What’s health got to do with retirement investments? Well, it turns out, a lot.
Every day, thousands of Americans take baby steps towards saving for retirement. We make our coffee at home and consolidate our bank accounts to save fees. We hold garage sales and cut our cable bills. We make small, consistent savings in the service of our financial security.
Health is a lot like retirement savings. Both are important for our futures, easy to put off and confusing to start. But, just like we do for retirement, we can use baby steps to make investing in our long-term health more do-able. Even better, we don’t have to wait until retirement to reap the benefits. Healthy behaviors help us feel better right away.
Below, we’ve collected 24 Baby Steps to Health. These small, simple strategies make it easy to improve your health. You’re probably doing some already: Did you pet your dog this morning? See Baby Step No.6 for why it’s good for your health!
1. IMPROVE A.M. ALERTNESS WITH A YAWN, STRETCH AND SHAKE
How it helps: Shaking and stretching wakes up the sensory receptors in two of our largest body systems — the skin and connective tissues. It’s like flipping on an alertness light switch.
The investment: After you get out of bed, have a nice big yawn (stretching the face and neck), stretch out your body, and then shake it off a little. Yes, you’ve seen dogs do this when they wake up. Yes, we are copying them.
2. SUNLIGHT DURING THE DAY IS CRITICAL FOR MENTAL AND PHYSICAL HEALTH
How it helps: It’s wise to be careful of too much sunlight, as it promotes cell damage and prematurely ages skin. But, we need some sun on our bare skin to produce vitamin D for many of our physiological processes, and decrease our daytime melatonin levels, which is important for our sleep cycles.
The investment: Five minutes of sun exposure each day is a great little boost for health.
3. MOVE THROUGHOUT THE DAY
How it helps: We hear a lot about how “sitting is the new smoking,” but anyone who’s ever worked a checkout line will tell you — standing all day is just as bad. The key here is variety. For better health, we need to change positions frequently throughout the day.
The investment: Alternate between sitting, standing and walking over the course of the day. For office workers, this might mean sitting for computer work, standing up during phone calls and walking over to talk to co-workers instead of staying fixed at one desk.
4. IMPROVE FOCUS WITH BRAIN BREAKS
How it helps: Small movement breaks during a concentrated study or work period improve focus and learning. They give our bodies a break from the study position, and our brains a break from focused attention.
The investment: Take five- to 10-minute breaks, and make sure you move around. Toe touches, a brisk walk or some stretching, whatever you like!
5. LAUGH THE STRESS OFF
How it helps: It’s no secret that laughter releases endorphins, those natural feel-good chemicals in the brain. But did you know that it also decreases our stress levels and boosts production of immune cells and antibodies?
The investment: A gut-bustin’ belly laugh just isn’t something we can schedule. Instead, spend time with someone or something you know will make you laugh. Tickle your kids, watch old Seinfeld episodes, whatever will give you a chuckle. And, if you want to seriously commit to laughter, you can join a laughter club.
6. PET AN ANIMAL
How it helps: Petting an animal has positive benefits on mood, social interactions, stress, anxiety, mental health and cardiovascular health. (If you’re a pet owner, you likely knew this already.)
The investment: Cat, dog, rabbit, horse, guinea pig… if you know an animal who wouldn’t mind a pat or a snuggle, it will do you a world of good.
7. SAY THANKS TO LOWER YOUR BLOOD PRESSURE
How it helps: Gratitude boosts our bodies in much the same way as meditation — reducing stress and chronic pain, improving sleep, lowering blood pressure and more.
The investment: Tell someone how much you appreciate them. Do this every day for a lifetime.
8. TAKE OFF YOUR SHOES FOR SMARTS, STRENGTH AND STABILITY
How it helps: Our feet are our foundation, and well-functioning feet are a critical part of preventing injuries. When we take off our shoes regularly, we make our feet…
- Smarter: Contact with the floor or ground increases sensory feedback to our brain.
- Stronger: Without shoes, our feet can grip and press into the floor, helping protect our knees and lower back.
- More stable: Without all the support of shoes, our feet have to fire up the small stabilizer muscles to do their job.
The investment: Walk, work out, play and get things done without your shoes at least once a day.
