Staying Happy and Healthy in the New Year

At the start of every New Year, many of us start the yearly tradition of thinking about ways to improve their lives by making resolutions such as losing weight, exercising more often, or saving more money. We may conjure up a regular gym schedule and rigid new diet plan and cleanse our cupboards of all “culprit” foods to make way for healthier ones. However, as the month of January comes to an end, this all-too-often also marks the end of our lofty intentions, resulting in another year of unfulfilled goals. So the question becomes, where we are going wrong with our resolutions and how can we stay true to them throughout the year? One of the biggest mistakes people make is to overwhelm themselves with change in January.

For lifestyle changes to cross the line into routines, a progressive approach with several small changes tends to be much more effective in achieving long-term success. It’s no surprise that diet is often the first place people turn to improve their health. The problem is that many of us try to make drastic changes, cutting out entire food groups or extreme amounts of calories, which not only leads to an unbalanced diet but one that is unsustainable to maintain. Setting these types of unattainable (and unhealthy) goals is a sure fire road to disappointment and anxiety when we fall short. A much healthier option is to balance your diet with healthy fats, proteins and carbs. Not only does a balanced diet promote optimal physiological health, but also better mental health and a state of well-being. Further, certain foods actually increase “happy” chemicals in the body. Fatty fish such as salmon or mackerel contains omega-3 fats and vitamin D, two nutrients with proven depression-fighting effects. Adding these fish to your meals twice a week will give you the health benefits of long chain omega-3 fatty acids in addition to decreasing irritability, low mood and worrying. Those of us in northern climates may particularly benefit from vitamin D, as the lack of sunlight can lead to vitamin D deficiency and seasonal affective disorder, or the “winter blues”. If you are a carbohydrate lover, swap out flour-based products for whole, pseudo grains such as buckwheat, quinoa, wild rice and millet. These types of grains offer a balance of necessary protein fat and fiber, all of which will help to stabilize blood sugar and prevent sleepiness and dips in energy that usually result from the consumption of refined carbohydrates like white breads, rice and pastas. Some cereals are also enriched in folic acid, a nutrient that has been shown to reverse depressive symptoms in those who are deficient. Other ways to boost your diet into the healthy zone include consuming more legumes such as beans and chickpeas as they are rich in magnesium, which plays a key role in the body’s energy production. Adding leafy greens such as spinach and kale to your salads is also a great option, as these “superfoods” contain minerals such as iron, which helps to carry oxygen to the cells, and B-vitamins that have been shown to help prevent symptoms of depression. Walnuts are an excellent choice for a snack as they are one of the richest dietary sources of serotonin, a hormone that helps create feelings of calmness and happiness. A recent study suggests that those who ate a 1-ounce serving of walnuts, hazelnuts and almonds combined had more of this feel-good chemical than a nut-free group. So, if losing weight is at the top of your list this year, try slowly introducing these foods to your diet to replace less healthy alternatives instead of eliminating major food groups altogether. This will not only prevent your body from feeling deprived (which can result in binge eating), but will also keep you feeling happy, healthy and energetic, in addition to benefiting your waistline.

Exercise is another well-known factor associated with health and happiness, and as with weight loss, the goal to regularly hit the gym appears on many resolution lists. Amidst the countless evidence indicating the health benefits of regular physical activity, a recent study published in The New England Journal of Medicine found that walking briskly for just 30 minutes a day for 5 days a week substantially reduced the risk of heart attacks and other cardiovascular events, proving that even light exercise has major benefits to your health. So instead of going overboard and hitting the gym every day so hard that it leaves you exhausted and reluctant to go back, try incorporating a slow and gradual increase in exercise into your lifestyle. This will help exercise become a daily routine that you will soon enough just do automatically.

Finally, reducing stress is another key factor in maintaining health and happiness. Stress depresses our immune systems, making the body more prone to infection and disease. Although completely avoiding all of life’s stresses is impossible, identifying those that are particularly overwhelming can help to pinpoint the areas that need change. If money is one of those stressors, instead of vowing not to go out on weekends or purchase anything for the next few months, make a realistic budget for your monthly expenses and stick to it. Avoiding unnecessary or impulse purchases caused by not keeping track of your spending will leave you with more money at the end of the month that can be put towards entertainment, traveling or that healthy cooking class you have been meaning to take. Whatever your New Year goals may be, keep in mind that just as it took time to adopt your current lifestyle, turning them into healthier ones will not occur overnight. Be patient, break your goals up into smaller and more achievable steps, and celebrate your success as you accomplish each one. This will help you stick to your resolutions making your New Year happier and healthier than the last.

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