How to Build Healthy Habits

Credit…Amrita Marino

Your challenge today is to have lunch with a friend — but not your phone! Invite a friend or colleague to lunch and leave your phone (and other devices) behind or have a meal with your child or parent without the screens. This challenge may be tough at first, but try it a few times this week. You may be amazed at how much more you connect when you aren’t distracted by your phone.

We love our cellphones, but sometimes it’s a good idea to take a break from them. Incoming texts, alerts and vibrations are a near-constant presence in our lives, and these interruptions can take a toll on our minds, our sleep and our ability to connect in real life. Studies show that when parents or caregivers take a phone to the table, they are far less likely to engage in conversation with their kids. We also know that breaking our tech connections from time to time can foster deeper personal connections in real life. In one study, pre-teens who went five days at camp without screens outperformed their peers in recognizing nonverbal emotional cues. In other research, the presence of a cellphone in the room made people feel less connected to conversation partners.

Credit…Amrita Marino

For today’s challenge, I want you to take the sweetness out of your morning meal. Your goal today and every day going forward is to cut all the sugar and eat a savory breakfast. A no-sugar morning might sound tough if you’ve grown accustomed to eating cereals, granola bars, muffins, pastries and sweet fruit yogurts. Instead, I want you to go for high-protein or plant-based breakfast foods. Some ideas:

  • Eggs (scrambled, fried or boiled — or a frittata with vegetables)

  • Berries and a handful of nuts

  • Lettuce boat with mashed avocado, bacon and tomato

When you decide to cut sugar from breakfast, your morning meal will be more creative and more delicious.

For many people, breakfast has become the sweetest meal of the day — so sweet that it’s become the equivalent of dessert. So when you switch to a savory, no-added sugar breakfast, you make a big dent in your overall sugar intake. Many scientists now believe that added sugar is a main culprit in the obesity epidemic, but normal-weight people can suffer the same health problems associated with too much sugar. A 15-year study found that eating high amounts of added sugar doubles the risk of heart disease, even for people who aren’t overweight. Added sugar has also been implicated in an increased risk for Type 2 diabetes, cancer, stroke and even Alzheimer’s disease.

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Today, take time out for a self-compassion break. Close your eyes and think of a situation causing you stress. Take a mindful moment and acknowledge your suffering, telling yourself, “This is stressful. This is difficult.” Remind yourself that everyone struggles. “Stress is part of life. I’m not alone.” Now soothe yourself by placing your hands on your heart or stomach, or wrap your arms around your body. Now give yourself words of kindness. “May I be kind to myself. May I forgive myself. May I be strong. May I accept myself as I am.”

Self-compassion is rooted in centuries of Buddhist tradition, but it’s been only within the past decade that researchers have subjected the concept to empirical scrutiny. Numerous studies have shown that self-compassion is strongly linked to overall well-being. Practicing self-compassion can reduce depression, stress, performance anxiety and body dissatisfaction. It can lead to increases in happiness, self-confidence and even immune function.

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For today’s Move challenge, take a situp test. Lie on the floor with knees bent at a 90-degree angle and feet flat on the floor. Cross your arms across your chest. Now raise your head and shoulders off the floor into a situp. Do as many as you can in one minute.

The Mayo Clinic notes that the following numbers indicate a good fitness level based on age and sex. If your situp count is lower, use the target as a goal to work toward. Counts above the targets can indicate better fitness — so keep going! Note that even a small improvement in fitness can lower your risk for early death. In one study, staying just one minute longer on a treadmill increased life expectancy by 8 percent! So keep exercising a little bit every day to build a fitness habit and to build your strength.

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Today I want you to set an intention to make a deeper connection with another person. It can be your partner, a colleague, the barista at the coffee shop or a total stranger.

It can be a very simple gesture or a longer, intentional conversation. It can be one person or every person you encounter today. It’s up to you. Here are some examples of intentions to connect:

  • Today my intention is to smile more.

  • Today my intention is to mindfully listen when I’m speaking with others.

  • Today my intention is to learn more about a new person.

  • Today my intention is to offer an act of kindness to a stranger.

