Did you make grand plans for your health last month? Lose 10 pounds, exercise five days a week, quit sugar—lots of us start out motivated but drop off right about now, before Valentine’s Day. If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone; research from 2018 indicates that only about 4% of people surveyed stuck to all of their resolutions.
The reason these habits tend not to stick isn’t that we’re weak or lack willpower. Rather, it’s how we set up habits that’s the problem, and we tend to make the same mistakes over and over again, according to Stanford behavior scientist BJ Fogg, PhD, author of Tiny Habits.
For one, “[People] focus on abstract things like ‘eat better’ or ‘exercise more,’ or ‘get organized,’” Fogg says. “They sound like behaviors because they start with a verb, but they’re not. They’re abstractions, they’re aspirations, sometimes they’re outcomes. Instead, people need to get specific.”
Other mistakes include choosing goals that are “really big and hard to do” and focusing on habits that we don’t really want to do, he says. For example, if you want to improve your gut health, don’t make it a goal to eat sauerkraut every day if you don’t enjoy it.
In terms of what does work, Fogg notes that mindset is key. “People think of behavior change as a process they need to endure,” he says. “Imagine if we could get people to understand that there are ways to change where you do change by feeling good, not by feeling bad. It’s a discovery. I advocate that people be playful and flexible rather than serious and rigid and uptight.”
To follow the gut health example, you could list 10 fermented foods, test five of them, then select two or three that you really like and rotate them into your diet. “Think of it as, ‘I’m going to play around and go on this journey and see what are two or three snacks that I really like that are on my game plan,’ ” he says. “And I don’t have to be perfect, but this process is a fun process I get to go through and figure out what’s going to work for me.”
Another tip: Incorporate new habits in the morning as much as possible. “In the morning, your routine hasn’t gone off the tracks,” Fogg says. “Whereas, as your day goes on, there’s this emergency or this crisis. And once something breaks in your habits, your routine, then other things after that will often break. There are these benefits of being successful early in the day, increasing the possibility that you’ll be successful for other aspects of your day.”
An added bonus: Success in the morning can set you up for more as the day goes on. “There are these benefits of being successful early in the day, increasing the possibility that you’ll be successful for other aspects of your day,” he says. “So not only is it easier, you get more traction, you get more lift, you get more benefits from successes early in the day. A really important way to be successful in starting new habits is to make the commitment small so that you’re able to do it regardless of how you’re feeling.”
“As human beings, our motivation goes up and down,” Fogg says. “And so when your motivation sags or drops, you will not be able to do the hard behavior anymore. In other words, you won’t create the habit because if you don’t do the behavior, you can’t feel good about it, therefore the habit won’t form. So you won’t do the habit reliably. And there isn’t a magical way to keep your motivation high.”
Instead, make the habit small so you don’t need motivation. “You set the baseline really, really low, so it’s super achievable and you can always do it even when you’re stressed out or busy,” he says. “And people will naturally do more, but you don’t raise your expectation that you’ll always do more. You keep it low.”
For example, if you want to do pushups every day, make it your goal to do two. You may be able to do 5 or 10 or 20, and you can if you choose to—but even if you oversleep or have a crazy morning, you can always knock out two pushups. Then you’ve met your goal, and you’re more likely to stick to it.
“There’s something about that idea in our culture of constant improvement where it’s so hard for people to get the idea that you set the bar low and you keep it low,” Fogg says. “And yes, you’ll do more. But there’s going to be a day, three months from now, three years from now, where all you can do is the minimum, and that’s OK. And you should feel good about that. You kept the habit alive.”
We’ve put together a list of habits to inspire you—you can use them as a starting point or come up with your own. As you read on, if you discover habits that resonate with you, break them down into tiny habits before diving in, and make sure to have fun with it.
1. Eat To Improve Gut Health
Why: “Your gut is the foundation of your health, and most health problems can be traced back to poor gut health,” says functional medicine expert Will Cole, IFMCP, DNM, DC, author of The Inflammation Spectrum. “For example, 80% of your immune system is located in your gut, 95% of your feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin is produced and stored in your gut, and the same goes with your sleepy-time hormone: melatonin. All of this to show that supporting your gut with pre- and probiotic-rich foods can benefit more than just your digestive health.”
How: Incorporate foods rich in prebiotics, plant fiber that feeds good gut bacteria. These include asparagus, leeks, garlic, apples, and flaxseed. Also enjoy foods rich in probiotics, living strains of bacteria that add to the population of good bacteria in your gut. Regularly include fermented foods like kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, and miso. Get plenty of fiber from vegetables and fruit, and avoid excess sugar; fiber can help boost gut health, while sugar can negatively impact the microbiome.
2. Eat the Rainbow
Why: Eating an array of vegetables and fruit covers more nutritional bases thanks in part to phytonutrients and polyphenols. These chemical compounds help protect plants, for example, against pathogens, and they also may help protect you from cancer, heart disease, diabetes and neurodegenerative diseases.
