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Jul 22 21

The Wonders of Walking

by Beth

Walking is one of the best things you can do for your physical and mental well-being. I make sure to get as many steps in each day as I possibly can. On vacation in Spain last week, I averaged over 16,000 steps a day! Walking is easy to do and it makes me feel good.

If you need motivation to walk more, here are some of the many benefits of walking:

  • Boosts energy – walking increases oxygen flow and levels of hormones that elevate energy levels. One study found walking to be more energizing than caffeine consumption.
  • Improves mood – multiple studies show that walking reduces anxiety, depression, and negative moods.
  • Enhances creativity – according to a Stanford study, walking increased creative output by an average of 60%.
  • Boosts immune function – a study of over 1,000 people found that those who walked for 20 minutes at least 5 days a week had 43% fewer sick days and those who did get sick had lesser symptoms.
  • Lowers body weight – a Harvard study showed the effects of obesity-promoting genes were cut in half for people who walked briskly about an hour a day.
  • Improves sleep – a 4-week study of nearly 500 people found that those who averaged the most steps reported significantly better sleep quality
  • Eases joint pain – walking protects joints by lubricating them and strengthening supporting muscles. Walking is recommended for reducing arthritis-related pain.
  • Reduces risk of disease – walking 30 minutes a day, five days a week has been shown to reduce heart disease risk by 19%. A meta-analysis of 42 studies found that walking reduced blood pressure, heart rate, cholesterol, body fat, and depression.
  • Reduces breast cancer risk – an American Cancer Society study found that women who walked more than 7 hours a week had a 14% lower risk of breast cancer.
  • Slows memory decline – a recent study of 250 older adults who started walking three times a week for 40 minutes found that they gained white matter, the brain’s wiring, and cognitive improvements.

Pretty impressive, huh? I encourage you to set a goal to walk a certain number of steps each day. Walking outside boosts your well-being even more given the positive impact of being in nature. And walking with a friend adds the most important factor for well-being, social connection!

Jun 14 21

The Joy of Cooking

by Beth
Mise en place

For most of my adult life, I considered cooking a chore. I didn’t find much joy in meal planning, grocery shopping, or preparing dinner at the end of a long day. I focused on finding as many quick, easy, kid-friendly recipes as I could. Over the past few years, I’ve come to view cooking in a very different light. It’s a mindful practice that gives me a sense of meaning and lets me use one of my top strengths.

All three of these are strategies that have been shown to boost well-being:

  • Strengths – One of my top strengths is learner. When I stopped eating meat, I needed to learn how to cook more plant-based meals. I started reading books and following vegetarian cooks on Instagram and I took a plant-based cooking class online. Learning about the health benefits of different foods and how to prepare new recipes made cooking much more enjoyable because I was using one of my strengths. All sorts of different strengths, like curiosity, achiever, adaptability, or focus, can be applied to make cooking more fun.
  • Meaning – As I learned more about the impact that food has on my mental and physical health, the health of my family, and the health of our planet, I began to see the value of carefully choosing what foods to buy and cooking healthy meals. I now derive a real sense of meaning from both shopping and cooking. Buying more organic food is good for the environment. If I buy fewer processed foods and sugary snacks, my family will be healthier. Using spices and sauces to make flavorful plant-based recipes can encourage them to embrace more nutritious meals. I now view cooking as an important way to keep myself and my family healthy.
  • Mindfulness – One of the first things you learn in most cooking classes is the concept of “mise en place”. This is a French culinary phrase which means “putting in place”. Chefs are taught to have everything they will need to make a meal setup before starting to cook. All the ingredients should be washed, chopped, and measured ahead of time. This allows the cooking process to be a mindful, relaxing experience. You can calmly focus on each aspect, noticing the flow of water as you wash produce, the array of colors in the assembled ingredients, the smell of fresh herbs as you chop, and the aroma of onions as they brown.

