December is upon us, and while for most of us that means holidays and parties and more stress than is healthy, it’s also one of my favorite times of the year for thinking about change.
Why? Because you don’t want to be another victim of the New Year’s syndrome, where on December 31 you realize you’re in roughly the same place you were a year ago. Then you resolve to change, and while it feels real in the moment, it’s forgotten by February.
Instead, start now – in early December. So that you can reflect, get inspired, and make intelligent choices about the results you want to create. So that you can lay the groundwork, and take the first few steps to creating the new habits you’ll need.
And so that when New Year’s comes, you’ll be ready.
But there’s just one problem.
Although the month leading up to the day when everybody else likes to announce their changes can be mega-inspiring, it’s also mega-stressful. The sweets, the alcohol, the presents, the in-laws … not exactly a conducive environment for change.
The trick, then, is to start small. Make only the simplest, most stress-free of changes now, to lay a solid foundation for the year ahead.
If the changes you’d like to make relate to your health — or even if they don’t, but you could use some more energy and enthusiasm for whatever other crazy goals you have in mind — here are eight easy, nearly stress-free ways to lay the groundwork before January 1.
This post is sponsored by LARABAR (which I consider an honor, since we go through LARABARs like crazy in my house). All opinions are my own, of course.
1. Start each day with a smoothie.
Why: There are so many reasons to start your day with a smoothie, but my favorite is that you set the tone for a high-energy day when your first meal is based entirely on raw fruits, leafy greens, and nuts and seeds — three of the best foods you can eat for energy. Even better, a smoothie is a perfect vehicle for delivering any supplements you may take, whether protein powder, omega-3’s, or a workout-booster.
Make it stress-free: Follow a formula. Or if even that seems like too much, try this simple recipe: a handful of raw nuts and seeds (any combination of cashews, almonds, walnuts, chia seeds, flax seeds, pumpkin seeds), two bananas, two handfuls of frozen fruit, two handfuls baby spinach, 4 ice cubes. Start with 2 cups of water and add more as needed.
2. Eat a huge salad every day.
Why: As athletes, most of us have learned to focus on macronutrients: protein, carbohydrate, and fat. The problem? You can get those three, in the right balance even, without even thinking about vegetables! And fresh vegetables, it turns out, are packed with micronutrients that help to speed up workout recovery and reduce inflammation in the body. The habit of eating a giant salad each day — either for lunch or about 30 minutes before you sit down to dinner (or both!), ensures that you fill up first on the good stuff before indulging in other foods.
Make it stress-free: All the extra, fancy vegetables are nice, but for the simplest salad, get a box or bag of mixed greens (lots of brands now make baby kale or other “power greens” blends) and a can of beans, like chickpeas. Add a nut-based dressing for some healthy fats and flavor, and you’ve got one of the healthiest meals you can eat — with protein and complex carbohydrate from the beans, good fat from the dressing, and all the micronutrients the greens have to offer.
My favorite oil-free dressing these days: blend together a half-cup of tahini, a quarter-cup of lemon juice, 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar, and 2 tablespoons tamari or soy sauce. Then thin with water (you’ll likely need a half cup or more) and add a dash of hot sauce to taste. If you’re not up for making your dressing, you can find a ready-made tahini-based one at your favorite specialty grocer. Or, if it’s what it takes to get started, go with an oil-based dressing until you’re comfortable with the everyday-salad routine.
3. Eat whole foods during the rest of your meals.
Why: Although I eat a 100 percent plant-based diet and feel better than ever doing so, people are often surprised when “go vegan” isn’t my numero-uno nutrition tip. Instead, it’s this: Eat whole foods. Sure, I think there’s a big benefit to reducing or eliminating the meat and dairy in your diet, but when you’re talking about long-term change, I believe you’re more likely to make your changes last if they start out small and easy. Focusing first on whole foods is a step in the right direction, and one that will do wonders for your health and energy.
Make it stress-free: You’ll go crazy if you try to completely change your diet immediately. So don’t worry about perfection, but instead aim to make small, but gradual changes, like cooking as many of your meals as possible.
If you’re not into cooking, meal-delivery services make this so easy by eliminating the planning and shopping steps, and a lot of the prep-work too. And incredibly, I’ve found they’re not much more expensive than if you buy the ingredients yourself, since these services save by buying in bulk.
4. Replace your snacks with fruit and nuts (preferably raw).
Why: If you’re an athlete — or even just an active person who doesn’t like the label — there’s no denying that you need more calories. Fruits and nuts, especially if eaten raw so that all their nutrition is intact, make sure your sweet tooth (or salt craving) is satisfied in a way that supports your health goals.
Make it stress-free: Two of the great perks of snacking on fruit and nuts is that preparation time is zero, and they’re portable. The obstacle to adopting this habit is boredom.
