What even happened?
It feels like yesterday we had our spare tire comfortably hidden under a chunky knit sweater, and now we’re frantically digging through our closet for a cardigan that we can strategically drape over our extra roll.
It happens to us every year: warmer temperatures hit us with the hard reality that in a few short months it won’t only be our cat privy to us striping off the layers. Not to mention the mental funk spurred by frigid temperatures that we definitely need to shake before we can enjoy outdoor workouts and cocktails on the patio.
Looks like those half-assed jogs on the treadmill (and post-workout “smoothies” spiked with peanut butter and chocolate chips) aren’t going to cut it anymore. Instead of throwing yourself into an intense routine of raw salads and CrossFit classes that leaves you too sore and emotionally scarred to move for the next week, try adding these tiny tweaks to your current routine. You will increase the intensity of your workout, clean up your diet, and start regaining control of your mental health (which is just starting to emerge from under the weight of the winter blues).
- Play with TRX bands: Studies show that doing a suspended pushup using TRX bands activated the abdominals 184 percent more than a standard pushup. And another study found that when it came to core muscle activation, the TRX outperformed the standard pushup and bench press. Summer body, here we come!
- Banish winter blues with complex carbs. Carbohydrates prompt the brain to make more serotonin, a neurotransmitter that elevates mood. And incorporating low-glycemic, complex carbohydrates provides a steady rise in blood sugar that can have a calming effect on the brain.
- Visit the app store. Getting back to the basics of health—exercising regularly, prepping healthy meals and minimizing stress—doesn’t have to be time consuming. Download a few health-focused apps that will help you get things back on track, from workouts to recipes to games to give your mental health a boost.
- Combat work-day fatigue. We know the mid-afternoon slump all to well. But you can have an arsenal of tools in your back pocket to combat tiredness and power you through the rest of the afternoon (and through your workout). Some energy-boosting tricks? Smell citrus, take a walk, drink a glass of water, and re-adjust your posture (sitting upright can increase positive thoughts and energy levels).
- Pre-game your workout. The right snack can make the difference between a killer workout and one where you feel like you’re running on fumes. A carb/protein combo is key for a sustained energy boost: two hours before you hit the gym have 0.45 grams of carbohydrate per pound of bodyweight and a little protein, like two slices of toast with just a little jam or jelly on top.
- And don’t forget the after party. The right post-workout snack is key for replenishing depleted energy stores and helping your body recover. If it will be a few hours before you have a meal, supplement with a recovery-inducing snack like six to eight ounces of fat-free chocolate milk, 6 ounces of low-fat Greek yogurt, or a stick of string cheese with a few whole-grain crackers.
- Roll it out. Myofascial release is having a moment. And the foam roller is the simple tool you can keep in the corner of your bedroom that will enable you to jump on the bandwagon. The process uses gentle pressure to roll out muscles, which helps to reduce soreness, improve range of motion and alignment, and release tension in the body—all which enable you to push yourself harder (and more effectively) in the gym.
- Schedule in time to do nothing. Studies show that rumination, or the stress within a person’s mind, can have adverse affects on our health. The antidote? Leisure time. These activities, when mentally engaging, break the cycle of rumination and worry, allowing you to recharge before tackling the sources of your stress. So leave extra time in your day to wander through a bookstore, go to the movies or take a walk with no clear destination in mind.
- Stand up from your desk. You spend 8 hours a day sitting in your cubicle. Studies show that this kind of sedentary behavior outweighs the benefit we get from exercise, and increases our chances of disease. Make a point to break up your sitting time by getting up once an hour to get some water, chat with a co-worker or just do a lap around the office.
- Listen to this song when you’re super stressed. The fact that music can impact (and help us manage our emotions) is old news. But when it comes to quelling anxiety and soothing stress, one track reigns supreme. Researchers found “Weightless” by Marconi Union, an English ambient music band, to be 11 percent more relaxing than any other song—causing a 65 percent reduction in stress among participants.
- Grab a kettle bell. Summer is around the corner—it’s time to add some kettle bell training to your workout routine. Research sponsored by the American Council on Exercise (ACE) found that kettlebell training significantly boosts aerobic capacity, while also improving core strength and dynamic balance. The kettlebell workout resulted in a burning of 20.2 calories per minute, which is equivalent to running a 6-minute mile pace.
- Ditch the alarm clock. It probably comes as no surprise that the blaring beep of your alarm can cause a sudden elevation of blood pressure and heart rate due to the release of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. Swap the siren or rock song for natural sounds such as birds chirping, or skip the alarm altogether and give a dawn alarm clock a try; they work by emitting ever increasing amounts of light into your room at a set time to slowly roust you.
