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5 things you can do to improve your health that have nothing to do with dieting

As a family physician, I spend a lot of time with patients focusing on how to best take care of themselves to prevent or manage chronic disease. Often when I meet a patient who is taking steps to improve their health, the first thing that they do is make changes to what they are eating. There is a lot of conflicting and inaccurate information out there about nutrition, so in many cases these patients end up following a fad diet or excessively restricting their intake which can actually backfire and worsen their health, both mentally and physically.

Good nutrition is certainly important for overall health, but it is just one piece of the puzzle. For many patients, especially those who have experienced harm from chronic dieting or disordered eating behaviors such as restricting, binging, or purging, I find that focusing on "optimal" nutrition first is not always the most helpful way to improve health.

If you want to take steps to improve your health without dieting- here are five things I recommend doing every day that don't take up much time and have nothing to do with food but will have a big impact.

  1. Aim for at least 7-8hrs of sleep each night: This is easier said than done (especially for parents of young kids!), but adequate restful sleep is essential for wellbeing. Poor sleep has profound effects on your metabolism, cardiovascular system, and mental health. There is no diet or exercise plan or pill that will overcome the effects of inadequate sleep on your body. There are seasons of life in which getting 7-8 consecutive hours of sleep is unrealistic (parents of newborns and young children understand this!). However, you can always prioritize rest and try to fit in naps when possible to compensate. Most of us stay up later than we intend to at night as we get caught up with tasks that were not completed during the day, or as time gets away from us while watching TV or scrolling devices. I encourage my patients to use the notification restrictions on their phones to shut down notifications in the evenings and to set themselves a bedtime (you can even use an alarm for this!) based on when they know they will need to wake up in the morning. Avoid screen use for at least 1-2hrs before bedtime and create a relaxing bedtime routine to help ease yourself into sleep. If you are consistently sleeping 7-8hrs but still do not feel rested during the day, if you snore loudly or have woken up gasping for air overnight, or if you wake up with headaches, these can be signs of sleep apnea and it is important to discuss this with your doctor. Sleep apnea causes poor sleep quality and is just as damaging as sleep deprivation, but it can be treated! Treatment of sleep apnea has huge implications for improving overall health.

  2. Meditate: The benefits of meditation are well documented but many of us struggle to give ourselves the time or mental space to meditate. Meditation can sometimes feel overwhelming if it is something new to you- there can be a lot of pressure to do it "correctly." I have found an easy way to start meditating is to set an alarm on your phone for the amount of time you want to give yourself to meditate and then lie down or sit comfortably with eyes closed or looking at a bare wall or ceiling. Thoughts may come up- don't stress about this, just let them go. Don't beat yourself up if you are not able to keep your mind "blank." The more often you meditate the better you will get at it, and you will be surprised at the results! When you are meditating consistently you will likely experience lower stress levels, less anxiety, improved sleep, lower blood pressure, and an improved general sense of well being.

  3. Make time for movement: The fitness and weight loss industries' messaging about exercise is often centered on punishment. Exercise is often touted to burn calories to compensate for or "earn" certain foods or with the goal of making a certain body part smaller or changing its shape. I find this messaging very harmful because it creates a very negative mindset about one's body and takes away the joy that movement can bring. I recommend that my patients engage in some form of movement that they enjoy every day. Joyful, mindful movement does not involve spending hours at the gym working out to the point of exhaustion or injury. The point of movement is to keep your body active and strong as well as to feel connected to yourself and how you feel. On some days movement might be more vigorous such as playing sports with friends, hiking, or dancing, on other days what feels best for your body may be a restorative yoga session or a leisurely walk. The more you engage in movement, the better you will be able to connect with how you feel and what you need in a given day.

  4. Make a meaningful connection: Human beings are social by nature. We need meaningful connection with others to survive and thrive. While our society is increasingly connected through social media, the meaning in this connectedness is being lost. I encourage my patients to spend some time every day making a meaningful connection with a friend or loved one. This could be spending some time playing with friends or your kids (you can knock out movement with this too!), snuggling on the couch with your partner, calling a friend, or even writing a card or letter. If you are intentional about including some connection in your day every day, you will see improved relationships as well as improved mood and overall wellbeing.

  5. Spend time on personal growth: I highly recommend spending some time every day focused on personal growth. This could be reading a book or listening to a podcast to learn more about a topic of interest, or reviewing your personal goals for the week, the year, or the next 10 years. Modern life is extremely busy and full of distractions, it is easy to lose sight of our long-term goals while just trying to make it through the day each day. Even if you can spend just 5 minutes a day on this, you will start to see gradual progress that will give you forward momentum to keep you going when times are tough. By building this into a habit, you are choosing to invest in yourself every day and you will see the benefits of this in your health and life compounding over time.

I hope you will consider trying some or all of these tips and let me know how they worked for you!

If you are looking for support in improving your health to prevent or manage a chronic disease- we can help! Current patients- please visit our members only scheduling page to schedule an appointment to discuss how we can implement these tips into your care plan. If you are not yet a patient- we are still accepting new patients for our membership direct primary care program. Visit our website to learn more and become a member!

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