These positive strategies can be used to make any chore more enjoyable. If there is something you must do around the house or at work that you really don’t like, try to intentionally apply one of your strengths while doing it. Look for the value for yourself or for others in what you’re doing. Focusing on the why can make it more meaningful. And, finally, give it your full attention. The experience of being present can make any task more pleasant.

May 14 21

Embracing Lifequakes

by Beth

A recent article in the Washington Post reported a survey showing that 66% of people returning to work after the pandemic are considering changing fields. This is not as surprising as it may sound. Disruptions in our lives often cause us to rethink things. They provide an opportunity for us to reevaluate our lives and consider new possibilities.

In his book, Life is in the Transitions: Mastering Change at Any Age, Bruce Feiler refers to lifequakes as signature events that upend and reshape our lives. A global pandemic certainly counts as one! He found that 90% of people come to view these life changes as something positive over time.

Post-traumatic growth is the positive psychological change experienced as a result of the struggle with highly challenging life circumstances. Experiencing adversity builds our resilience. We learn coping skills that can help us weather the next storm. Difficult experiences often strengthen our relationships and give us a renewed appreciation for life. They can also lead to a desire for change.

Even minor disruptions that force us to do things in a new way can result in improvements in our lives. In 2014, workers on London’s underground went on strike. Some of the Tube stations were closed, forcing people to find alternative routes to work. When the stations reopened, many of the commuters did not return to their prior routine because they had discovered a better route.

The pandemic has disrupted all of our lives, and it has caused many people to reassess what they want to do and how they want to work. There are restaurant and healthcare workers who would like to find jobs where they will be less exposed if there are future outbreaks. Others want to move away from the travel or entertainment industries and into jobs that are less vulnerable to pandemics. There are people who want a career that gives them more meaning. And after spending more time at home with their families, some people realize they don’t want to return to jobs with long commutes or excessive travel.

According to Feiler, most of us will experience three to five lifequakes. Rather than resisting them, we are better off accepting them as an integral part of life and embracing the positive changes they can bring. How have you grown as a result of your experiences over this past year? What strategies helped you to cope? Who helped you to get through the challenges? What new possibilities might you want to pursue?

Apr 6 21

Bouncing Back Better

by Beth

“Never let a good crisis go to waste.” ~Sir Winston Churchill

As we emerge from the pandemic, let’s think about how we can bounce back better. Returning to work and life after a very strange, very difficult year can give us a fresh start. We can use this opportunity for a post-pandemic reboot!

The sudden changes in our lives a year ago interrupted many of our routines. Habits are highly situation dependent. When the cues that triggered some of your past behaviors were gone, the behaviors likely stopped. Instead of just automatically going back to everything you did before, identify the behaviors that weren’t contributing to your well-being or your performance and consider what you might do to avoid returning to those old habits.

You can use this fresh start to think of a pre-pandemic you and a post-pandemic you. This new identity makes it easier to change your behavior. Perhaps you had a habit of stopping by Starbucks for a coffee, and sometimes a sugary muffin, on your way to work. A habit that wasn’t good for your wallet or your waistline. The post-pandemic you could make sure to eat a healthy breakfast and bring a full mug of fresh coffee with you each morning instead. You might also choose a different route to work to avoid passing the Starbucks. Maybe you spent much of your pre-pandemic time traveling for work, which was exhausting. Could some of those meetings that you assumed had to be face-to-face now be held using virtual technology?

Just as you stopped many of your old habits during the pandemic, you also started new ones. Think about the ones you’d like your post-pandemic self to keep. Maybe you started sleeping more since you didn’t have a long commute and you realize how much more energy and focus you have. How can you be intentional about prioritizing sleep when you start commuting again? You could set an alarm at night to make sure you wrap things up in time to get a good night’s sleep. Were you eating more home-cooked meals during the pandemic? Instead of going back to eating lunch out on weekdays, the post-pandemic you could do some meal prep on Sundays making it easier to bring a healthy lunch to work each day. Perhaps you started doing Yoga With Adriene during the pandemic. Could post-pandemic you keep your practice going by leaving a yoga mat in your office?

