We spoke to experts to identify the definitive 10 no-frills, real-deal tips you need to become your healthiest self yet. No matter what’s going on in your life, it’s really easy to put these steps into action every single day. No ifs, and’s or but’s.
1 Eat breakfast.
You already know it’s the most important meal of the day—it jump-starts your metabolism, delivers sustained energy and can help keep cravings in check. Sorry, doughnut lovers, but all breakfasts are not created equal. To put your best nutritional foot forward, the star players are protein and fiber.
In a University of Missouri study, women who ate a 300-calorie high-protein breakfast including eggs experienced less hunger throughout the morning and consumed fewer calories at lunch compared to those who ate a low-protein breakfast or none at all.
When you don’t have time to scramble eggs in the a.m., opt for oatmeal. After eating a bowl of oatmeal, participants felt fuller longer, as compared to when they downed the same number of calories from cold cereal and milk, according to a study in the Journal of the American College of Clinical Nutrition. Credit beta-glucan, a type of soluble fiber in oats that slows how quickly food moves through your digestive system and keeps you satisfied for hours.
2 Put whole foods front and center.
Eating plenty of fruits, vegetables, lean protein, whole grains and dairy is the surest way to consume a wide variety of important nutrients your body needs. “These are the foods that make up a balanced diet, prevent disease and give you the lasting energy you’re looking for,” says Bonnie Taub-Dix, director and owner of BTD Nutrition Consultants in New York City.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s nutrition guide, MyPlate, is a very effective visual guide to every meal. Here’s how it works: Draw an imaginary line down the middle of your plate. Fill one half with fruits and vegetables. Divide the other side in half once more. Put protein such as fish, chicken or beans in one section and add a serving of whole grains, such as brown rice or whole-wheat pasta, in the other. Have a serving of dairy, such as a glass of milk, a cup of yogurt or some cheese with each meal to meet your calcium quota. “Dairy contains a beautiful combination of protein and carbohydrates along with blood-pressure-lowering potassium,” Taub-Dix says.
3 Make friends with healthy fats.
Unsaturated fats such as those found in olive oil, avocados, nuts and seeds can reduce your cholesterol levels and decrease your risk of heart disease and stroke. A recent study in the journal PLOS ONE found that people who eat tree nuts—almonds, Brazil nuts, walnuts and pistachios—are less likely to be obese than those who don’t. Because nuts can also be high in calories, just have about handful a day.
Healthy fats can also make foods more filling. Researchers found that adding half an avocado to lunch significantly decreased hunger over the next three hours, according to a Nutrition Journal study. Slice avocado into salads and soups, or spread it on a sandwich instead of mayo.
4 Pick the right packaged foods.
Eating a predominantly whole-foods diet doesn’t have to mean swearing off packaged foods entirely. “Processed isn’t always a negative word, and as long as you read nutrition labels you can identify processed foods that are actually really good for you,” says Taub-Dix, author of the book Read It Before You Eat It.
Scan nutrition labels to ensure that foods you choose contain some fiber and protein—to help keep you full—and very little sugar and sodium. Check the ingredients, and if the words partially hydrogenated oil appear, place it back on the shelf because it means the food contains artery-clogging transfats. If you’re searching for a snack, Taub-Dix suggests including a balance of protein, carbohydrates and fat for lasting energy. For example, have a few whole-grain crackers with slices of Mini Babybel cheese or baby carrots with hummus.
5 Keep your portions in check.
In a perfect world, you’d prepare all your meals at home so you could control exactly what goes into them. But you live in the real world, where business lunches and networking dinners are the norm. So you easily take in excess calories without even realizing it.
A recent study in JAMA Internal Medicine found that fast-food joints aren’t the only ones to blame. Researchers studied smaller Mexican, American, Italian, Chinese, Japanese and Thai restaurants and found the average restaurant meal contains 1,327 calories, or 66 percent of the average person’s allotment of 2,000 calories per day.
For portion control, start with a broth-based soup like minestrone, which helps fill you up on fewer calories before your entrée arrives. When eating at home, serve your meal on a salad plate instead of a larger dinner plate and leave the serving platters on the kitchen counter instead of on the dining table. Research shows you are less likely to go for an extra helping if it’s more than an arm’s length away.
