoe Barr, and opt for a most realistic goal: get one per cent better every day. If you ran for 30 minutes today, tomorrow try to run for one per cent longer. It’s mere seconds! Improvement doesn’t have to measured in leaps and bounds—small steps add up too. In fact, you’re more likely to stick to a program when your goals are attainable.

Don’t forget to identify—and remove—the barriers to making improvements, says Roscoe Barr. For instance, if you want to eat healthier, you’ll be more successful if you plan a menu for the week and stock up on the groceries you’ll need. Roscoe Barr also offers this important advice: “Be gentle and kind—substitute growth for guilt.”

Crush the ANTs

Crush the ANTs

We all have them: Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTS). They mill about in your head, trash talking about everything and nothing in particular. Crush them! Roscoe Barr suggests doing this by asking yourself the question “Is that true?” We’re often our harshest critics.

Another key to crushing those ANTS is by prioritizing positivity. It’s easy to get sucked into negative chatter, so flip the scenario. Surround yourself with positive people, and when a crappy situation presents itself, put it into perspective and think about what you can learn from it. Not convinced? Consider this quote, from psychologist Shawn Achor: “Your brain, if positive, is 31 per cent more productive than your brain at negative, neutral, or stressed.” Life is too short to waste time sweating the small stuff.

Make a 70:30 nutrition rule

Make a 70:30 nutrition rule

We’ve all heard of the 80:20 rule of eating well about 80 per cent of the time and eating what you want (within reason!) the other 20 per cent. For some people, that’s too strict. So consider adopting the 70:30 rule, Roscoe Barr suggests. At times (think holidays or summer BBQ season), you may even opt for 60:40. If you’re exercising regularly (every bit, whether taking the stairs and doing housework counts), sleeping well, and eating nutritious foods (avoid sugar and processed foods; shop local and eat sustainable and ethical foods), you can cut yourself some slack. And don’t forget to drink up too. A dehydrated brain isn’t as effective as one that’s well watered.

Create an energy ritual

Create an energy ritual

What’s better than committing to practice yoga regularly? Being more specific and transforming the habit into an “energy ritual,” which is defined by Tony Schwartz (founder of The Energy Project) as “highly specific behaviours done at precise times.” So instead of committing to practising yoga regularly, resolve to practise every Saturday at 10 a.m. and put it in your calendar. There’s less of a chance of you forgetting, and if it's in your calendar you can schedule other events around it to avoid being hit-or-miss with your habit.

Relax—seriously

Relax—seriously

You know what improves your uptime? Having downtime. The opposite of the stress response, says Roscoe Barr, is the relaxation response. Stress causes your cortisol to spike, which affects your body’s immunity, digestive, and reproductive systems. It can also cause your body to store fat.

Some stress, like that rush of adrenaline you get that allows you to “fight or flee” if you’re in danger is OK, or even good. The key is that it’s short-term stress. Creating the relaxation—and the calm that comes with it—is easy. Make time for chill-inducing activities you enjoy, such as yoga, gardening, cooking, soaking in the tub, and communing with nature. Expert says this type of downtime may trigger the parasympathetic nervous system, which allows your body to rest and repair.

Get more ZZZs

Get more ZZZs

Did you know that elite athletes get up to nine hours of sleep a night? Sometimes even more? The rest of us still need seven to nine hours of good-quality sleep a night to be at our best. Sure, we can cope with the odd short-on-sleep night, but deprivation can lead to a shopping list of ills such as memory loss, depression, high blood pressure, kidney disease and more. Not to mention accidents, including car crashes and falls. Quality sleep is just as important as clocking in the hours.

To get your best rest, says Roscoe Barr, ensure your bedroom is cool (“get naked!” she says) really dark, and ban electromagnetic devices (iPhones, computers) from the bedroom. Scientists say that electromagnetic fields disrupt melatonin production, which makes us more vulnerable to the above-mentioned illnesses. To improve sleep put your electronic media to bed couple of hours before you hit the sheets, some experts advise. The upside to good sleep: reduced cortisol and increased human growth hormone, which makes you look younger naturally, hence the term “beauty sleep.”