Take some time to make a list of the behaviors you started over the past year that you’d like to keep doing and the pre-pandemic behaviors you don’t want to start up again. Now make a plan that will help you maintain these changes as you return to work and life. Don’t let this “annus horribilis” go to waste! How will you use your post-pandemic reboot to bounce back better?

Mar 15 21

Your Personal Highlight Reel

by Beth

Our need to make sense of the world causes our brains to create a narrative that explains our experiences. The resulting story shapes our personal identity or what we believe about ourselves – what kind of person we are, what we are capable of. These beliefs influence the goals we set and the outcomes we achieve.

The good news is that you are the author of your own story, which means you can edit your narrative in a way that results in a more positive self-concept. You can shift your guiding story to one that empowers you to pursue desired goals.

One way to do this is to make your success experiences more salient, so they are more likely to become part of your story. In his book, Exceptional, Dan Cable suggests that we all need a personal highlight reel. You’ve seen the sports clips of professional athletes that replay their best performances. LeBron James dunking the ball again and again. Serena Williams hitting killer shots on the court dozens of times in a row. This helps build a story of their excellence.

In the same way, reflecting on moments when you were at your best can help you reframe your own story to reflect a more positive version of yourself. Here’s how to create your personal highlight reel:

  1. Take some time to think back over your life and remember experiences that made you proud. You can start with high school and college. What were some of your biggest achievements? How about your career? Your personal life? Write down all of the memories you can recall of times when you were your best self.
  2. Keep your list handy so you can add to it and reread it. Any time you do something that you feel good about, add it to your highlight reel. And while you have it out, reread it in order to keep your highlights top of mind. On days when the story you’re telling yourself isn’t so positive, pull out your highlight reel and read it again.

Unfortunately, bad is stronger than good. We remember times when we failed more easily than we remember our successes. That’s why creating and reviewing your personal highlight reel is so important. It reinforces your story as someone who is capable of achieving great things. And that will set you up for your next success.

Feb 15 21

Two More Rules of Habit Formation

by Beth

In my last post I discussed the first two rules for creating good habits from James Clear’s book Atomic Habits, 1) make it obvious and 2) make it attractive. Here are the other two rules:

3. Make it easy – Habits are formed based on frequency, not time. So forget the idea that it takes 21 days to build a habit! Each time you repeat a behavior, specific neurons in your brain fire. The more they fire together, the stronger the connection becomes, eventually making that behavior automatic. The easier it is to do something, the more likely you are to do it. Making a behavior easy will lead to more repetition and faster habit formation. 

One way to make a behavior easy is to do the minimum necessary to ritualize the behavior. Start by meditating or journaling for 2 minutes or practicing yoga or walking for 5 minutes. The key is to master the habit of showing up. Then you can start doing more. Taking that first step gives you a sense of confidence and momentum, making it easier to take the next.

Another way to make a behavior easy is to reduce friction. Your are more likely to go to the gym if it’s near your home. Chopping veggies on the weekend makes it easier to eat them during the week.

4. Make it satisfying – We are more likely to repeat behaviors that provide immediate rewards. Humans have a present bias, which means we value the present moment or instant gratification more than we value the future. This makes it hard to form habits that are good for us because many of the behaviors that provide long-term health benefits don’t have immediate rewards. So we need to find ways to add something positive to behaviors that pay off in the long run.

One way to make good behaviors more rewarding is to celebrate each time you do them. After each workout do a fist pump or a happy dance or shout “hell, yeah!” Anything that generates a positive emotion will reinforce that behavior.

Making progress is also satisfying, so tracking good behaviors can act as a reward. Put a star on your calendar every day you meditate or record how much time you read or how many vegetables you eat each day in a journal. I downloaded a habit tracker app in January and it’s very satisfying to see my streaks!

Your daily behaviors determine the person you will become. You can become a happier, healthier person by making beneficial behaviors more obvious, attractive, easy, and satisfying.

