In my last post, I set out some tips for successful habit change. One key tip was not to try to adopt too many new habits in one go. If you only make one change, let’s make sure it is one that will really make a difference to your health and one that you can do easily. I’ve put together a short list of my favourite habits that I encourage my clients to embrace. These are all easy to implement and, if added to your current lifestyle, can bring big health benefits. Choose one to implement today!
Top healthy habits
1: Have a 12-hour period with no calorie intake overnight
In a study of healthy young men, just extending the time they went without food overnight resulted in weight loss without the men making any other changes to their diet. The benefits of this 12 hour overnight fast go beyond weightloss. Studies have shown benefits for heart health, sleep, gut health, cholesterol levels and blood glucose.
12 hours might sound a long time, but you’ll be asleep for most of it! If you have your last food at 7pm, you can have breakfast at 7am. If you prefer to eat later, go for 8pm to 8am without calories.
If you find this easy, try extending the time to 14 hours or 16 hours: evidence points to possible greater benefits from longer overnight fasts. I routinely fast from 7pm to 12 noon, pretty much every day. I’m convinced it was a major factor in my own health improvements.
2: Stop eating 3 hours before bedtime
Eating earlier in the evening helps to prepare our bodies for bedtime as we have finished digesting our food before we go to bed, it also helps to regulate our body clocks and eating earlier has been shown to improve several health markers, such as blood sugar and body weight.
If you adopt this habit, you’ll likely also be doing a 12-hour overnight fast, and vice versa!
3: Prioritise good sleep: stop using electronic devices an hour before bed
The value of good sleep for health is often under-rated. Studies show that sleeping for fewer than 6 hours a night is associated with obesity, diabetes and hypertension. The average sleep requirement is 7.5 hours. If you’re getting fewer than 6 hours of good quality sleep, it can increase your appetite and hunger levels.
A common cause of poor sleep is the damaging effect of blue light emitted from electronic devices such as laptops, tablets and mobile phones. The spectrum of light from these devices contains a lot of blue light and blue light destroys the sleep hormone, melatonin.
4: Practice yoga or deep breathing exercises
Yoga, tai chi, and any activity which includes deep, slow breathing are well-known for their calming properties. In today’s high-stress world we could all do with improving our stress resilience. Slow breathing works by activating the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The parasympathetic works in opposition to the sympathetic nervous system (which stimulates release of adrenaline and other stress hormones).
Belly breathing increases parasympathetic tone and decreases sympathetic tone, resulting in relaxation. By contrast, breathing high into the lungs and limiting abdominal movement when breathing increases sympathetic tone and decreases parasympathetic tone, resulting in increased feelings of stress. As well as benefiting your stress resilience, activating the parasympathetic can help digestion and inflammation.
Include yoga or a similar activity into your daily routine: even taking a few moments every day to practice some deep breathing will be helpful.
5: Serve your vegetables first
When you serve out your dinner are the vegetables an afterthought? Do they take up the space left after you’ve filled your plate with other foods? We all know that vegetables are good for us, but most of us struggle to eat as much as we should. A simple way to get more vegetables into your life is to fill half of your plate with vegetables before you add the other foods. Ideally you will have around a quarter of your plate filled with a protein source (e.g., meat, fish etc), and the remaining quarter (or less) with starchy foods.
Of course, half a plate of peas might be rather dull, so you’ll also need to think about including several different vegetables in that half-plate! The greater the variety of vegetables we eat, the better it is for our health, so if you decide this new habit is for you, prepare well by shopping for a rainbow of vegetables!
6: Move your body: all through the day
Joining a gym or taking up some form of exercise is probably one of the commonest New Year resolutions, with new gym memberships peaking in January. However, going to the gym for an hour after work may not be enough activity to reduce your health risks. It’s been found that prolonged sitting brings health risks regardless of how much formal exercise you do. By contrast, getting up frequently and moving about brings great health benefits.
Try setting an alarm on your phone to remind you to get up and move around every 20-30 minutes throughout the day.
Which new habit will you adopt?