Here’s where LARABAR shines — many of their bars, like the Cherry Pie and Peanut Butter & Jelly flavors, are made from just fruits, nuts and sea salt, and taste delicious. All the flavors are gluten-free and contain no more than nine ingredients, so you get the great nutrition without sacrificing a bit of taste or convenience.
5. Get moving!
Why: You know why you should work out (or let’s just call it “move,” since the specifics of what you actually do aren’t nearly as important as the simple fact that you’re using your body somehow). But that’s not my favorite reason: I work out (by running, usually) because it gives me energy. Certain days are harder than others, but if your focus is on aerobic, low-intensity exercise, you’ll find you often come home from a workout with more energy than you left with — and that’s in the short-term, before even consider the long-run benefits to your vitality.
Make it stress-free: Instead of deciding, “Today is the day when I start a workout routine — 30 minutes a day, every day,” try a different approach. Start with 5 minutes of something you can enjoy for that amount of time — walking, running, swimming, cycling, or something simple like pushups, pull-ups, or other bodyweight exercises. (Even if you know you can do more, stick to 5 or 10 minutes — this way you’ll be extra-eager to do it again the next day.) Then repeat, every day for a week. If you do it without missing a day, add 5 minutes to the workouts for the next week.
You won’t be able to continue at this rate forever, and eventually, a rest day and a simple routine of alternating hard days with easy days will be better. But for creating the habit of movement, starting from zero, I know of no better approach than this one.
6. Upgrade your workout nutrition.
Why: There’s no denying that we need calories to fuel our workouts, particularly as the duration and intensity of exercise increases. But when you’re eating whole foods the rest of the day, don’t forget to watch what you choose to drink.
Make it stress-free: Natural sports drink options are becoming more available, but for minimizing stress and cost, I go a simpler route: mix water and fruit juice (any kind, just make sure it’s all juice and no added sugar) in a 1:1 ratio and add a small pinch of sea salt. Taste and adjust proportions as necessary.
As for solid food on the go, again LARABAR is a great option. Whole, fresh dates do the job, but LARABAR consists of dates and nuts, adding a bit of protein and healthy fat to help you get more from your workout. The Cashew Cookie and Blueberry Muffin flavors are my favorites to eat around workouts.
7. “Trick” your brain into drinking less alcohol and caffeine
Why: Look, I like a cup of coffee and a microbrew as much as the next guy, but as I’ve gotten older, busier, and more aware of how the foods I put in my body affect my energy levels, I’ve realized that neither of these indulgences is very supportive of my goals — fitness or otherwise. But this doesn’t have to mean never enjoying them.
Make it stress-free: I’ve noticed in several experiments with reducing caffeine and alcohol that the placebo effect of a hot cup of coffee or a cold beer is very strong. As long as your brain expects to feel that buzz, it does — so just reduce the amount you’re taking in.
Instead of fully caffeinated coffee, brew or order half decaf. You probably won’t notice the taste difference, and I’m betting you won’t feel any different either. Same goes for beer — instead of that big, 8 percent IPA a few times a week, go with a 4-5 percent session ale. They’re plenty hoppy to give you that citrusy-bitter taste you crave, but you’ll be cutting your alcohol intake almost in half.
All of this adds up to more energy, and a break from the cycle of alcohol affecting your sleep, which makes you need more caffeine, which adds to your stress and fatigue and makes you feel like you need a beer at the end of the day, and so on.
8. Start a new habit, just for you.
Why: Living a healthier lifestyle isn’t all about giving things up — after all, isn’t the point to have more energy and feel better so that you can spend more time doing things you enjoy? But most of us are so caught up in the work-eat-sleep cycle that we forget to create the space in our lives for those things that matter.
Make it stress-free: Pick something you really want to do — something that, if you could find just 20 or 30 minutes each day for, would enrich your life more than just about anything else you can imagine. Just like with starting a fitness habit, the trick here is to start small: five (or even two) minutes a day, every day is my favorite way to start a new habit. Promise yourself you’ll do it at the same time every day, immediately following some “trigger” that happens mostly automatically each day — say, brushing your teeth, or putting your kids to bed. You’ll find that all sorts temptations pop up to try to derail your practice of your new habit, but stick to the routine and don’t give in. Over time, increase the amount of time you spend at your new habit, and after a month or two, it’ll become a non-negotiable part of your day, and one that adds tremendously to your happiness.
Enter to win a LARABAR gift pack (plus a copy of my book)!
This giveway is now closed.
The fine folks at LARABAR have offered to give away a backpack full of goodies (a box of LARABAR bars, a t-shirt, water bottle, and headphones, plus a signed copy of my book, No Meat Athlete) to one lucky winner!
To enter, just leave a comment below about one healthy habit change you plan to create for 2015. I’ll randomly choose a winner on Monday, December 15th, and announce his or her name in the comments here. Good luck, and thanks for reading!