- And definitely don’t hit snooze. It may feel good in the moment but snoozing is actually fragmenting what little extra sleep you’re getting, so the extra quantity is of poor quality. Plus, you’re starting to put yourself through a new sleep cycle that you aren’t giving yourself enough time to finish. This can result in persistent grogginess throughout the day.
- Use self-guided positive imagery to combat negative emotions. The basic premise of the technique is that you work on eliminating troublesome images (spurred by fear, anxiety, etc.) by creating healthy alternatives, including positive images of the future. Not only has the technique been shown to make people feel happier, but scientists observed changes in the activity in the region of the brain involved in imaging pleasant emotions and contributing to the degree of satisfaction with life. So the training actually has the ability to change your brain and optimize your emotional state.
- Use snacks strategically in your diet. No, they are not meant to fill a craving. Or keep your hands busy when you’re bored at work. A snack is a mini meal that should provide nutrients to stabilize blood-sugar levels.
- Buy a journal … and write in it daily. The act of writing is a major stress buster, and has been shown to combat depression, improve memory and clear your mind. There’s some very real benefits for our physical health as well: studies show the habit lowers blood pressure, strengthens our immune system and our heart, and can even lengthen our lifespan.
- Walk the plank. Standard planks are one of the best core exercises out there. But adding gliders kicks them up a notch. Adding gliding discs amplifies the standard exercise, making planks even more challenging by engaging not only your core (for a more intense ab workout), but your upper and lower body as well.
- Count to 30 before you indulge in a treat. Buffer your compulsory decision-making (spurred by a growling stomach) by setting a 30-second timer before chowing down on that candy bar. A recent study showed that a 25-second delay before an unhealthy snack was dispensed from a vending machine was enough to make people reconsider their choice.
- Change your body language to alter your mental state. Sometimes when we’re tired, sad, or angry there’s no way of talking ourselves into a more positive emotional state. Luckily, our bodies can do it for us. Embodied cognition is the fancy term used to describe the strong relationship between our minds and our bodies. Sitting up straight, smiling and putting your hands on your hips are all physical changes that illicit emotional shifts—whether you’re in need of a mood, confidence or energy boost.
- Race the person next to you on the treadmill. A recent study found that competition was a far stronger motivation for exercise than friendly support, with attendance rates 90 percent higher in the competitive groups. So invite your BFF to the gym—and then challenge yourself to keep up with their burpee count in class.
- Ditch the salt shaker. We know, sprinkling on a little sea salt is the east way to amp up the flavor of any weeknight meal. But nixing it from your diet is also one of the easier ways to start feeling—and looking—healthier. Americans consume way. too. much. salt. And all that sodium increases blood pressure, makes us bloated and disrupts our sleep. The good news? There are hundreds of other spices that can add just as much flavor, without upping the sodium count.
- Put your money where your goals are. If strutting your stuff on the beach isn’t enough motivation to keep you on the straight and narrow when it comes to your diet and fitness routine, maybe watching your bank account tick upwards will be. There are a handful of smartphone apps that will actually pay you for making healthy choices. Yes, eating that plate of veggies is earning you cold hard cash. So munch away.
- Set an embarrassingly easy fitness goal. Like running to the end of your block easy. The brain produces dopamine every time you achieve something, no matter how small it is—yes, that includes running around the block. So if you’re having a hard time finding the motivation to hit the gym, tricking your brain into rewarding you for a not-so-ambitious goal is a sneaky way of manufacturing that motivation you’re in need of.
- Give your social media a deep-clean. Go through every page you’re following and remove any that don’t serve your mind or body well—that includes the unhealthy dessert blogger, the anger-inducing Trump supporterland the ex from college you still stalk not the regular. Then beef your feed back up with healthier influences: fitness and healthy recipe bloggers, friends and colleagues who share funny and upbeat posts, and human-interest pages that breed all the warm and fuzzies.
- Tweet out positive vibes. While you’re on social media, be sure to check your tone. A new study found a direct link between a person’s attitude on social media and the likelihood that their dieting efforts will succeed. Those who were not successful often had Twitter feeds with a negative tone, with posts that tended to be more uneasy and fearful, while those who met their healthy diet goals tended to have a sunnier outlook. Instead of the grumpy updates and melancholy song lyrics fueled by your sugar deprivation, the researchers suggest tweeting out inspirational quotes.
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