If you are trying to lose weight, prevent or treat a chronic condition like diabetes, or improve your health in general, knowing what to do can be confusing. Being “healthier” can include an almost endless list of small changes, making you unsure where to begin.

Nutrition trends tend to focus on single foods or ingredients rather than on changes that will have a significant impact on your diet and health. For example, adding chia seeds to a smoothie is unlikely to make you any healthier, but eating more fruits and vegetables certainly will. The same is true for fitness fads, most of which offer little benefit beyond simply dedicating time for regular exercise.

To really improve your health, you should focus on making changes that will have a big impact. Here are a few ideas to help you get started.

1. Sit less, move more, be active every day

Research shows that sitting too much is almost as unhealthy as not exercising. Spending less time sitting at work, home, or in the car is an easy way to improve your health. Getting up and moving for even a few minutes is better than staying seated for long periods of time. Every little bit of activity really does count.

Significant health benefits, including weight loss and improved fitness, can be achieved with as little as 30 minutes of activity per day, but more is better. The activity doesn’t have to be “exercise.” It can include walking the dog, yard work or housework, but there are significant additional health and fitness benefits from regular aerobic, strength and flexibility exercise.

2. Eat smart, and not too much

Making dietary changes can be difficult, but first you need to figure out what to do. Fortunately, a few simple changes can lead to big benefits. While there is much debate about which diet is the healthiest, almost everyone agrees that eating more real food, especially fruits and vegetables, and less added sugar is a good place to start.

Fresh fruits and vegetables are rich in vitamins, minerals and fiber and most are low in calories.

Eating less added sugar in sweets and processed foods can help you cut down on calories and lead you toward healthier food choices. Controlling portion sizes plays as big of a role in weight maintenance as the types of food you eat, so pay attention to how much you eat. Chances are, it is more than you think.

3. Chill out and get your ZZZs

Reducing and managing stress is essential for good health. Uncontrolled stress can lead to high blood pressure, poor immune function and weight gain. Daily exercise will help, as will using as will stress management techniques like progressive relaxation and breathing exercises.

Getting enough sleep is also important for good physical and mental health. Sleep is important because it provides a condition under which energy can be directed toward growth and recovery rather than other activities. This is essential for the brain, muscles and other organs, which renewed during sleep.

4. Don’t smoke

Smoking cigarettes more than doubles your risk of heart disease and stroke, and is by far the leading cause of lung cancer and other lung diseases. If you smoke, quitting now is one of the most important things you can do to improve your health. Nicotine replacement therapy and prescription medications can help, but quitting really does require serious dedication. It’s well worth the effort and the benefits of quitting can be realized almost immediately.

Brian Parr, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Exercise and Sports Science at USC Aiken where he teaches courses in exercise physiology, nutrition and health behavior. You can learn more about this and other health and fitness topics at http://drparrsays.com or on Twitter @drparrsays.


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