Great things do not just happen by impulse but as a succession of small great things linked together.
– Vincent Van Gogh, painter
By Nancy Palermo, MD
Every year millions of Americans make New Year’s Resolutions and usually by February most have already failed. Setting general, unrealistic goals are impossible to sustain and when we fail it can have a negative effect on our emotional health and our overall wellness. The key to success is to set small attainable commitments. Placed in succession these small commitments to ourselves become large victories with tremendous results.
Make Commitments to Yourself
When we set small achievable commitments, we are more likely to succeed. When we succeed, even if it was a small achievement, we are more likely to build on it. Think of training for a marathon – You wouldn’t just go out and run the full thing without training. You would fail. It’s an unachievable goal. Yet we tend to expect success from unachievable goals. Set the bar lower and aim to be 0.2% better each day, week, or month. Think of constructing the commitments differently as well. Consider finding small additions rather than subtractions. We typically do not respond well to avoidance and restriction and these changes rarely last. Committing to adding rather than subtracting is also a key to success.
Start Where You Are
Get a calendar and plan out what you can do. Make sure you choose commitments you can easily keep. Keep the mindset of commitment. These are commitments to yourself and should be as important as any commitment you make to someone else. What I have included are suggestions and foundational topics you can build on-you should find the things that will serve you best.
Make It Simple…Drink Water
Wake up and drink 4 oz of fresh filtered water before you put anything else into your mouth. Work up to getting in 12-16 ounces. You will be surprised at how good this will make you feel first thing in the morning. We all know the many benefits of water and hydration, but studies show starting the day with water can improve the circulation of blood and oxygen flow helping you feel more energized. Also drinking cold water first thing in the morning may offer thermogenic or calorie-burning benefits throughout the day. That’s a little motivation to drink up. Be sure to keep your hydration going all day long. Aim to get in half your weight in ounces. Start by drinking 4 ounces before eating every meal. Consider drinking water every time you visit the bathroom. The ounces will add up quickly…
Add Plants, Diversity, and Color to Your Life
We tend to label foods as good or bad. While there are foods you want to reduce because of their detrimental effects on our health, practicing a restrictive mindset can have detrimental effects on our approach to food. Think about positive additions rather than removing these things completely. Consider adding an additional vegetable to your evening meal. If you usually have one vegetable with your evening meal, then have two. Over the year consider adding vegetables to all your meals. Our goal is to get in 8-10 servings of fruits and vegetables a day. That may be a hefty goal given that the average American only gets in 1-2 per day and these may be French fries and ketchup, but you can start by adding one. Plants provide phytonutrients to your body, but they also feed your microbiome – there are trillions of friends in there, so you need to eat a lot of plants to feed them. They will reward you will many favors in return. Our gut microbes are responsible for the production and activation of vitamins, neurotransmitters, and short-chain fatty acids. These compounds can have profound implications on our health.
Add more diversity to your diet.
Did you know Americans tend to eat the same foods? There was a study that showed that 15 crops make up 90% of our food sources and most of them are GMO food like corn, wheat, soy, and tomatoes. A similar study that showed most Americans eat the same 5-7 meals and just rotate them. That is a little sad when you think about how many options there are out there. Can you commit to adding new foods to your diet? Try a new vegetable or fruit every week. Make it a different variety of apples or different colors of potato. Add new spices and seasonings. Experiment with new ethnic foods. Challenge yourself to see how many new foods you can add this year.
Also, challenge yourself to add more colors to your diet.
Aim to eat every color every day. (and I am not talking jelly beans I am talking whole foods-real food) The colors in food represent the phytonutrients – the real medicine our bodies need. There are thousands of them, and we are just understanding their many properties. They include antioxidants which help repair our DNA when it is damaged. These phytonutrients work to drive our body’s natural detoxification system and they provide powerful anti-inflammatory properties that have been found to aid in the prevention of Alzheimer’s, heart disease, and cancer.
Just Do Something to Move
Do something to move every day. Anything you do is better than nothing. Nothing is nothing. If you are currently not working out, then start with 15 minutes. You can find 15 minutes in your day. Just get off Facebook early or put down your phone for a bit. You can multitask by listening to a podcast or book while exercising. You might find you work out longer this way. As you make exercise a daily commitment you can consider some HIIT additions. Studies have shown that these short bursts of exertion, called hormesis, can be more beneficial than prolonged periods of exercise. Consider picking up the pace for 5 minutes on your walk or run up a hill or add 20 jumping jacks to your workout. These are examples of HIIT. You can build on them as you are ready. Consider adding strength training to your exercise regimen. Start with 10-15 minutes of strength work and work to get it in 3 times a week. You will build on this but just start. Muscle burns nine times more calories than other tissues. We can all use the extra metabolic help, right?
Detox From Technology
Patients tell me they are too busy to cook or exercise or even sleep. Often when I ask how much time they spend on their phone shopping, binge-watching television shows, or scrolling their social media feeds they admit it can be an hour or more a day. Nothing drains our brains more than these activities. They also make us less likely to do things beneficial to our health.
Consider a digital detox regularly.
Start by carving out an hour at dinnertime then turn off your devices two hours before bed. Work up to a full day of digital detox on a Sunday. It will be difficult at first but once you try it you will find it is liberating. Start small. Leave your phone in another room and try not to look at it for 30 minutes. Build on this detox. You will be surprised how much time it frees up in your life. And about Facebook, Twitter, Dr, Google, etc. Social media is ingrained in our lives, but we need to be mindful of how it is draining us. There are positives to some of the platforms, but you can survive without them too. An “influencer” may be aspirational which is great but if following people or platforms make you feel inadequate or anxious you should try to separate from them. If you really feel you need social media in your life, consider adding a timer to the session and commit to walking away when the timer goes off. Technology and media serve great roles, but they also can drain us of time and brainpower. Use the time you find to read a book, exercise while listening to a podcast, or write in a journal. These activities will not only benefit your health, they will expand your horizons.
Just Write Something
Add a journal to your life. One of the most powerful ways to create meaningful change is to write things down. Writing helps you to see experiences and events in a new way. When you go back and read your writing reflections you will be surprised by what you wrote and how it differs from what you remember.
Writing in a gratitude journal has been shown to change our perspective in life. We can all use a change in perspective right now. An ancient quote from India suggests that “what you practice grows”. If we practice love and gratitude this will grow in our lives and change our thoughts and beliefs and eventually our perspective.
On the topic of writing – consider writing a handwritten note to someone you have lost touch with. Consider reaching out with a letter to someone for which you have had a conflict and then avoided because of it. You can apologize for the situation without admitting wrong if this makes the contact easier. Write legacy letters. Write a note you never plan to send. Most of our end-of-life regrets involve personal relationships. Nurture yours now. You may even consider writing a note to yourself. Focus on your achievements and positive traits. Include what makes you special and different. Put it away and plan to read it in a month or a year.
The Way to Move Forward is to Start Where You are Now.
Life is about choices. Our choices shape our lives. Each of us has the power to change but our choices determine the path of change. We need to make conscious choices. We need to focus on where we are today and not where we want to be or where we have been. These thoughts do not serve us today. The way to move forward is to start where you are now. It may seem like a lot to incorporate all of these changes, but remember you have a whole year to make these small commitments. Remember this is a marathon to optimize your health. Take it slow and train mindfully. We will see you at the finish line in 2023!!