When it comes to bad habits, sitting is the new smoking. In the last year alone, numerous studies have linked too much sedentary behavior with an increased risk of diabetes, heart disease and early death—even for those who exercise regularly. The remedy: Get out of your chair and off the sofa. In a recent study in the British Journal of Sport Medicine, researchers found that sitting less protects DNA even as it ages, which may extend your lifespan.
Why it works: Researchers speculate movement lengthens the telomeres, the “caps” found at the end of chromosomes in every cell. Longer telomeres prevent the genetic codes in chromosomes from being scrambled (which is what causes disease).
Try it: Those who log long days in front of a computer might want to consider investing in a standing work station or treadmill desk. But if that’s not in the budget, at least make an effort to sit less. “Get up once an hour even if it’s just to stand for a few minutes,” says Sara L. Warber, MD, co-director of the University of Michigan Integrative Medicine Program. Talk to coworkers face-to-face rather than emailing them, and drink water from a small cup rather than a bottle so you’ll need to fill up more frequently. For more of a reminder, set an alarm on your phone to go off at regular intervals throughout the day or download the Take a Yoga Break app ($1.99 on iTunes). It has an alert you can program to remind you to get up every hour or so; you can take a walk, or the app will suggest a simple standing yoga pose that will get the blood circulating. To curb couch potato behavior at home, stop fast-forwarding through commercials, and use them as your cue to get up and move around.
Visit the sunshine state.
If you’re looking to slim down, load up on morning light. People who get sun exposure before noon have lower body mass indexes than those who catch rays later in the day, according to new research from Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. The findings were true for everyone in the study, regardless of their levels of physical activity, diet, sleep timing and duration or age.
Why it works: Sunlight can help synchronize circadian rhythms (your internal body clock), which influence energy levels, hormone release and other bodily functions.
Try it: “About 20 to 30 minutes of natural light could be enough to affect weight,” says senior study author Phyllis C. Zee, MD. If you’re not a morning person, get your daily dose by parking farther away from the office, running out for a mid-morning break or even just working or sitting next to a window.
Embrace the new sharing economy.
Spanish tapas, Chinese dim sum, Greek meze. Though far from new, “small plates” meant for grazing and sharing are still trending, according to the National Restaurant Association’s latest What’s Hot culinary forecast—and they’re ideal for people watching their weight. “For those who tend to be in the clean-plate club, ordering shareable dishes or two appetizers is a fantastic strategy,” says nutritionist Stephanie Middleberg, RD.
Why it works: “In addition to providing instant portion control, these dishes tend to be more interesting than entrées,” she points out.
Try it: “Even though you’re ordering small plates, you still need to be mindful of your choices,” says Middleberg, who advises making one of the appetizers a high-volume (read: satiating) salad or a side of vegetables. Her other small-plate picks include shellfish, summer rolls, grilled chicken skewers and steamed dumplings.
Eat the real breakfast of champions.
For a smart start to a pressure-packed day, poach, fry or scramble up some eggs. They’re rich in tyrosine, an amino acid that allows you to think more deeply and creatively, according to a recent study in Psychological Research. Researchers at Leiden University and the University of Amsterdam found that test subjects who drank orange juice spiked with tyrosine were better at solving puzzles than those who were given a placebo. In an earlier study from Leiden University, the same fortified juice was shown to improve reaction time.
Why it works: “The amino acid tyrosine increases production of dopamine, a hormone and neurotransmitter associated with learning, memory and focus,” explains Cynthia Sass, RD, author of SASS! Yourself Slim: Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches (2011, Harper Collins).
Try it: Not just for breakfast, tyrosine is plentiful in salmon, almonds, bananas, peaches, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, avocado, chicken and turkey, says Sass. “To up your intake, have a small banana mid-morning, snack on almonds or pumpkin seeds throughout the day, and add sliced avocado or tahini to an entrée salad topped with salmon, chicken or turkey.”
Laughing is known to bring people together, fostering feelings of closeness and happiness. Now research from George Mason University finds the emotional payoff is far from fleeting. After having an LOL-worthy moment with someone, subjects reported experiencing “greater intimacy, positive emotions and enjoyment,” not only during that brief exchange, but also on subsequent interactions throughout the day.
Why it works: Shared laughter “may cause a rise in levels of the hormones oxytocin and dopamine, which promote bonding,” says study co-author Todd B. Kashdan, PhD, professor of clinical psychology at George Mason University and author of The Upside of Your Dark Side (Hudson Street Press, 2014). “Think of it as social glue.”
Try it: Humor is very individual, of course. But if you learn to appreciate the absurdity of life and see things from other perspectives, the grins and giggles will come more easily, says Dr. Kashdan. “Be silly—make weird sounds or funny faces when something doesn’t make sense to you, and learn to tell stories with compelling characters and a great punch line.”