Melissa Eisler, author of the Mindful Minutes blog, notes that “an intention is a guiding principle for how you want to be, live, and show up in the world.” Setting an intention is not the same thing as setting a goal. A goal might be to go to the gym three times a week or to lose 10 pounds. An intention reflects your purpose in life and helps “guide your actions as you move through the day,” says Ms. Eisler. Setting an intention to start your day “can be a powerful practice because it’s the first step to embodying that which you want.”

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For today’s challenge, try intermittent fasting, a form of eating (and sometimes not eating) that is gaining credibility among scientists. Start your day with black coffee or tea, and wait to eat your first meal until noon. Eat what you want the rest of the day (within reason) and drink plenty of water. Make sure you finish your final meal by 8 p.m. And that’s it! Repeat the pattern daily and you’ll barely notice that you’re doing a daily fast of 16 hours.

The idea behind short-term fasting is that when we limit our eating to an 8 or 10 hour window during the day, we give our gut and our liver a much-needed 14 to 16 hour break. And when you fast for these relatively short stretches, your body runs out of glucose stores and begins to burn fat.

Here’s some more good news. If you take a break from intermittent fasting for a few days and eat normally, you will probably still get the benefit. In one laboratory study, mice on short-term fasts were given the weekends off, and were allowed to overeat. For the mice, the weekend binge had no negative effect, and the benefits of the time-restricted eating — including lower body weight and better heart health — were sustained.

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For today’s Refresh challenge, I want you to create a personal mantra. A mantra is a word or phrase repeated (silently or out loud) to help you stay focused and motivated to achieve your goals. A mantra can be one word (“Love”, “Kindness”) Or it can be a phrase. (“I am strong.” “This too shall pass.”) Mantras can help you stay motivated during exercise (“Focus!” “Push!”) or they can be used to calm ourselves (“Breathe.” “You’ve got this!”) Many of us already use mantras instinctively when we talk to ourselves during times of stress, but I want you to create a mantra with intention. Here are some examples:

  • “Stay present.”

  • “I am open to receiving universal gifts.”

  • “Today I choose joy.”

  • “Close your eyes, clear your heart, let it go.”

  • “I am capable of wonderful things.”

  • “I will accept what I must and change what I can.”

A mantra is a useful tool in a variety of situations. Studies show using a mantra during a workout can keep you focused on your goal and push weary thoughts out of your brain a little longer. Mantras can be used to calm yourself, help you stay focused to achieve your goals, or simply remind yourself to be present and aware during times of happiness.

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For today’s challenge, I want you to schedule an exercise date with a friend. When you schedule a fitness date you get a healthy twofer — exercise for your body and a stronger connection with someone important in your life. Pick a fitness class that both you and your friend can attend once a week. Or instead of meeting for drinks and food, schedule a regular walk to explore a new part of your city. Meet for yoga or tai chi in the park or find a two-for-one gym membership and become treadmill buddies.

One of the best ways to create a healthy habit is to enlist a friend to help. While it’s easy to cancel on yourself, you’re more likely to stick to commitments made to a friend. But just as important as the physical activity is the chance to deepen your bond with a friend. Friendships are an essential ingredient in a happy life, so it’s important to give them the care and attention they deserve. Science shows that friendships have a bigger impact on our health than romantic relationships. A 10-year Australian study found that older people with a large circle of friends were 22 percent less likely to die during the study period than those with fewer friends.

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Today, I want you to think about your favorite pasta dish and consider how to make it “veggie forward.” That means inverting the usual pasta-to-topping ratio. Make a veg-heavy sauce as the base of the dish, and sprinkle it with a little penne, orecchiette, macaroni or rotini. Cooking Light offers a number of veg-forward pasta dishes. My favorite is Broccoli, Lemon and Browned Butter Pasta.

A growing body of evidence shows that cutting processed carbohydrates from your diet is good for you. The reverse pasta challenge helps you cut carbs without losing the flavor of your favorite pasta dish. Recently, a study in the journal BMJ found that overweight adults who cut calories from carbohydrates from their diets and replaced them with ones from fat sharply increased their metabolisms. After five months on the diet, their bodies burned roughly 250 calories more per day than people who ate a high-carb, low-fat diet, suggesting that restricting carb intake could help people maintain weight loss more easily.

