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Simple Ways to Be Healthier

September 19, 2010

Source: KOREA.NET on flickr

Tea is drunk to forget the din of the world. -T’ien Yiheng

In the last few years, I’ve spent a lot of time finding ways to be healthier without dedicating huge chunks of time or money that I don’t have. While a lot of the success I’ve come across has been the result of some pretty big changes, I have found that the most basic and important things come from small changes. Increased energy levels, better sleep, better digestion, feeling calmer and more relaxed, less pain, and better relationships have all been the result of the smaller, cheaper alternations I’ve made to my life. When these things fall off, problems occur. Here are some really small changes you can make to improve your life in noticeable ways.

Take deeper breaths

I used to meditate a lot more than I do now, but finding the time to sit quietly in peace became difficult in college. If I had any quiet time, I preferred to be sleeping. When I stopped, I did notice I was a lot more stressed, but I discovered that many of the benefits of meditation could be had simply by taking deeper breaths.

If you aren’t familiar with deep breathing exercises, the concept is simple. Instead of breathing with your upper chest, you instead breathe into your belly. A good way to practice this is to lie flat on the floor and place one hand on your belly and the other on your chest. When you breathe, try to only let the hand on your belly rise. Breathing in this way utilizes the diaphragm (the muscle intended for breathing) and thus allows for a much higher oxygen intake. Upper chest breathing mimics an anxious breathing pattern, utilizes muscles that only contribute to breath in a secondary way, and is not as efficient, leading to less oxygen.

There are numerous health benefits to belly breathing. Among them are reduced stress levels, lowered heart rate, and improved digestion. Over the long term, these things can add up to help prevent chronic disease. With practice, belly breathing can become your default breathing pattern, and simply setting a few minutes a day to take some deep breaths will make you noticeably more relaxed. Do it right now. You’ll immediately feel calmer and less anxious.

For more information, some exercises, and a bit of history, check out this article.

Drink Green Tea

There is no real substitute for a hearty breakfast, but I have found that a steaming cup of green tea does a pretty good job of invigorating my mind and body. As a supplement to a good breakfast, it completes the morning ritual and gets my day off to a perfect start. On its own, it is still a very good way to perk up and start the day off right. I used to drink green tea exclusively in the morning, but I found it doesn’t wake me up as much as coffee, though it does have caffeine in it. However, coffee doesn’t have all the benefits of green tea. A great way to get green tea into your schedule is to trade off with coffee occasionally. If you feel pretty awake, go for the tea.

The health benefits of tea are pretty diverse. Green tea in particular has a lot of strong antioxidants, which protect your body’s cells from damage caused by oxygenation. Basically, it keeps you younger by preventing wear and tear on your cells. It also has been shown to help people control their weight. And there is nothing more invigorating than sipping a cup of piping hot tea while watching the sun rise in the morning. Taking the time to drink it slowly and make it from scratch can be a grounding ritual before you start your crazy and busy work day.

Eat Real Food

The choice to avoid artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives eliminated my asthma and seasonal allergies, gave me much more focus, and almost completely did away with afternoon lethargy. Minor aches and pain pretty much disappeared as well.

The trick to make this work is just to start reading ingredient labels, and simply being aware of your food. Things to avoid are added colors and flavors (artificial and so-called natural flavors), preservatives, and things that sound like chemicals. If you don’t recognize the ingredient by name, it’s probably not good for you.

This change might be difficult to implement, except that almost all foods, even those that come in boxes, have varieties with clean ingredients. Find a brand you like and trust, or buy the locally produced stuff from the supermarket bakery or deli. A good rule of thumb is to limit processed foods to those with five or fewer ingredients. It’s more a matter of choosing a better version of something than actually changing your eating habits.

Here’s an example. The peanut butter and jelly sandwich, not normally associated with healthy eating, can be made into a nutritious and non-threatening snack. Natural peanut butter is preferable to the ultra-smooth stuff, and go for preserves or jellies made with real sugar, not high fructose corn syrup. Breads only need to be made with flour, water, yeast, and salt.

Apple Cider Vinegar

A really good habit I developed was a morning shot of ACV with a glass of water. ACV helps with digestion, balances blood sugar levels (which means more energy and reduced weight gain), and provides helpful priobiotic bacteria. It’s also really cheap. Go for Bragg’s or some other raw brand with the ‘mother,’ which is the base used for fermentation.

ACV always made me feel a lot more energetic during the day, like my body was clean and running efficiently. I feel that it also did a lot for my skin, though I can’t say for sure. For more information on its numerous health benefits and uses, check out this site.

Get More Sun

Doctors will tell you that more sun leads to more skin cancer and sunburn. I’m not going to try to disprove the entire medical establishment, but here’s an interesting note. When I camp or worked at my summer camp, I spent hours in the sun, working outdoors all day, with no sunscreen. To avoid sunburn, I drank a lot of water, and avoided processed foods and sugar, which dry out your skin. It wasn’t until i spent a bit of time in Florida (where the sun was much more intense and my healthy habits slipped) that I get burned. Humans have evolved to be outdoors, so assuming we take care of our bodies and don’t overdo it, I feel that the sun can only do us good. In fact, a recent study demonstrated that the costs of sun exposure (skin cancer, cataracts) are are far outweighed by the health benefits of sun exposure.

Sun exposure helps elevate vitamin D, which is a nutrient most Americans are horribly deficient in. Most dietary supplements of Vitamin D are poor sources, since they are in forms that cannot be absorbed. Sunscreen blocks the UV rays essential for making Vitamin D. So reconsider wearing tons of sunscreen and enjoy the sun. Start small and build up your tolerance. You’ll feel better for it.

Any quick and easy, free health tips you’ve adopted lately? Please share in the comments.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. David permalink
    September 19, 2010 4:19 pm

    I dont think the study you cite is sufficient to get me out in the sun. Here is a recent study from pubmed:

    • September 19, 2010 6:03 pm

      So basically the article says that the skin is designed to deal with normal sun exposure. Excessive sun exposure, like excessive anything, overwhelms the body and causes damage. Moderate sun is good, just as moderate exercise is good. Excessive sun is bad, just like excessive exercise is bad (it leads to overuse injuries and metabolic stress, possible weight gain, sleep loss, etc). To say that we should take no sun because too much sun is bad is like saying we should take no exercise because excessive exercise is bad. Most Americans don’t get enough sun, as evidenced by vitamin D deficiencies in almost all children and adults, so I think increasing sun exposure in moderation and incrementally would solve more problems than it would create.

      Most people are relatively pale skinned, however. It turns out that the paler your skin, the less sun you need to get the same vitamin D. I’d still avoid the chemicals in sunscreens though and favor hats or light, long-sleeved shirts.

      Incidentally, we also don’t get enough water, and dehydration is a risk factor for sunburn. So that might help too.

  2. David permalink
    September 19, 2010 4:20 pm

    Dig the cider shout out, and the deeper breaths sounds great! Im doing it now, and its invigorating.

  3. David permalink
    September 19, 2010 4:25 pm

    PS. As a man, I think that competition helps keep me psychologically more stable, and younger at spirit. I take out what little rage or negativity I have, cathartically and constructively. It also gives me a confidence boost when I win, and gives me a lesson in humility when I lose. The effects of these play out in social interactions nicley. And there is nothing more satisfying than kicking ass.

    • September 19, 2010 4:58 pm

      I agree about competition. Inserting a bit of competition into life is a good way to keep you on your toes and working to stay your best.

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