Have a fitness flashback.
Will you ever forget the rush you got when you finally held plank for a full minute? Or the excitement you felt after finishing your first 5K? Use those recollections as motivation. A recent study in the journal Memory showed that people who drew upon a positive experience were much more likely to be active than those who didn’t tap into one.
Why it works: “These memories may temporarily boost self-confidence, while helping to shift your mind-set from ‘exercise is a chore’ to ‘exercise is a fulfilling activity,’” says study coauthor David B. Pillemer, EdD, the Samuel E. Paul professor of developmental psychology at the University of New Hampshire.
Try it: Next time your drive takes a nosedive, conjure a concrete mental image of a workout that made you feel agile or accomplished. And if a less successful experience comes to mind (say, getting cut from your college soccer team or your first, painfully awkward Pilates Reformer class), don’t sweat it, says Dr. Pillemer. “While positive memories had the best effects, negative ones can also be helpful because they inspire you to take actions to avoid those feelings.”
Don’t feel guilty about scrolling through your Instagram feed or playing Candy Crush during office hours—the occasional digital distraction may actually be good for business. In a recent Kansas State University study, people who took smartphone breaks reported being happier at the end of their workday. After installing an app that monitored usage, researchers found employees spent an average of 22 minutes with their phones during an eight-hour shift.
Why it works: “Similar to other breaks—for example, chatting with coworkers or walking the halls—smartphone micro-breaks can refresh you and help you cope with the demands of the workplace,” says Sooyeol Kim, a doctoral student who led the study.
Try it: These findings aren’t a green light to tap, talk and text the day away. To keep your cell phone from screwing up your schedule—or your career—aim for multiple, mini tech breaks, each limited to one or two minutes at a time.
Considering the popularity of HIIT (high-intensity interval training) workouts like CrossFit and Tabata, it’s no surprise that injuries are also on the rise. Enter the wave of “Regenerative” or “Recovery” programs in gyms and studios around the country. “Once viewed as ‘soft,’ recovery has finally become mainstream,” according to Carol Espel, senior global director of group fitness and Pilates for Equinox Fitness Clubs. “People are realizing that excessive training is unsustainable.” (Though not billed as such, Pilates fans know that the method is the original regenerative form of exercise.)
Why it works: Taking a more holistic approach to exercise, she says, is the best way to maximize strength gains, improve performance and stay active throughout life. This means supplementing your regimen with low-impact workouts that promote flexibility and muscle endurance, whether it’s Pilates or a class such as restorative yoga, which marries super-slow, prop-supported poses with meditation.
Try it: The right recovery-to-exertion ratio depends on your goals and limitations, so talk with a doctor or fitness professional if you are rehabbing an injury or unsure how to find the right balance for you. “But in general, regenerative workouts can—and should—be done on a daily basis, even on rest days,” says Espel. If you’re pressed for time, squeeze in 10 minutes of Pilates mat moves before work, or follow a tough cardio session with a 15-minute session of foam rolling. SMR (self-myofascial release), a technique that uses massage balls and foam rollers to ease tightness in the soft tissues and restore your range of motion, is another effective option.
Speed up your slim-down.
Add weight loss to coffee’s much-publicized perks. A new Spanish study published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism revealed that consuming a cup of joe (or another source of caffeine) before your workout can help you torch about 15 percent more calories for three hours post-exercise than you would sans caffeine.
Why it works: “It’s probably a combination of things,” says Sass. “The stimulant speeds metabolism and boosts both mental and physical performance, which means you can work out harder, longer or both.”
Try it: In the study, the after-burn effect was triggered by 4.5 milligrams of caffeine per kilogram of body weight. (For a 150-pound woman, that’s about 300 mg of caffeine, the amount in about 12 ounces of brewed coffee.) “Stick with one cup of coffee about 30 minutes before the start of your workout,” says Sass.
Hit the trail with your buds.
To beat the blues, gather some friends for a walk through Memorial and Buffalo Bayou Park. A recent study published in Ecopsychology found that walking outdoors with others can lower stress levels and even reduce the risk of depression.
Why it works: “We’ve long known that walking is good for you,” says Dr. Warber, senior study author and an associate professor of family medicine at the University of Michigan Medical School. “Combined with social support and spending time in nature—both which have been shown to have mental health benefits—it can be a very powerful stress-buster.”
Try it: “The current exercise recommendation is 30 minutes five times a week, so add some variety to workouts by making one of those sessions a group walk,” suggests Dr. Warber. Look online to find a walking group in your area or start one of your own by reaching out to friends, family members and neighbors. You might be surprised to find like-minded people who are ready to get a breath of fresh air and hold each other accountable for regular exercise. H
A.J. Hanley, a freelance writer, has resolved to take more standing, walking and Candy Crush breaks in the New Year.