Committing to adequate sleep might be the best health investment you can make. Insufficient sleep has been linked to chronic conditions, such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. One study found that people who averaged less than seven hours of sleep a night were about three times more likely to develop cold symptoms than those who slept at least eight hours.
Integrative physician Frank Lipman, MD, author of How to Be Well, puts it bluntly: “Lack of sleep can make you fatter, biologically older, and more at risk for heart disease and diabetes.” It can also leave you wired for stress, with a nervous system primed for fight-or-flight reactions to everyday challenges.
It’s not just quantity of sleep that counts: Quality rest with phases of deep sleep allows the brain to protect itself from toxic proteins that accumulate throughout the day. Syncing your natural body clock by establishing a regular sleep and wake schedule, finishing your last meal two to three hours before bedtime, avoiding alcohol before bed, and being mindful of evening light exposure can all help.
We are made to move. “A hundred years ago, humans were up and moving around more than eight hours a day,” says Parker. “Now it’s reversed, and we’re spending that much time sitting.” One recent study found that a quarter of Americans sit for more than eight hours daily.
Sitting and rarely rising is hard on our health, she explains, noting that movement keeps blood and lymph flowing and delivers oxygen and nutrients to our cells.
Incorporate movement into your daily routine by getting out of your chair regularly or using a standing desk or a fitness ball that activates your core while you sit. Park farther from your destination when driving. Choose the stairs over the elevator.
“Design and embed movement into the routine operations of your life,” advises Jonas, who uses a walking desk for his daily work. “Don’t just rely on willpower, or it won’t happen.”
Although long bouts of sitting is bad for your health, intentionally sitting still and focusing on your breath can be a powerful tool for improving your well-being, counteracting stress, stimulating the vagus nerve (which affects everything from digestion to heart rate), and inspiring clearer thinking and better decision-making. Meditating for as little as 10 minutes a day can also yield profound cognitive benefits, according to Lipman: It improves memory, attention, and creativity, and it potentially lowers blood pressure and eases anxiety.
Apps such as Insight Timer offer free, guided meditations, as well as tools to track and log your daily practice. (For ideas on other ways to achieve a settled state of mind, see “Beyond Meditation”.)
One of the basics of DIY healthcare is simply to drink more water, Parker advises. Hydration helps the heart pump blood to the muscles, facilitates healthy bowel function, and nourishes cells. Aim to drink half your body weight in ounces throughout the day, ideally from a filtered source to avoid any contaminants in your tap water. (This means if you’re 160 pounds, try to consume at least 80 ounces of water each day.)
5. Try Intermittent Fasting
A growing body of research highlights the power of intermittent fasting to help support healthy insulin levels, blood pressure, and liver function, as well as enhance cellular-repair processes and reduce inflammation.
The most common method involves fasting for about 16 hours between dinner and breakfast, explains Lipman. “This signals your metabolism to burn fat and allows your body to experience a longer-than-normal period of low insulin in the blood, which is a powerful reset.” (To learn more about this practice, see “Everything You Need to Know About Intermittent Fasting”.)
6. Take Digital Breaks
Our devices are designed to tap into the brain’s reward system, triggering the release of tiny hits of dopamine with every notification we receive, leaving us simultaneously hyperstimulated and exhausted. Taking regular time away from screens can boost mental and emotional health, improve sleep, and fend off the physical side effects of constant digital immersion, such as dry eyes and spinal misalignment from hunching over phones and computers.
“Having space and time when you’re not interrupted and can be present in the flow is more and more essential as our digital lives creep out of work and into our home and vacation spaces,” observes Parker.
Lipman advises creating dedicated tech-free periods during commutes, turning off distracting notifications, leaving your phone at home while you go for a walk or run errands, and observing a tech fast for one full day each weekend.
7. Practice an Elimination Diet
Eliminating certain foods from your diet can be an effective — and informative — strategy when you’re not feeling well and suspect that a food sensitivity or intolerance may be the cause. “Everyone wants a quick, easy answer from a lab, but the gold standard for detecting a food sensitivity is to eat an easy-to-digest basic diet and then progressively add back in various food categories to see if you get a response,” says Parker.
If you discover a sensitivity to a food or ingredient, like gluten, you’ll know enough to temporarily avoid it to relieve your symptoms. And a few months without it might be all you need to fix what was plaguing you.
“If you have celiac, that’s one thing,” says Parker, “but [for others] if you change the health of your bowel, reduce leakiness, and holistically repair the gut and reduce stress, oftentimes your diet can once again be expanded.” (For more on elimination diets, see “The Institute for Functional Medicine’s Elimination Diet Comprehensive Guide and Food Plan”.)
Just two and a half to three hours a week of moderate to vigorous exercise can help prevent heart attacks, strokes, and cardiovascular disease, as well as bolster cognitive health.
“We need to regularly work through our reserves, and then restore them,” notes Parker. “Balance, stretching, strengthening, aerobic exercise — they’re all important, and everyone can choose their own combination to focus on at different stages of life.”
Where you fall on the intensity spectrum isn’t as important as exercising in a way that you truly enjoy. Do what you can to stay regularly active, and any additional workouts you can integrate into your weekly routine will be supportive.
9. Use Health-Supportive Apps
If there’s any upside to our increasingly symbiotic relationship with our smartphones, it may be the potential they hold to nudge us in the direction of desirable behavior changes. Apps such as Smoke Free take a science-backed approach to smoking cessation, using evidence-based techniques to help users manage cravings and kick the habit. Insight Timer and similar apps offer guided meditations of various lengths, focusing on a variety of issues, including fostering sleep, easing anxiety, and increasing self-confidence. (Many apps offer in-app or premium options that come at a cost.)
This originally appeared as “Invest in Yourself” in the March 2020 print issue of Experience Life.