Smile, breathe, relax. There. Feel better? Surely it can’t be that easy to lead a happy and healthy life. But there are a few simple changes we can make in our daily routine to vastly improve our health and well-being, and in turn, the health and well-being of our communities. By taking better care of ourselves, we become better parents, spouses, co-workers and stewards of our communities. So what follows is a list of five ways to keep healthy, happy and well balanced in the new year.
1) Breathe: “When you own your breath, nobody can steal your peace,” says an anonymous sage. Learning how to breath properly is vital for our well-being. Respiration delivers oxygen needed to nourish and purify the body. Our breath also has a major influence on our mind. Calm breath, calm mind. By lengthening our breaths we engage the parasympathetic nervous system, taking ourselves out of “fight or flight” mode and easing into “rest and digest” mode. So see how conscious you can be about your breathing patterns throughout the day. And if you find yourself getting overwhelmed, angry or unsettled, try deepening your breath by filling your lungs slowly and deeply from the bottom all the way up, then exhale from the bottom of the lungs to the top again. Repeat this a few times and notice the difference.
2) Eat Well: We, quite literally, are what we eat. If we consume processed and synthetic foods, our body has to work harder to assimilate what we consume—and often can’t accomplish it—which results in our ailing health. But if we favor local, seasonal, organic, non-GMO (non-genetically modified organisms), whole—or at least minimally processed—foods, then not only do we nourish ourselves, but we also pay respect to the Earth and the resources necessary to get the food to our plate. Buy whole foods. If something has a label, read it. If it contains words that you don’t recognize or can’t pronounce, chances are it doesn’t belong in your belly. Shop at your local farmers’ market. And if you can’t, then at least stay on the perimeter of the grocery store, where the food is fresh (not packaged), and there are often local and organic options. And eat less. We Americans have a penchant for doing everything BIG. That includes portion sizes. A simple way to cut our food budget, and a couple inches off our waistline, is to only eat as much as your body really needs. Aim for 1,200-2,000 calories a day. Eat slowly. Taste your food. Savor and enjoy it. New Mexicans are blessed with an abundant local food supply. By supporting your local growers, you support and nourish yourself and your community.
3) Sleep Well: Quality sleep is essential for a person’s optimal health and well-being. Each person has his or her own individual sleep needs, but any less than an average of six hours per night and you deprive your body and mind of the much-needed reprieve from the day’s events. Seven to eight hours of nightly sleep is ideal for most. If you have difficulty sleeping, avoid alcoholic and caffeinated beverages in the afternoon and evening. Also unplug electronic devices at least an hour before going to bed. If you can, take a few minutes to wind down before getting ready for sleep. Meditating and sitting quietly with a cup of hot herbal tea are simple yet profound ways to promote optimal rest. If you can, go to sleep and wake up around the same times every day to tune in with your natural circadian rhythms. Research indicates that getting ample sleep can reduce inflammation in the body, sharpen your attention, aid in healthy weight loss and significantly lower stress levels. Not only will you feel good, you’ll be a pleasure to be around.
4) Be Kind. Being kind to others and to ourselves provides a steady flow of endorphins, the body’s natural pain inhibitors, which can help contribute to our sense of physical and emotional well-being. When we give of ourselves we foster a strong sense of confidence and optimism. Our kindness also inspires others to be kind, which helps contribute to a stronger sense of family and community. What’s more, we are much more likely to receive the same kindness in return during our own times of need. It might feel counterintuitive at first to smile at or open a door for a stranger. But if you follow the Golden Rule, “Due unto others as you would have them due unto you,” you just might find that it benefits you as much, if not more, than those to whom you are expressing kindness.
5) Spend Time in Nature: The Southwest abounds with wild spaces and nature to explore, and studies show that spending even 20 minutes outside every day can have a vast impact on our vitality. “Nature is fuel for the soul,” says Richard Ryan, a professor of psychology at the University of Rochester. “Often when we feel depleted we reach for a cup of coffee, but research suggests a better way to get energized is to connect with nature,” he says. Spending time outdoors is a natural immunity- and energy-booster. Spending time outdoors contributes to our sense of interconnectedness with all beings, which is vital in this age of rapidly evolving technology. Most folks these days are subsumed with computers and smartphones and would rather Google a ladder-backed woodpecker than actually find one in the wild. But by taking even a few minutes each day to commune with nature, we are more apt to remember that we are all—from the tiny caterpillar and cholla cactus to the human being—in this life and this consciousness together.
Vast life improvements often begin with small, incremental changes in your daily routine. So even if you can’t log 10 hours of shuteye every night or eat only local, organic meals, don’t give up. If all you have each day are a few 30-second bursts to focus on your health and well-being, then try the “smile, breathe and relax” method. You just might find that those brief, blissful moments have the capability to bring a bit of peace and happiness to yourself and those around you, the effects of which can really add up during the course of the year.
Celestia Loeffler is a wordsmith and yoga instructor from Santa Fe. email@example.com, www.loreoftheland.org