6 Stay hydrated.
Feeling sluggish? Don’t head to the vending machine for a sugar buzz. Instead, try downing a glass or two of water. Even mild dehydration can affect your mood, energy and ability to think clearly, and may also contribute to anxiety and tension, according to University of Connecticut researchers. They found that people experienced the same effects of mild dehydration whether they were sitting or walking on a treadmill for 40 minutes. So even if you spend most of your day planted in front of a computer, it’s crucial to keep a water bottle nearby.
Aim for eight 8-ounce glasses of H2O per day. When possible, choose water over sugary drinks, which pile on calories, deliver zero nutrition and can set the stage for diabetes. Diet soda has its drawbacks, too. A recent Johns Hopkins study found that people who drink diet beverages consume more calories from food.
7 Do something you love.
It’s called working out for a reason. It’s work. That’s why Rachel Cosgrove, a certified strength and conditioning specialist who owns Results Fitness in Santa Clarita, Calif., suggests experimenting until you find exercise you actually like.
“When you find something you truly enjoy, you’ll be more likely to do it, stick with it and experience all of the benefits that come from a more active lifestyle,” she says. Among those benefits: improved focus and productivity. A Swedish study found that when people built exercise into their workday, they accomplished more at work, were able to take on more responsibilities, and were sick less often.
You may discover that running, cycling or swimming is your thing. Or perhaps you enjoy power yoga, or spin classes… playing basketball or racquetball. Discover what kinds of physical activity rev your engine; instead of avoiding exercise you’ll find yourself looking for opportunities to do it.
8 Maximize your workouts.
You don’t have to spend hours in the gym each day to build a leaner, healthier body. “The key is working at a higher intensity for a shorter period of time,” Cosgrove says. She recommends two to three 30-minute strength-training sessions that get your heart rate up per week (you can also separate your cardio and weight-training sessions).
The Busy Body Workout
Strength and conditioning specialist Rachel Cosgrove developed this exercise program specifically for SUCCESS readers who are short on time. It targets every major muscle group over two separate workouts. Keep your rest periods short—about 30 seconds between exercises, so your heart rate stays elevated the entire time. After completing all four exercises, rest for two minutes and do a second set.
• Plank, 30 seconds
• Squats holding dumbbells, eight to
• Bent-over dumbbell rows, eight to 10 reps
• Step-ups (place right foot flat on a step, step left foot up to meet it, lower left foot back down), eight to 10 reps
• Side plank, 30 seconds each side
• Lateral lunge, eight to 10 reps each side
• Rotating T-Stabilization Push-up (after a push-up, turn your body to face the side so you’re balancing on one arm and reach the opposite arm toward the ceiling to form a “T”), four to five reps each side
• Romanian Deadlift (hold dumbbells in each hand, bend at the waist until torso is parallel with the floor and stand back up), eight to 10 reps
9 Get out of your chair.
You may want to read this standing up: Sitting for long periods of time increases your risk of diabetes, heart disease, cancer and death. A University of Leicester study found this sad reality holds true even if you exercise regularly. The harmful effects of desk jockeying are due to more than just the fact that sitting burns few calories (though that certainly plays a role).
Inactivity may reduce levels of an enzyme your muscles produce called lipoprotein lipase. Insufficient levels of this enzyme are associated with decreased HDL (good) cholesterol and heart disease. What’s more, when you don’t move around enough your muscles are less effective at gobbling up glucose, which can put you at risk for developing type 2 diabetes.
Seek out ways to incorporate more motion into your daily life. Set a cellphone reminder to stand and move around for a few minutes every hour. Take your phone calls on your feet. And you may also want to consider investing in a standing desk, or even a treadmill desk.
10 Sleep more soundly.
When your schedule gets full, sleep is often the first thing to go (giving up sleep is the only way to build more hours into your day), but the opposite should be true. ZZZ-time helps you feel rested so you can face the challenges of your day with a clearer, fresher mind. Plus inadequate rest can affect appetite-related hormones: Participants consumed 22 percent more calories when they snoozed for only four hours compared to those who clocked eight hours between the sheets, according to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
Keeping a consistent bedtime is also key—people who sleep and wake around the same time every day have less body fat than those whose sleep schedules vary more widely.
One of the best things you can do to improve your sleep quality: Power down. The more you use your smartphone after 9 p.m., the less you sleep, the worse your sleep quality, and the more mentally fatigued you feel the next day, according to Michigan State University researchers.
About an hour before bed, turn off all those glowing rectangles and unwind with a warm shower, calming music and a book (not an e-book). Two hours of exposure to light from a tablet reduces concentrations of melatonin, a hormone essential for sleep, by about 22 percent, according to a study in Applied Ergonomics.