Jan 20 21

Two Rules of Habit Formation

by Beth

Last year I wrote a blog about how making behaviors easy and using cues as reminders can help you create habits for positive change. These ideas are based on the typical model of habit formation: a cue leads to a behavior that results in a reward, which causes the behavior to be repeated the next time the cue is present. In his book, Atomic Habits, James Clear includes a fourth step in the habit loop: a craving. He explains that a cue must first lead to a craving in order for the behavior to happen.

Based on this four-step model, Clear outlines four rules for creating good habits:

1. Make it obvious – The clearer a cue is the better. If you want to exercise in the morning, leave your workout clothes by the bed. If you want to eat more fruit, keep a bowl of fruit out on the counter. Time and location are good cues, so make a concrete plan as to when and where you will do something. I practice yoga on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 4:30. Current habits can also serve as cues. Habit stacking is when you add a new habit on top of a current habit. I built my meditation habit by meditating every day after lunch.

If you want to stop a bad habit, make the cue less obvious. I leave my phone in another room when I’m writing. This way I’m not tempted to check it and I can stay focused. My social media apps are all on the 3rd screen of my phone. The few sweets we have in our house are stored in a closed container on the top shelf of our pantry.

2. Make it attractive – You are more likely to form a habit if the experience is pleasurable. Dopamine is a feel-good hormone that is released in your brain when you experience and anticipate positive feelings. This creates a craving, teaching your brain to repeat a behavior that feels good. If you hate to run, choose yoga or walking instead. The best form of exercise is one you enjoy, because you are more likely to stick with it.

Temptation bundling can help you build a good habit by linking something you like to do with something you think you should do. Katy Milkman, a behavior scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, discovered the power of temptation bundling in a study showing that people were more likely to go to the gym when they only had access to an audio book they liked while exercising there. I only allow myself to listen to my favorite podcast (currently Smartless) when I go on a walk and I play music I love when I do chores around the house.

Stay tuned for my next post where I’ll discuss the other two rules of habit formation: make it easy and make it satisfying!

Dec 28 20

New Year, Fresh Start

by Beth

Are you as ready for 2021 as I am? The beginning of a new year is often filled with hope for positive change. January 1 is a “temporal landmark”, a day that stands out from other days. The beginning of a new year gives us a chance to start over. We can wipe the slate clean and give ourselves a fresh start.

Temporal landmarks can make change easier because we view our future self differently from our past and present self. We can decide who we want that new person to be. I did this last January when I changed my diet. The old me ate meat, while the new me prefers a plant-based diet.

Not only is it easier to do things differently when we hit a temporal landmark, but we are also motivated to continue the new behavior to preserve our perfect record. I’m less tempted to eat meat now because I don’t want to break my streak. So if there’s a change you’ve been wanting to make in your life, January 1 is a great time for a fresh start!

But just deciding that you want to change isn’t enough. We all know that New Year’s resolutions are hard to keep. Your motivation will wane, so you need to take steps to stick with your resolution. You’ll be more successful if you pick one goal to focus on and make it specific. Commit to exercising for 30 minutes 3 days each week, not just exercising more. Aim for eating 30 different plants every 7 days, not just eating healthier. Resolve to turn the lights out by 10:30 pm, not just get more sleep.

A detailed plan can help you stay on track. Decide when and where you will exercise. Plan your meals ahead of time so you can make sure to include a wide variety of plants. Set an alarm at 10:00 pm to remind you it’s time to wrap things up and head to bed.

Tell others about your resolution so they can support you and keep you accountable. And be kind to yourself when you slip up! You will have setbacks and it’s important not to use them as an excuse to give up. Instead, use them to explore what might have gone wrong and make changes to your plan. Perhaps you’ll find fewer reasons not to exercise if you do it first thing in the morning. Or maybe you need more than a 30-minute warning to get organized before going to bed. Stay flexible and celebrate the progress you do make.

What will you do differently in 2021? Here’s to a new year and a fresh start!

Nov 16 20

Do it for Your Future Self

by Beth

Most of us know what we need to do to be happier and healthier. We know things like eating healthy food, exercising, and getting enough sleep will boost our mental well-being and prevent us from developing disease. Yet knowing is a lot easier than doing.

