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Making Healthy Living a Habit

We hear it all the time: "have a healthy lifestyle!" It's simple advice yet it brings with it a chill of terror as we become overwhelmed with what this may actually mean to our lives.

"Eat healthy!" "Exercise more!" "Reduce stress!" "Get quality sleep!"

Great. Thanks?

Other than making for a confusing word cloud, this is all pretty useless advice. Who doesn't want to eat better, exercise, cut stress, and get a good night's sleep? We sometimes look to other people and see them achieving these goals and wonder how in the world we will ever live up to those standards.

The thing is, putting off addressing these basic building blocks of a healthy lifestyle helps no one. What we need to fully understand is that we don't do these things because we are healthy, we do these things so that our bodies are ready to face a major illness or injury. It's great to fit into a smaller size jeans, but it's even better to survive cancer. Here are some of my tips for how to adopt a more healthy lifestyle before you face a major calamity.

Getting Started

No one "likes" having to begin a new health regimen, but the difference between those who get to working at it, and those who put it off, is simply discipline. And like everything else that's worth doing, we have to practice discipline. If you begin your new lifestyle change with the attitude of "this is going to be difficult," or "I don't think I can do these things," then you are setting yourself up for failure before you even begin. You don't need to be perfect at the changes, you just need to start. One little change can lead to more changes and eventually to big changes that affect your life in profound ways. Go easy at first, and before you know it, you'll be amazed at all the changes you've ended up making!

So, before you begin, identify what your goals are: I want to eat better; I want to exercise more; I want to sleep better. And then ask yourself what do those things mean to you? Is "eating better" going to mean becoming vegetarian? Does "exercising more" mean running a marathon? Be realistic in your goals, and you'll be more successful in the end. Let's get started!!

Eating Better

Disclaimer: If, by now, you don't know that I'm vegan, then let this be your notice. I don't expect people around me to be vegan, I just hope that some of the choices I make will inspire them to make similar choices. As we explore eating better, keep in mind I don't want to make an army of vegans, I am just using examples from my diet to illustrate my points.

Let's begin with this exercise. In your mind's eye, imagine opening the freezer to see two things staring at you: a pint of Ben & Jerry's Chocolate Fudge Brownie ice cream and a bag of frozen bananas. If you're like me, you just thought: it's Banana Split time!! Let's say you have to choose between those two items, though. It's a powerful desire to grab that pint of ice cream -- and believe me, I could eat the whole thing in one sitting. But the fact is, that one pint of ice cream contains 1040 calories -- that's 50% of the standard 2000 calorie diet the average person should be following. It also contains 108 g of sugar which is nearly five times the amount of sugar you should eat in one day. So, what if, instead of reaching for the pint of ice cream, you reach for the bananas and make yourself a smoothie? Using unsweetened almond milk, a frozen banana, and a scoop of something like Vega Protein + Greens nutritional shake mix, you can have a very tasty milkshake (in fact, a full meal) for a fraction of the calories (approximately 270). And, because it's full of healthy proteins and fiber, you will feel full when you're done. Unlike the ice cream, the only sugar in the shake comes from the banana. To me, this is a no brainer and it's something I can do every single day. I restrained myself from making a terrible dietary choice with the ice cream, and I've incorporated a new healthy (and very tasty) option covering one of my daily meals.

But, let's say you're not interested in a meal replacement shake. Take an honest look at your daily menu and try to identify foods that you know aren't good for you or that you know you can do without. Do you really need waffles covered in syrup for breakfast every day? If your aim is to begin cutting sugar from your diet, then there are obvious problems with this meal. What if you were to switch to a low or no sugar cereal with unsweetened almond milk? Are you hoping to add more vegetables to your diet? I hate salad, but I understand if you think this might be an easy lunch option to take to work or have on hand in your fridge. I'm a huge fan of making a couscous "salad" filled with shredded red cabbage, red peppers, spring onions, green lentils, parsley, and dressed with red vinegar and curry powder. Keeping a large container of this sort of option in the fridge means I can take a few spoonfuls for lunch or a snack and know that I'm eating something good for me. Again, if your goal is to eliminate or reduce the amount of meat in your diet, there are so many ways to do this now. Back in the olden days, "vegan food" was very limited. Instead of chicken, we had tofu or maybe portabello mushrooms. But now, there are so many faux meats to choose from, including faux deli meats for sandwiches. Try some out as you adapt your familiar recipes with these options. As you get more comfortable with cooking without meat, you can remove the faux meats (which aren't healthy) and experiment with different vegetables or other proteins like tempeh, seitan, and jackfruit. Or not! I don't eat any of those things and I am perfectly happy and healthy.

When making dietary changes, though, it's very important that you begin by making small changes you can live with. Don't overhaul your entire menu all at once. Begin with one small change at a time. I recommend beginning by changing out cow's milk for plain unsweetened almond or soy milk because you can use it exactly the same way as you're used to (cereal, mashed potatoes, creamy sauces, etc.). Personally, I don't like the "vanilla" flavored plant milks, but you might. The next change you may make is asking yourself if there are high calorie, high fat items you can reduce or eliminate over the week. Keep in mind that cholesterol and fat are part of a healthy diet, but within the correct parameters. Identify things that can be changed (the type of oil you're using) and avoid prepackaged foods that say "low" or "reduced fat" because these things are anything but "healthier" choices.