How: Make it a point to get at least three different colors into every meal, and incorporate colorful vegetables and fruit into snacks and smoothies.
3. Improve Your Mood By Eating Healthy Fats
Why: “Healthy fats are a more sustainable, long-term source of fuel” than sugars, so by eating fats, “you are less likely to become ‘hangry’ between meals and looking for your next source of quick-burning energy,” Cole says. “Also, cell communication is essential for hormone health, and healthy fats build up those pathways of communication throughout your body, making it easier for your hormones to convert and get where they need to be and aiding in a more stabilized mood.”
How: Cook with avocado oil and olive oil. Avocados, olives, nuts and seeds, whole eggs, fatty fish, and grass-fed or pastured meat and poultry all offer healthy fats as well.
4. Eat Slowly and Without Distractions
Why: “Eating slowly gives your body a chance to recognize once it has reached the point of satiety. This helps you avoid overeating,” Cole says. “Also, when you take the time to sit down and eat a meal without distractions, you are practicing intentional, intuitive eating, where you recognize and make cognitive decisions regarding what exactly you are putting into your body instead of grabbing things quickly that don’t serve you, such as prepackaged, sugar-loaded snacks.”
How: The Cleveland Clinic suggests stretching meals out to 20 to 30 minutes to allow your body to recognize when you’re full. To do this, set a timer. Chew each bite at least 15 times, and put your fork down between bites.
5. Eat Hydrating Foods
Why: Headaches, muscle cramps, brain fog, and fatigue are some of the unpleasant symptoms you deal with regularly that can be caused by dehydration. Though we tend to associate dehydration with hot weather, it can happen any time. In fact, research suggests mild dehydration may affect immunity, so it’s important to stay hydrated during cold and flu season.
How: Making sure to drink water throughout the day is important, but you also can get fluids through food. Incorporate hydrating foods like cucumbers, celery, lettuce, and zucchini. Soups also can be helpful for hydration, thanks to the water and sodium. (Just keep your sodium intake at recommended levels by selecting soups that provide 5% or less of the daily recommended value, or make your own, being mindful of sodium.)
6. Sleep Hygiene
Why: Regular good-quality sleep boosts immunity, cognitive function, metabolism, memory and more. “The more deep the sleep, the better the individual’s ability is to manage their blood glucose levels,” says Gabrielle Lyon, DO, a New York-based functional medicine practitioner and nutrition expert. “Sleep is also a critical time when the brain regenerates. Studies show that individuals who work the night shift have impaired glucose and cortisol regulation, leading to poor glycemic control and weight gain.”
How: The National Sleep Foundation recommends creating a nighttime routine so your body gets the signal that it’s time to wind down. Do the same thing at the same time each night, whether it’s listening to calming music or a meditation, taking a warm bath, reading a book or another relaxing activity. Avoid using electronics, as the light they emit can prevent you from falling and staying asleep.
7. Pet a Pet
Why: Turns out your furry pal is more than just a faithful companion—pets can boost health by reducing your stress level, too. In a study, published in 2019 from Washington State University, students who got to pet and play with cats and dogs for 10 minutes had significantly less cortisol in their saliva than other students who didn’t get the hands-on time with the pets.
How: If you have a pet already, make sure you take the time to pet and play with it daily. If not, consider adopting a pet if your home and work schedule permit, or offer to walk a friend’s or neighbor’s dog.
8. Embrace Adaptogens
Why: “Adaptogens are natural plant and herbal medicines that are generally safe for everyone,” Cole says. “They are great at managing stress, as they have been shown to help restore balance to hormones including your stress hormone, cortisol, by supporting the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. This is your brain’s communication system between your adrenal glands, which are in charge of releasing cortisol.”
How: Because adaptogens are so trendy, they’re available in many forms. Add mushroom powders or maca to smoothies, supplement with ashwagandha, rhodiola or schisandra, or incorporate shiitake or maitake mushrooms into your cooking.
9. Practice Gratitude
Why: Gratitude can improve your mood, reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety, help you manage stress, calm inflammation and improve heart health, research suggests. A study published in the journal Cognition and Emotion in 2020 found that practicing gratitude helped participants to feel less competitive and behave more kindly toward each other.
How: Keep a gratitude journal, start a family practice of saying one thing you’re grateful for at the dinner or breakfast table, or write someone a thank-you note.
10. Laugh and Smile
Why: “Laughter is the best medicine” is more than just an expression. Laughter can help reduce tension by stimulating systems in the body that decrease stress hormones like cortisol and boosting the brain’s reward system. One study found that laughter may reduce the risk of heart attack. Even just smiling, whether you’re actually happy or not, can calm your body’s stress response.
How: Watch a funny video, listen to a humorous podcast, read books or articles by funny authors, or call a friend.