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For today’s challenge, I want you to cozy up your bedroom. Think of the feeling you get when you escape to a nice hotel on vacation. You can capture that in your home every day by clearing out the clutter in your bedroom and making it your personal escape. Take the clutter off your nightstand and leave room for a glass of water, a scratch pad and a book. Make sure your curtains or shades are blocking out all light. Don’t skimp on bedding and pillows. For better sleep, remove the television. Screentime interferes with sleep. And for good measure, get a regular alarm clock and charge your phone in another room so you won’t be tempted to look at it from bed. For extra credit, spruce up the color of the walls for a calming effect. (I recently painted my bedroom walls a soft gray and added an inexpensive crystal chandelier to make the room feel more like a retreat.)

A regular good night’s sleep is one of the most important habits for health. Studies show people who feel rested most of the time are happier than people who don’t. So as you think about the small steps you can take for better health, make the bedroom a higher priority by turning it into a sleep haven and a place for quiet contemplation. And remember, beds are for sleep, romance and quiet time. Don’t use the bed for watching television, talking on the phone, doing homework or eating and drinking. And for the best sleep, adopt a sleep routine. Go to bed at about the same time every night, including weekends. And don’t sleep in. Keep your wake-up time consistent, even on weekends.

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Today’s challenge is to build a reward into your workout. The long-term rewards of working out are obvious — you feel great and look great! But to build an exercise habit, it’s important to find ways to keep motivating yourself until the long-term benefits of exercise start showing up. Here are some ways you can reward yourself for working out.

  • Audio books and podcasts: Use workout time to listen to your favorite podcast or audio book. Only allow yourself to listen during activity as a way to reward yourself for working out. Soon, you’ll begin to associate the pleasure of a book or podcast with exercise.

  • New workout gear! Studies show cool workout gear can keep you motivated.

  • Indulgence: A bubble bath, a facial, a piece of chocolate, a low-sugar chocolate milk are all great post-workout rewards.

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Today, take a moment to practice this simple, controlled breathing exercise. Your goal is to inhale for six counts and then exhale for six counts.

  • Sit upright or lie down and place your hands on your belly.

  • Slowly breathe in, expanding your belly, to the count of six.

  • Pause.

  • Slowly breathe out to the count of six.

If you have never practiced breathing exercises before, you may have to work up to this practice slowly, starting with inhaling and exhaling to the count of three and working your way up to six.

Practice controlled breathing for five minutes, and work your way up to 10 to 20 minutes a day.

Controlled breathing has been shown to reduce stress, increase alertness and improve your immune system. For centuries yogis have used breath control, or pranayama, to promote concentration and improve vitality. Studies have found that breathing practices can help reduce symptoms associated with anxiety, insomnia and depression. Consciously changing the way you breathe appears to send a signal to the brain to adjust the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system, which can slow heart rate and digestion and promote feelings of calm, as well as the sympathetic system, which controls the release of stress hormones like cortisol.

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For today’s Move challenge, you will be trying one of our really, really short workouts. I’m going to suggest the four-minute workout because it’s incredibly simple. All you do is run, bike or do calisthenics at an intense pace for four minutes. That’s it. If you repeat this high-intensity workout three times a week, you’ll reap many of the same benefits as a much longer workout. To learn about other short workouts, check out our Really, Really Short Workouts Guide.

You may not believe that just four minutes of working out does much at all, but we’ve got the science to back it up. High-intensity interval training — referred to as H.I.I.T. — is based on the idea that short bursts of strenuous exercise can have a big impact on the body. If moderate exercise — like a 20-minute jog — is good for your heart, lungs and metabolism, H.I.I.T. packs the benefits of that workout and more into a few minutes. It may sound too good to be true, but learning this exercise technique and adapting it to your life can mean saving hours at the gym. You can try it with any aerobic activity you like. The principles of H.I.I.T. can be applied to running, biking, stair climbing, swimming, jumping rope, rowing, even hopping or skipping. (Yes, skipping!) The downside? Even though H.I.I.T. lasts only minutes, the workouts are tough, requiring you to push your body near its limit.