Lastly, one rule that I follow is I don't eat anything that comes from a can, box, or bag, and nothing that I can't recreate in my own kitchen. If I read the ingredients and can't pronounce them, forget it. I'm not eating it. Cutting back on sugar, processed foods, fast food/restaurants, and prepackaged meals goes a long way to cleaning up your diet!

Exercise More

Just do it!! That's all there is to it.

"I can't run a mile!" So you can't go for a walk?

I tell people to try yoga and the first thing they say to me is, "I can't touch my toes!" So what? I couldn't touch my toes when I started yoga, either. Did YoYo Ma refuse to take cello lessons because he couldn't already play the Elgar Concerto? NO!! Everyone starts at the beginning, so stop using this as an excuse to not exercise.

Walking is the best exercise there is. This is why, after surgery, every doctor and nurse you come in contact with will tell you to walk. No one is telling you to run The Boston Marathon or compete in the Tour de France. Walk. Put on your shoes and step out your front door. How far you go is up to you, but in the beginning you have to set goals. If you are mobile, then you are capable of walking every day. And each day, you can increase your distance just a little, and before you know it, you're not just walking an impressive distance, but you're craving the activity.

Just remember this: if you go to the mall, you're going to walk approximately 2500-3000 steps while shopping. Know how far that is? One mile. If you can do that, then you certainly can walk a mile around your neighborhood (and it will certainly save you some money without the shopping detours!). So, stop complaining, get those sneakers on and walk that mile.

What if you want to do something more involved like going to the gym, running, hiking, yoga, pilates, Zumba, etc? Same thing. Get out there and just do it. Like I said, everyone begins at the beginning. Join a beginner class, find a nature trail, but just do it.

Exercising has so many benefits for your body, which I'm not going to bore you with here, because we all know what they are. But what no one ever tells us is that being physically fit helps you cope and recover from major illness and injury. If you have a strong body, it will heal itself at a rate much quicker than someone who spends all day sitting on their sofa eating that Ben & Jerry's. If your body is healthy, the doctors can more easily do their jobs. So when you're out there getting started with your new exercise routine, just keep telling yourself that you're doing this because you care about what happens to you in the future. A strong body will not let you down in your time of need.

Sleep Better

I am a lifelong insomniac. At times, it's been unbearable, I was getting less than 4 hours for many days in a row. It was like my mind could not shut down, I would turn out the lights and lay there with a running list of things I did, didn't do, need to do, have to do, want to do, hope to do, hope won't happen, resent that happened, want to fix ... I would try to sleep with the radio or tv on, and I even tried white noise. I've taken melatonin, Advil PM, marijuana, and Nyquil -- everything shy of sleeping pills. Nothing worked. I might have squeezed a few extra hours of uninterrupted sleep out of the pot, but still, I was never getting that full 8 hours everyone says you're supposed to get.

That was until I had cancer. Now I sleep like a freaking baby. I can get 8 hours. I can wake up in the middle of the night, roll over, and go back to sleep. My mind isn't racing anymore because there is nothing I need to worry about more than cancer. Why worry about bills and emails when there is cancer eating my insides? Although I am thankful that my sleep patterns have changed, it came at a heavy price. No one should have to have cancer in order to get a good night's sleep, so I have spent a lot of my waking hours contemplating why I am suddenly sleeping so well. Learn from my experience so you don't have to go through what I did!!

1) Have a bedtime routine that includes a set bedtime. Don't deviate from this routine -- as soon as you decide "it's time for bed," begin the routine with all the discipline you would use on any other task. Just like with a baby, these sorts of steady routines also help our grown-up minds settle down.

2) Make an actual list. I keep a notepad on my computer desk. Every night, before I begin my bedtime routine, I sit at my desk and make a list of all the things I want to do the next day. The list could be as simple as "shower, read on the patio, play cello," or it could be complicated like, "email orchestra concert information, call Treasurer, email publisher, send tax forms to accountant." Whatever I expect to do the next day, though, I write it down before I go to bed. I no longer have to sort through all these things when I'm supposed to be sleeping. Whether or not I fret about things during the night doesn't solve anything. The same problems will be there in the morning, except I didn't sleep, and I'll be too tired to tackle them.

3) Be comfortable. A crappy mattress means crappy sleep. Scratchy blankets irritate all night. Set the thermostat a little cooler than during the day (it's actually better to sleep in 60-67 temps), open a window, wear light pajamas, but do what you can to keep your body on the cooler side. Sweating through the night on a hard mattress under scratchy blankets is no fun for anyone. Invest in your sleeping situation!

4) This should probably have been closer to the top, but set a time to "close the kitchen" about 3 hours before your bedtime, and then do not eat past this time. If your digestive tract is hard at work all night, you won't be able to truly rest. Our bodies use a lot of energy to digest food, so you want this process to be mostly finished before hitting the hay. If your gut is churning away at a late dinner, fatty or spicy foods, or a sugary bedtime snack, you won't be able to relax. And worse, you may be awakened for a 2 a.m. bathroom visit. Who needs that? Do yourself a favor, and skip the midnight snacks.

BAM! New Lifestyle!

Before you know it, you'll have made so many little changes that your life will be affected in huge ways! You'll notice your digestion is better, you're feeling stronger, and sleeping better. Magic!!

Ok, it's not magic. It's all up to you.


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