9. INCREASE LONGEVITY WITH GROUND-TO-STAND MOVEMENTS
How it helps: As we age, our ability to move between sitting on the floor and standing up can predict how long we will live. People who lose this ability don’t live as long. Practicing this type of movement can add years to your life!
The investment: Try to do something that involves getting down onto the ground and up again every day, like these movements.
10. TAKE A 30-MINUTE NAP
How it helps: If you’re feeling stressed, a nap might be just the ticket. After a nap, people often feel more relaxed and alert, and experience improvements in mood, reaction time and memory.
The investment: Take a nap! Here are three napping tips from the folks at Harvard Health:
- Keep it short: Anything from a few minutes to a half-hour will give you a lift without post-nap grogginess.
- Find your nappy place: A space without light and noise makes it easier to fall asleep quickly.
- Pencil it in: People seem to adjust to a regular nap time, making it easier to fall asleep and wake up again.
11. REMEMBER TO BREATHE
How it helps: Slow belly breathing helps lower your heart rate and blood pressure, and it improves digestion. Learn more in this article from our last issue.
The investment: Take a few deep breaths, inhaling for five seconds and exhaling for 10. Let your ribcage and belly expand as you inhale and fall as you exhale. Do this a few times every day.
12. RECOGNIZE YOU’VE GOT A 20X TEAM
How it helps: 20X is a Navy SEAL mindset strategy, a belief that “I am not in this alone.” The power of this shows up all over the place:
- Serena Williams — Looks up from the court on Arthur Ashe Stadium to see her 20X — coach, friends, family — sitting in her player’s box.
- Doulas — The rise in popularity of doulas is part
- of mothers-to-be bringing more people on to their 20X team.
- Business — A CEO is not an island. Every part of a business contributes to the 20X success of a company.
- Mother Theresa — Her 20X was the Holy Trinity.
- Stuart Scott — When the ESPN announcer, accepted the Jimmy V Perseverance award, he said, “This whole fight, this journey thing, is not a solo venture; this is something that requires support.”
The investment: Think of all the people who support you every day. They can be living, or simply alive in your heart. They can be religious figures, pets and even people you don’t know, but whose work inspires you.
13. SLOW AGING WITH SHORT MEDITATIONS
How it helps: Meditation is a form of mindfulness that helps us reduce anxiety and worry by emphasizing acceptance of the present moment. In her research, Dr. Kelly McGonigal has found these practices also increase the enzyme telomerase, which may slow the aging process of our DNA.
The investment: Sit quietly for a few minutes and pay attention to your breathing. As thoughts and sensations come up, acknowledge them and then let them pass. This is a great resource for more on meditation.
14. REDUCE NECK STIFFNESS FROM EYEGLASSES OR SCREEN USE
How it helps: When we wear glasses or look at a screen for extended periods of time, we tend to stop looking around. In fact, we are practically staring, that’s how rigid we become. This rigidity can lead to neck stiffness. Moving the eyes, head and neck releases tension in these stiff muscles.
The investment: If it seems simple, that’s because it is — make sure to look around frequently while you’re wearing glasses or working at the computer. Try looking far left without turning your head. Now to the right. Next, look far left and turn your head left, too.
How it helps: Cytokines are proteins involved in immune function and growth. Crying releases 26 different cytokines in the body, proving that crying over being sick might in fact help you get better.
The investment: Whether you are a natural feelings-out-the-eyes type, or you need to get
“This is Us” going on the TV, try to let it out on a regular basis.
16. RELAX YOUR STIFF NECK AND SHOULDERS WITH MID-BACK MOBILITY
How it helps: When we spend too much time at a desk, our shoulders start to round forward and our necks curve upward. This not only makes us feel stiff, but makes it hard to move. Mobility exercises help to offset these problems. Learn more about it here.
The investment: Adding mobility movements to your workout is a great start – see this article – but a great, basic strategy is to think tall. We like to imagine our spine lengthening out from the top of our heads and the tailbone. Next, we imagine our shoulders stretching out to our sides, as if we had someone pulling on either one. These simple techniques work to create a little space for our joints, improving the potential for movement.