Want a great workout, but don’t have any time? You surely have six minutes to spare. The 6-Minute Workout will get your heart pumping and your muscles toned in the time it takes you to make your coffee every morning. You can find the workouts online here, or try it on your smart speaker using our 6-Minute Workout skill on Alexa. Find out how to get started here.

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To start building stronger connections in your life, plan a new experience with your partner, close friend or family member. The goal is to try something that’s new for both of you! Take an art class, explore a new cuisine, go to an amusement park or drive to a new town. Science shows that when people share new experiences together, they are happier.

New experiences activate the brain’s reward system, flooding it with dopamine and norepinephrine. These are the same brain circuits that are ignited in early romantic love, a time of exhilaration and obsessive thoughts about a new partner. (They are also the brain chemicals involved in drug addiction and obsessive compulsive disorder.) To add sizzle to your romantic relationship or to just strengthen your bond with a family member or good friend, find ways to keep injecting novelty into all your relationships. The activity can be as simple as trying a new restaurant or something a little more unusual or thrilling — like taking an art class or going to an amusement park. Repeat this challenge as often as you can to keep life interesting and your relationships strong!

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Today I want you to go vegan for breakfast and lunch. And for dinner, eat whatever you want! For breakfast, I suggest fruit, a breakfast salad, a non-dairy yogurt or avocado toast (use oat milk or another non-dairy milk in your coffee or tea). For lunch try legumes and vegetables. And for dinner? That’s entirely up to you.

The vegan-before-dinner idea was popularized by the food writer Mark Bittman, who shared the strategy in one of Well’s most popular posts, which later led to his book VB6. Mark made the changes after developing high cholesterol, borderline high blood sugar, bad knees and sleep apnea, and realizing he was about 35 pounds overweight. A doctor suggested he adopt a vegan diet, which means no animal products. But for a food writer, becoming a full-time vegan was both unrealistic and undesirable. Instead, he came up with a compromise to eat vegan for two meals, and eat whatever he wanted for dinner. After about four months of eating this way, he lost 35 pounds and returned to normal blood sugar and cholesterol. Mark says he’s not trying to promote a particular diet, but does want people to realize that a simple evaluation of your diet can lead to meaningful changes.

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For today’s Refresh challenge, I want you to write down three things for which you feel grateful. It can be broad — like good health or a loving family — or specific, like a sunny forecast and lunch with a friend. Once you’ve completed the task, take a moment to read what you wrote. Try to make gratitude a daily habit by keeping a notepad on your nightstand and jot down those things that made you feel grateful each day. You can decide whether to start or end your day with this gratitude exercise.

Gratitude creates a virtuous cycle in life and in relationships. The more gratitude you feel, the more likely you will be to seek out positive experiences that will leave you feeling grateful and connected to each other. Showing gratitude on a daily basis is a common meditation practice proven to increase happiness, help us get better sleep and even reduce illness. Studies show that grateful people have fewer body aches and feel healthier overall. People who feel grateful are also more likely to exercise and take care of their bodies. A number of studies have demonstrated that gratitude can increase happiness and lower rates of depression.

Credit…Amrita Marino

For today’s challenge, do a simple yoga pose for 10 deep breaths. Then, take a 15-second break and repeat the pose and the breathing break two more times. What pose to choose? Do something you already know or pick a pose from our Yoga for Everyone guide.

Your goal is to create a daily exercise habit, but some days you just won’t be feeling it, and that’s O.K. If you really can’t motivate yourself for a vigorous workout, just commit to doing a series of yoga poses in your living room. The stretch will feel great, and holding each pose for 10 deep breaths will give you some time for mindful moments. Yoga counts as exercise, so it’s a great way to keep your daily exercise streak going!

Want a great workout, but don’t have any time? You surely have six minutes to spare. The 6-Minute Workout will get your heart pumping and your muscles toned in the time it takes you to make your coffee every morning. You can find the workouts online here, or try it on your smart speaker using our 6-Minute Workout skill on Alexa. Find out how to get started here.

