We all want to know how to be healthy, but it seems like such a lofty goal. Setting out to make healthy lifestyle changes can feel simultaneously inspiring and intimidating. I mean, where do you even start? Do you need to overhaul your entire life in one fell swoop? The answer, you may be happy to know, is: no. When it comes to adopting new healthy habits and making them stick, there are lots of little things you can do that will make a big difference in the long run (and not make you crazy in the process). Instead of trying to upgrade your health with a huge makeover, try these nine small, practically painless moves instead for long-lasting results.
1. Plate your meals backward.
People often pile on the carbs, then mosey on over to the protein, then top it all off with a meager scoop of vegetables in whatever space is left. Instead, go in reverse order, Abby Langer, R.D., owner of Abby Langer Nutrition in Toronto, tells SELF: Fill half your plate with vegetables, then divide the remaining quarters between protein and a starch, ideally something made up of complex carbohydrates instead of refined ones, like brown rice.
Serving yourself this way helps ensure you’re getting your recommended daily servings of vegetables (at least 2 ½ cups, says the USDA), plus it increases your fiber intake and hydration levels thanks to vegetables’ water content.
2. Put your food away when you’re done serving yourself.
“Anyone will eat more if the food is staring at them,” Langer says. Always feel free to grab more if you’re truly hungry, but this way, you’ll know it’s because of a physical need for more food instead of pure convenience or temptation.
3. Drink a glass of water before each meal.
Drinking the amount of water you need each day is necessary for all of your body’s systems to function smoothly, but it will also keep you from overeating due to hunger, making it easier to take a more mindful approach to your meals, Langer says.
4. To double down on the mindfulness, chew each bite thoroughly before swallowing.
The “reasons you need to slow your roll when eating” list is about as long as your arm, Langer explains. Wolfing down food can lead to bloating because of the extra air you’re swallowing, that way-too-full feeling because you don’t give your body a chance to process satiety before you clean your plate, and completely missing out on how delicious the food actually is.
You can choose a number of chews to abide by per bite, like 20, or you can go for a less regimented approach, like making sure you’re swallowing naturally, not gulping hard to get down barely chewed mouthfuls.
5. Call food “healthy” and “less healthy” instead of “good” and “bad.”
“When people label food as ‘good’ and ‘bad,’ it carries over into a judgment of themselves—if you eat ‘good’ food, you’re a good person, if you eat ‘bad’ food, you’ve been badly behaved,” Langer says. That couldn’t be further from the truth, so stop putting yourself in emotional timeout just because of what you eat.
“Truly, no foods are really bad and no foods are really good—some are healthier than others,” Langer says. Reframing your thinking like this will likely help you learn the art of indulging in moderation instead of bingeing on “bad” foods, plus it’s just a better way to treat yourself.
6. For every hour you spend sitting, get up and walk briskly for five minutes.
Sitting all day isn’t good for your butt or your heart. Physical activity is extremely important for your longevity, and it all adds up, women’s health expert Jennifer Wider, M.D., tells SELF. Sometimes it can feel impossible to fit in a ton of exercise when you’re not used to it, but peppering movement throughout your day is much more doable.
7. And if some types of exercise feel dreadful to you, do something else.
Yes, dancing to Beyoncé at home counts as exercise. Will it burn as many calories as an intense boot camp class? No. But it’s about picking exercise you’ll actually enjoy enough to continue doing, not the type that makes your soul want to die but has the maximum immediate caloric payoff, Michelle Segar, Ph.D., director of the Sport, Health, and Activity Research and Policy Center at the University of Michigan and author of No Sweat! How The Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You A Lifetime of Fitness, tells SELF.
Here’s Segar’s recommendation: “Come at it from a curiosity angle and say, ‘What types of positive things would I feel motivated to do?’” This kind of approach helps you get honest with yourself about where your motivation comes from (you can also take Segar’s quiz about workout motivation). Getting to the bottom of this is key when trying to cement any sort of habit, especially physical ones like exercising and eating well. It’s much harder to stick with hellish activities than pleasant ones.
This also makes it easier to see “failures” on your journey to health as the learning experiences they really are: Bowing out of kickboxing class for two weeks in a row doesn’t mean you don’t truly want to get fit or you’re lazy, just that it may not offer the right kind of motivation you need. “Approach everything as a learning opportunity to see what feels good and what works and what doesn’t,” Segar says.
8. Ease yourself into getting more sleep with five-minute increments.
Completely abandoning your to-do list, whether it’s business or personal, to go to sleep three hours earlier just isn’t feasible. But if you do it bit by bit, you’ll acclimate yourself to your new, well-rested reality in a manageable way, Christine Carter, Ph.D., senior fellow at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and author of The Sweet Spot: How To Find Your Groove At Home And Work, tells SELF. Try going to bed five minutes earlier each night (or every few nights, if this is really tough for you) until you hit the seven to nine hours the National Sleep Foundation recommends for adults.
9. Every time you make a new goal, break it up into bite-sized chunks.
“I’m a big fan of small, easy tweaks,” Carter says. So is Segar: “Small is smart. Small is strategic. You can’t take people who don’t know how to play piano and have them play Mozart. When something’s complex, it takes time to learn.” Because that’s what a habit really is: Learning how to live your life in a different way.
This can apply to anything and everything health-wise. Let’s say you’ve been having a huge sandwich for lunch every day but want to cut back on refined carbs. Don’t swear you’ll never let another piece of white bread pass your lips—tuck into a salad first, then let yourself have the sandwich until you’re satisfied. Or opt for whole-wheat bread some days of the week until you get used to it, then phase out the refined sort.
Carter explains that when you’re not saying you can never have your favorite sandwich again, just that you’ll start by making a tiny change to boost its health content—or whichever small step you’ve chosen toward a goal you may have—it’s easier for your brain to get on board, learn to like it, and prime you for success.