17. PREVENT AND RELIEVE LOWER BACK PAIN
How it helps: The pelvis is actually two separate bones that meet in the middle, forming a ring with a small space that lets them move a tiny bit. This small amount of movement in the hips is surprisingly important for the health of our lower back. Long periods of sitting mean the hips move less. Our lower back will compensate, causing tension, stiffness and eventually, injury. Restoring this hip motion can resolve many cases of lower back pain.
The investment: Staggered hip rocking is a gentle movement that relieves pressure from the lower back and knees. Add it to your workouts, or use it anytime during the day.
18. BE A MULTI-DIRECTIONAL MOVER
How it helps: We all understand how important variety is in our diet. We cannot survive on fruit alone, and we understand the importance of different food groups. The same variety is important in exercise. We need different weights, directions, speeds and styles of movement. All this variety improves our connective tissue and stimulates collagen production, making us more resistant to injury and improving skin elasticity. Learn more here.
The investment: This workout is a great intro to multi-directional movement.
19. TURN YOUR LIGHTS DOWN LOW
How it helps: Too much light at night can delay the onset of our sleep hormones. By slowly dimming lights during the evening, we help our body prepare for sleep without a huge investment of time.
The investment: Start dimming the lights at least 90 minutes before bed. Put the iPhone on Night Shift mode, try an app on other devices, and buy that 100 pack of tea lights at IKEA.
20. SAVE YOUR KNEES WITH YOUR FEET
How it helps: Baby step No.8 explains how feet need natural movement, or they get stuck in a rigid position. To compensate, our hips will move more (think of a high-heeled walk), putting strain on the knees. Over time, this can lead to pain and loss of knee function. Foot mobility drills restore natural motion and take pressure off the knees.
The investment: Foot mobility drills are simple but powerful movements that will save wear-and-tear of the knees. Try this Anterior Foot Reach.
21. USE YOUR HANDS TO IMPROVE POSTURE
How it helps: Strong, stable hands make for strong, stable shoulders, because the anatomy of the shoulder begins in the hands. Stability in these areas makes us better able to resist the posture problems caused by long hours of desk work.
The investment: Stable hands not only have a good grip, but are also strong in a stretched position. To improve this, we need to get them on a wall or floor and really press into that surface. Pushups and planks are the first drills that come to mind, but the ground-to-standing movements from No.9 also get our hands pressing into the floor.
22. BETTER BALANCE IS ALL IN YOUR HEAD
How it helps: Regular, everyday balance relies on our brain receiving signals from our eyes, inner ear and our proprioceptors — nerves all over the body that help us understand where we are in our environment. Movements that stimulate the eyes, body and head all at once improve balance and coordination.
The investment: Try rolling — not the foam roller kind, the kid kind — somersaults or log rolls! In the gym or a smaller space we can do the more seriously named lateral rolls, and simply roll from the back to the stomach to the back again. Rolling has the added benefit of bringing the silly to your day — heck, it might even help out with baby step No.5! For more gym-friendly balance drills that still engage the head and eyes, see this article.
23. PROTECT JOINT AND BRAIN HEALTH WITH RHYTHM
How it helps: Rhythmical motion is like a physical brain teaser. It challenges us to take in information and quickly organize it into a physical output. It’s also fantastic for joint health. Motion is lotion when it comes to our joints.
The investment: Flowing, rhythmical movement is a fun addition to any workout. Try dance, Nia or a weighted movement flow like this one.
24. PAIN IN THE NECK? TRY STRETCHING YOUR CONNECTIVE TISSUE
How it helps: In urban life, we have to sit and stand still for long periods of time. Holding these positions can cause our connective tissue to shorten us into these postures. When this happens around a nerve, it can cause discomfort and pain. Thankfully, under a nice, long stretch, connective tissue will lengthen back out for us.
The investment: Stretches like this one are simple enough to do anywhere. To stretch the neck:
- Sit or stand tall, with your arms at your sides.
- Lift your left arm out to the side, bend your wrist back, and stretch your fingers out.
- Lift your head tall and gently bend it over to the right.
- As you stretch, actively press your wrist away from your shoulder.
- Hold for 30 seconds, then relax the stretch, and repeat the stretch again on the same side. After two holds on one side, switch sides.