Credit…Amrita Marino

Today I want you to make a deeper connection with someone you don’t know very well. Our casual social networks are larger than we think — we often have fleeting connections with our neighbors, the barista at the coffee shop or fellow exercisers at the gym. Today, choose one of these casual connections and strike up a conversation. You never know where it might lead.

We all tend to prioritize a few important friendships that we want to nurture. But you don’t want to miss out on new friendships that might form from casual encounters.The sociologist Mark Granovetter calls these low-stakes relationships “weak ties.” But the name is slightly misleading. While the ties are not strong, the benefits of these relationships can be great. They provide networking opportunities and make us feel more connected to other social groups. A 2014 study found that the more weak ties a person has, the happier he or she feels. Researchers also found that maintaining this network of acquaintances also contributes to one’s sense of belonging to a community.

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Today’s challenge is to reach for fruit after every meal. That’s it, eat more fruit. Not only will the natural sweetness of fruit satisfy your sweet tooth after meals, but the extra fiber will fill you up so you won’t snack later. To form a healthy fruit habit, keep fresh berries, apples, oranges and pears in your refrigerator and on your counter. To make it easier, cut up some apples or peel an orange in the morning so you have a healthful snack ready to grab during the day. I’d suggest skipping the grapes — they have far more sugar than fiber and won’t fill you up.

Some trendy low-carb diets frown on fruit because it contains natural sugar. But unlike sugary processed foods, fresh fruits contain fiber, vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients that fill you up, improve your health and boost your immune system. While people tend to overeat hollow calories like those found in sugary colas and candy bars, most people don’t overeat foods with naturally occurring sugar because the accompanying fiber fills them up. Eating fruit right after a meal will also stem both your physical craving and your psychological craving for something sweet.

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For today’s challenge, I want you to take a mindful moment and focus on your five senses.

  • First, notice five things that you can see. It can be a color, a shadow, a crack in the pavement. Try to pick things you might not normally notice.

  • Next, notice four things you can feel. Bring awareness to the texture of your clothes, the breeze on your skin or the smooth surface of a table.

  • Now notice three things you can hear. Take a moment to listen to the chirp of a bird, the sounds of traffic or laughter around you.

  • Next, notice two things you can smell. Bring your awareness to a fragrance carried by the breeze or food cooking at a nearby restaurant.

  • Finally, notice one thing you can taste. Sip a drink or take a bite of food and savor the experience.

Meditation takes practice, but the five senses exercise is a fast and easy way to bring anyone to a mindful state. It’s a simple practice you can do every day on your way to or from work, and it’s an ideal mindfulness exercise for travelers who are experiencing new things every day.

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For your final challenge, you will be getting a chocolate reward. To get the most out of the experience, try this simple chocolate meditation. The goal is to be present and aware of all of your body’s sensations and savor this experience.

  • Start with a small piece of chocolate (or if chocolate isn’t your thing, a raisin, strawberry, caramel or any small, bite-size treat will do). Try to pick a chocolate that is high in cocoa and low in sugar.

  • Take a few deep breaths and relax. Look at the chocolate and notice its physical traits. Notice the feeling of it melting slightly in your fingers.

  • Close your eyes if you like. Now smell the chocolate and become aware of the aroma.

  • Take a small bite. Let it linger on your tongue and melt in your mouth. Notice the flavors and become aware of what you are feeling, tasting and experiencing right now.

  • Stay present. Continue taking small bites of the chocolate, and staying aware of all of your body’s sensations.

  • When the chocolate is gone, take a moment and just feel your breath. Notice the absence of the chocolate but how much the pleasure still lingers.

At the core of every habit is a neurological loop with three parts: A cue (like waking up in the morning), a routine (brushing your teeth) and a reward (clean teeth!). When you follow a healthy habit with a reward, you are more likely to continue the habit. Try using chocolate or another treat to reward yourself after other healthy habits, like exercise, keeping a journal or tackling a household chore.

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