Small Changes to Boost Your Mood and Your Health

Is there a secret formula for living a long, healthy life and looking fabulous along the way? Sure: Be lucky enough to have good genes. Never smoke. Don’t gain weight. Wear your seat belt and don’t text or drink while driving. Surround yourself with supportive people. Make enough money. And, of course, eat healthy food, get plenty of exercise and avoid stress. Easy, right? As if.

A total healthy-living makeover seems overwhelming because it is. The key to long-term success is to take your lifestyle changes in small doses that are easy to swallow, creating healthy habits you can stick with for the rest of your life. Start with this list of surprising little life changes that can help tune up your body, brain and spirit, setting you up to feel energetic and vital for decades to come.

Reward yourself.

One reason you may reach for cookies instead of carrots on a bad day is that your brain has learned that dessert makes you feel better. As you start to develop new healthy habits, you need to reinforce the message that going for a walk or eating fresh veggies is now the thing that gives you pleasure. If you reach this week’s goals, treat yourself to a new novel or a 10-minute chair massage at the nail salon. That positive association may help make the healthy habits stick.

Learn to meditate.

Done regularly, meditation may reduce stress, increase attention span, improve your memory and boost your immune system. Start by sitting for five minutes and using this simple imagery: As you inhale and exhale, visualize your scalp relaxing and think the word “calm.” From your head down, focus on relaxing each body part. Imagine negative emotions being discharged as black smoke. If you enjoy the five minutes, add a few minutes each day and work up to 20 minutes.

Mix up your workout.

To make the most of your workouts, don’t go longer. Instead, try interval training — alternating between short bursts of intense activity and longer periods at a more comfortable pace. Not only will you burn more calories, but, by increasing your heart rate, you can also improve your stamina and cardiovascular health. Walk, run, swim or cycle as fast as you can for two minutes, then switch to a steady pace for four minutes. Try to build up to a 30-minute workout.

Play mind games.

The brain is like a muscle — you can make it stronger by stimulating it with new challenges. If something at home is broken, figure out how to fix it. Or take a completely different route on your commute. Even if you get lost, you’re teasing your brain in a good way. People who challenge their brain all the time keep it in top condition — and may have a lower risk of Alzheimer’s.

Snooze smarter.

Sleep is crucial for brain health — but often we’re just not getting enough. Wind down early each night, try to avoid caffeine and alcohol, keep the room cool and dark and aim for a solid seven to eight hours of sleep.

Give back.

According to one survey of American adults, people who volunteer feel physically healthier and less stressed. Experts attribute these benefits to the increased sense of purpose that comes from helping those in need. Think about where your skills would be of use, whether it’s a hospital, food bank, church or homeless shelter.

Eat healthy fats.

You still need to skip trans fats (beware of “partially hydrogenated” on the label) and limit saturated fats (from meat and dairy), but don’t skimp on the good fats found in olive oil, fish and nuts. Dietary fat is essential for absorption of carotenoids, powerful cancer-fighting compounds responsible for the deep colors in plants. Sauté veggies in olive oil instead of butter. Add some heart-healthy omega-3 fats to your salad with salmon or walnuts.

Connect with friends.

Research reveals that having strong relationships with your pals can increase your chances of living a longer, happier life, perhaps because friendships are powerful stress relievers. Aim for at least one date a week with a good friend, even if it’s just a quick video chat.

© Meredith Corporation. All rights reserved. Used with permission.