11. Get More Electrolytes for Recovery
Why: Electrolytes such as magnesium, sodium, potassium, and calcium are minerals that help regulate many bodily functions, including muscle contraction and hydration, and they may even help your heart beat. A study published in 2019 found that drinking water after dehydration made muscle cramps worse, but water with electrolytes made participants less susceptible to cramping. “Electrolyte recovery can be used to replace what you put out,” Lyon says. “When one thinks of increasing metabolic output, it’s important to take electrolytes to mitigate fatigue post-workout and maintain hydration. When an individual is dehydrated, there is a 2% decrease in cognition and overall performance.”
How: Incorporate low- or no-sugar electrolyte drinks into your routine. Unsweetened coconut water is also a good option.
12. Lift More Weights
Why: “Resistance training is the single most crucial aspect of body composition,” Lyon says. “The research shows it’s even more beneficial than nutrition. When you combine resistance training with optimal protein intake, you have the chance of optimizing muscle mass.”
How: Incorporate a strength-training routine at least three days per week. If you’re new to strength training, you can start with bodyweight exercises or work with a trainer to set up a routine and learn proper form. If you don’t have access to a gym, you can take classes or work with a trainer virtually.
13. Be Kind
Why: It feels good to do something for others, and there are biological reasons why. Research indicates that performing acts of kindness can cause the release of endorphins and oxytocin, known as the “love hormone” for its role in social bonding. Kindness has also been linked to a release of dopamine and serotonin, neurotransmitters that play a role in regulating mood and contributing to feelings of well-being.
How: Try something simple, such as paying someone a compliment, sending an encouraging email or buying a coffee for the person in line behind you. Or do something more elaborate, like cooking a meal for someone, volunteering your time, or donating blood.
14. Start a Meditation Practice
Why: Human beings have been practicing meditation in different forms for thousands of years. Research suggests it may offer benefits against ailments such as as chronic pain, high blood pressure, anxiety and depression.
15. Incorporate Deep Breathing
Why: “Observing your breath is a fundamental way to bring inner stillness to your day and helps anchor you to the present moment,” Cole says. “Deep breathing also stimulates the vagus nerve, which can help to lower heart rate and blood pressure.”
How: Try 4-7-8 breathing, where you start by exhaling fully, then inhale through your nose for a count of four, hold it for a count of seven and exhale through your mouth for a count of eight. Repeat three more times for a total of four breath cycles. Another is box breathing (4-4-4-4), where you exhale through your mouth for four counts, hold for four, inhale through your nose to a count of four, then hold for four. Repeat for five minutes.
16. Create Community Around Your Healthy Habits
Why: Who you surround yourself with can have a big impact on your health. You’re 57% more likely to become obese if you have a close friend who’s obese, 40% if it’s a sibling, and 37% if it’s a spouse, according to a study on obesity published in the New England Journal of Medicine. But healthy habits may be just as “contagious,” researchers say.
How: Find a workout buddy, trade off cooking healthy meals with a neighbor or set up Zoom meditation sessions with a friend.
17. Ground Yourself
Why: Being “down to earth” is a trait we admire in people, and it turns out there may be health benefits as well. The hypothesis put forth by proponents of the concept is that connecting the body directly to the earth via soil, sand, grass, and other natural elements, known as “grounding” or “earthing,” brings you in contact with electrons on the planet’s surface, which their research suggests may help improve sleep, relieve stress, and reduce inflammation.
How: These researchers suggest walking outside on grass or sand barefoot (or wearing shoes with thin leather soles). Gardening in soil outdoors is also offered as a form of grounding as is swimming in the ocean, a lake, or a river.
18. Read More Books
Why: If you were encouraged to turn off the TV and read as a kid, that was good advice for your well-being. According to a Canadian report, reading is associated with better physical and mental health, reduced stress, and more satisfaction with life in general.
How: Schedule reading time every day, even if it’s just a regular 10 or 15 minutes. Keep a book in your bag at all times so it’s always available for you when you’re on the go. Join or form a book club.
RELATED: Join the Women’s Running Book Club
19. Embrace Essential Oils
Why: Essential oils, extracted from plant bark, flowers and leaves, have been used for centuries in different cultures. Use them at home to help soothe anxiety, relieve insomnia and boost your mood.
How: Get a diffuser to scent the air, add a few drops to a bath or add drops to a spray bottle with water and mist onto your pillow. If you have pets, be careful; some varieties can be harmful to animals.
20. Stop Rushing
Why: Are you always hustling and feeling stressed that you’ll fall behind? There’s a name for that behavior: Hurry Sickness. And experts have found it can actually make you less efficient. Chronic stress can boost your body’s output of cortisol and adrenaline, which can put you at risk for reduced immunity, depression and other ailments.
How: Build in buffer time in your calendar around appointments, meetings and other commitments so you aren’t constantly behind and feeling like you have to rush to catch up. Say no and set limits on commitments that aren’t absolutely necessary.