Staying Healthy Doesn’t Need to Feel Like a Punishment

Ten tips for making physical wellness a sustainable lifestyle.

Posted Aug 22, 2018

Dmytro Surkov/Shutterstock
Source: Dmytro Surkov/Shutterstock

If tested on the fundamentals of staying healthy, most of us would say that we should sleep eight hours a night, eat nutritious meals, hydrate with water instead of caffeine or sugary drinks, and exercise regularly. It sounds so easy, yet despite our best intentions, many of us struggle to maintain a healthy lifestyle. How many times have you given up on a wellness goal, because it was not only boring, but also felt like punishment?

I’d like to suggest a reframing in which you can achieve a healthy lifestyle over time without fanfare. Research shows that extreme diets, exercise routines, and health resolutions only work in the short term, because they stem from a place of deprivation and punishment. It's one thing to stop eating sugar or commit to spin classes every day for a month, but our modern world, its demands and expectations, make such drastic goals nearly impossible to sustain for much longer than that. It's unrealistic (and no fun) to imagine the rest of your life feeling deprived of indulgences or forced to partake in onerous exercise regimes. Since energy and health make the difference between being in survival mode versus enjoying life, here are some tips for a sustainable lifestyle of physical wellness.

1. Try the 80/20 rule. If you practice a healthy routine 80 percent of the time and allow yourself a few indulgences 20 percent of the time, the net result is a healthier, happier you! Here's how the 80/20 rule works. Imagine that you usually drink two sugary, caffeinated sodas a day. A focus on 20 percent indulgence would mean that instead of 14 sodas a week, you aim for less than three, which is pretty attainable. After a while, the soda probably won't taste that good to you anyway. The same goes for healthy meals. On average, we eat 21 meals each week. So if you focus on eating ideal meals 80 percent of the time, then four of your meals can be more indulgent — without the drama and guilt of most standard diets.

2. Add exercise to your daily activities outside the gym. If you regularly hit the gym or run five miles a day, congrats! Most of us simply don’t have the time or the drive to exercise as often as we should, and we need to add exercise to our current routine. The most basic changes are as simple as taking the stairs, parking far away from the mall, or becoming more active with your kids. Other strategies might be to walk during your regular phone calls with your mom or sister, or take your kids for a hike instead of the playground. The bottom line: Work on maximizing your time moving and minimize your time sitting. It’s not a dramatic change, but over time, your fitness will reap the benefits. Soon you will be running up those stairs at work and admiring your new calf muscles!

3. Ditch unrealistic goals. More often than not, establishing nearly impossible goals sets you up for failure. Carve a path based on many small achievements. Healthy habits aren't all-or-nothing propositions. Learn to pat yourself on the back for the days you did well, and be forgiving on the days you struggled. For example, sometimes no matter how well-organized, motivated, and well-intentioned we are, a good night's sleep isn't in the cards — and that's OK!

4. Switch unhealthy habits gradually. Addicted to cookies? Don’t vow to never eat a cookie again; just enjoy them every now and then. Alternate sparkling water or plain water with your consumption of soda, wine, and beer. Switch from white rice and pasta to brown. Is ice cream a nightly pleasure? Take a smaller amount, or try yogurt. It's all about striking a balance. I use chocolate as a reward on the weekends, and it's so much easier to say "no, thank you" when you know that an indulgence is just around the corner.

5. Find an exercise that’s fun. It's well-known that exercise reduces our odds of developing heart disease, stroke, and diabetes, in addition to releasing chemicals that improve mood and sleep and reduce anxiety. The human body was designed to move, and exercise stimulates endorphins, which feel great! I guarantee that there is an exercise out there that’s fun for you. Keep trying different types until you find one that brings you joy. It could be dancing in the kitchen, running with your dog, riding a bike, or playing soccer with your kids. Remember, sitting is the new smoking, so keep moving!

6. Improve your mindset. Be ready to succeed in your wellness goals. Psychological research shows that if you expect to fail, you will. By contrast, if you visualize and expect success, it's likely that you will also experience it. Pick an exercise routine that works for you. Cook your favorite healthy food choices. Pick and choose indulgences that make you the happiest. Appreciate the bounty of eating well, exercise, and sleep — then note the positive impact on your brain and body. Clean living with an indulgence here and there will allow for a lifestyle that's doable, fun, and full of physical and psychological benefits.

7. Don't overdo it. Too often, we get psyched for a change and charge forward without restraint. This is especially true with exercise programs. How many times have you decided to push yourself, only to become injured or exhausted? Your goal should be moderate changes that give you added energy and not burnout. Health is a marathon, not a sprint.

8. Appreciate the small wins. Is your skin clearer from drinking more water and eating well? Are you getting less winded from taking the stairs each day? Did you resist donuts at the office? Look in the mirror and appreciate these gradual changes. Be proud of the steps you are taking, because they add up to a longer, happier, and healthier life. Take ownership of your success!

9. Make it easier with external motivation. Team up with a friend or family member who is also interested in making a lifestyle change. Or tell everyone your plan to gain some social encouragement and just a little more pressure to stay the course. You can find further motivation and meaning when you dedicate your positive changes to a close family member or anyone who means a lot to you. I stay healthy for my children to be the most energetic mom I can be for as long as possible.  

10. Avoid behaviors that rob energy. We’re all busy, stressed, and likely to fall into self-sabotaging behaviors. Here are some of the most common you should try to avoid: forgetting to drink water, skipping meals and snacking instead, and not getting sleep when you’re tired. If you are aware of these or other bad habits, a little physical and psychological tinkering can make joy and energy yours for the taking!