12 Ways to Change Your Health by Changing Your Mind
Not everything is "in your head," but behavior change usually starts there.
Posted Jul 06, 2019
Action starts with a thought. Not necessarily much thought, it might only last seconds, but typically how we think sets the stage for what follows. When it comes to improving health, challenging our mindset can result in significant benefits if we can commit to the challenge of following through. Here are 12 manageable changes in mindset that science suggests can lead to health benefits when action follows.
1. Change your “vacation can wait” mindset.
Many of us go months, sometimes years, saying we “need a vacation” without taking one. This is a mindset issue, since with few exceptions the workplace will do just fine without us for a couple of weeks. Recent research underscores the importance of using our personal days by showing that taking vacations may lower the risk of developing metabolic syndrome, a condition strongly linked to Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.
2. Shift your breathing focus.
Focusing more closely on our breathing comes with a list of science-backed health benefits, including lower heart rate and blood pressure, reduced stress response, and even a boosted immune system, according to some research. This change is all about mindset, because it’s about shifting mental focus onto something we’re already doing and choosing a simple technique to do it more effectively (like “box breathing” for example).
3. Change your perspective on getting outside.
Mounting evidence suggests that spending time outside is good for our physical health and mental well-being. And it doesn’t even take a lot of time to get the benefits, according to the latest research, just a couple of hours a week. The mindset challenge here is to blend outside time into your day in such a way that it’s not really a separate thing, the way going to the gym requires its own separate block of time. One method to get there is to tie outside time with the next item.
4. Prioritize walking.
Walking has several well-substantiated health benefits that are available to most of us if only we’d do more of it, including improved cardiovascular and brain health. A straightforward mindset change to get us there is rethinking how we schedule time throughout the day to work in walking breaks. That can be as simple as putting reminders in your scheduling software to “get up and walk.”
5. Get strategic about socializing.
Over the last few decades, we’ve gained a solid scientific understanding of the importance of social interdependence. Doses of socializing have been linked to better stress management, which is in turn linked to benefits touching cardiovascular health, cognitive health (particularly in older adults), and lower rates of anxiety and depression. The mindset challenge here is to think more strategically about working social time into the day. Sitting in an office with the door closed for hours on end, even if it feels ultra-productive, deprives us of a great resource. Pair this one with walking (above), and it’s a twofer.
6. Adjust your attention reactions.
In the “attention economy,” our time and attention are commodities with a price tag. That’s simply a reality at this point and there’s little use in complaining. We can, however, reconsider how we allocate our attention, and that can lead to longer-term health benefits. Most especially, managing our reactions (to our smartphones most of all) may help manage unhealthy levels of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline that can take a toll over time. The takeaway is simply that we can decide to manage our reactions. It’s a difficult mindset adjustment in light of the forces vying for our attention, but it’s still in our court.
7. Decide to work less.
A new study just found a link between working fewer hours and lower risk of stroke (the study was observational, not clinical, but the correlation was significant). Previous studies have found similar links, and they all point to the same genre of health takeaways. This is a mindset challenge, because often we spend more time in the office without really thinking about it, and we have to force the issue into mental decision space to make a change. Not all jobs allow for making this change, but if we can, the science suggests we probably should.
8. Reconsider doing lunch.
Going out for lunch is convenient, delicious, and gets you out of the office—but it comes with a loss of control over what you eat. The mindset change here is to rethink the default mindset of doing the easiest thing. Then invest some thinking into making healthier meals for lunch that put the control back in your hands. The difference could be significant in just about every nutrient category. As an example, consider your control over which cooking oils you use and how much sodium is in your food—two things that are notoriously hard to track when eating out. Pair this one with getting outside during lunch, and it's another double-tap.
9. Focus on purpose.
Allowing a sense of purpose to guide us is a direct challenge of mindset, and plenty of research points to health benefits of taking it on. Most recently, research linked having a sense of purpose to lower levels of inflammation, which is in turn linked to a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease and a variety of other conditions and disorders, from diabetes to depression.
10. Beware restraint bias.
Restraint bias is the mental miscue that occurs when we think we’ve reached a certain level of success and can, therefore, take the pressure off the mental brakes and expose ourselves to more temptation. It’s the decrease in vigilance everyone who has ever dieted felt just before the yo-yo starts yo’ing. Apart from offering good reasons to rethink dieting (another topic), the mindset change here is to boost awareness that restraint bias is always lurking and will undermine health benefits from whatever diet or exercise program you’re trying if you don’t see it coming and act to avoid it.
11. Think laughter.
It’s true, laughter is terrific medicine with health benefits, as plenty of research attests, but it’s not always easy to come by. The mindset challenge here is to rethink the sometimes stifling seriousness of a stressful, responsibility-filled life and intentionally find ways of laughing more. One strategy is to really attend to those times when you need to laugh and expose yourself to something funny (a go-to movie or TV show, etc.) instead of doing something unhealthy, like grabbing comfort food or alcohol. Consider it a humor prescription.
12. Let your mind let things go.
Finally, one big mindset change that serves to decrease the cumulative stress response is to develop the discipline of letting things go. The unmanaged stress response is sort of like biochemical baggage that keeps weighing us down more and more with time, and eventually, the weight compromises other parts of our health. Dwelling, ruminating, holding onto those things that can’t be changed are major triggers for an exacerbated stress response and can set off a vicious cycle that refuels itself. That earwormy song has it right—let it go.