We humans aren’t very good at making short-term sacrifices in order to reap benefits in the long run. We aren’t wired that way. Our reward circuitry pushes us to look for instant gratification. Our brains prefer to settle for a smaller present reward rather than waiting for a larger future reward. This present bias is what leads to an intention-action gap.

One way to reduce this gap is to think about your desired future self. Imagining who you want to be in the future can help you take the necessary steps in the present to become that person. Do you want to have enough money saved to retire in five years? What kind of house do you want to be able to afford? Do you want to be a person who is healthy and energetic enough to travel, play with your grandchildren, or go on long hikes with your partner? Do you want to own your own company?

The more vividly you are able to see your future self, the easier it is to make choices today that will benefit that person. Dan Goldstein has done some great research using computer simulations to show people the tradeoffs between how much they invest today and how much money they will have in retirement. He makes the scenarios more real by including computer generated pictures of people when they are older. You can see his TED Talk here.

Writing about your desired future self can help you visualize who you want to be more clearly. Thinking about that future version of you as another person, someone you need to look out for, can increase your empathy toward your future self. This may help reduce present bias so you will make smarter decisions for the long-term. Your present self may think skipping a workout or eating an unhealthy meal won’t make much of a difference, but your future self knows that all of the small choices you make today will determine who you become.

If there is something you know you should do, but you don’t have the motivation to do it, think about what your future self would want you to do. Picturing your future self enjoying retirement might make it a little easier to control your online shopping. When you make a good choice, imagine your future self giving you a high five. Celebrating will increase the likelihood that you repeat the desired behavior.

Oct 16 20

Your Health Can Keep You Safe

by Beth

One of the most important things you can do to keep from getting sick from the coronavirus is to avoid exposure. Wearing a mask, physical distancing, gathering outdoors, and hand washing are the best ways to do this. I bet you hear about one or more of these almost every day.

Unfortunately, you don’t hear nearly enough about the importance of your health for reducing the likelihood of becoming sick if exposed to the virus. The underlying conditions that increase the probability of hospitalization and death are all related to our metabolic health. Sadly, only 12% of Americans are metabolically healthy.

The good news is that your health is determined in large part by your lifestyle. Studies have shown that lifestyle changes can significantly improve your metabolic health in as little as 21 days. That means you can take steps right now to reduce your risk of getting sick from COVID19.

The 5 keys to improving metabolic health are: diet, exercise, sleep, stress management, and social connection.

  • Diet is most important, because it’s the only one of these interventions that has been proven to reverse metabolic health on its own. Eating a wide range of fruits and vegetables will ensure that you get the fiber needed to feed the healthy bacteria in your gut. Legumes, nuts, and seeds are healthy sources of protein. And sugar and processed foods should be minimized, because they suppress your immune system.
  • Exercise enhances the immune system’s ability to function and fight infection. Aim for 20 to 30 minutes of moderate activity, like walking, each day, as well as some form of strength-building exercise, like yoga, a couple of times a week.
  • A minimum of 7 hours of sleep is critical for good health. Some recommendations for sleeping better include a quiet, dark, cold room and bedtime routines like avoiding blue lights from screens and putting your phone to sleep in another room.
  • Stress suppresses your immune system, so you need to find ways to reduce it. Breathing exercises are a great practice. Just 10 to 15 minutes a day can make a difference. You can download a meditation app to get started. Practicing gratitude can minimize stress by helping you to focus on the positive. Other options include yoga or listening to music. Limiting the amount of news you consume, especially these days, can also reduce your stress.
  • Our social connections have a strong impact on our metabolic health. It’s critical to stay in touch with friends and family during the pandemic. We should be practicing physical distancing, not social distancing. Connecting virtually is a great option, but also look for safe ways to meet people outdoors for some mask-to-mask interaction.

You have the power to minimize the potential impact of coronavirus by making lifestyle changes to improve your health. Eating a healthy diet, keeping active, getting enough sleep, managing stress, and staying connected can all make a real difference.