Some of us have been suffering the consequences of an unhealthy lifestyle for quite some time. We spend our free time binging Netflix shows (I blame COVID) and devour the occasional family-size bag of potato chips… by ourselves. We know it’s time to change some habits, but between the gym and the grocery store, not to mention the hours devoted to mental health and wellness, getting — and staying — healthy can feel like a full-time job.
Creating a healthy lifestyle that is also sustainable requires a balanced approach and a whole lot of compassion. It’s important to think about health holistically, but you must also give grace when needed, and this can be a difficult line to straddle. That’s why we spoke with two experienced health and fitness professionals to provide you with some practical tips for healthy living, focused on improved nutrition, exercise, and habits.
Why Nutrition, Exercise, and Habits Are the Keys to a Healthy Lifestyle
A healthy lifestyle is much more complex than lifting weights and eating salads every day.
In fact, one study says there are nine key factors that make up a healthy lifestyle, encompassing everything from recreation to sleep, and even sex. However, the foundation for a healthy living begins with eating well, exercising regularly, and creating healthy habits.
Why Nutrition Is Vital for Good Health
There are countless studies that indicate a positive relationship between healthy eating and long-term health. In one study, researchers concluded, “Food and nutrition are essential components of ‘the good life.’”
A healthy diet can lower your risk of obesity, diabetes, cancer, and more. It can also help those who already have heart problems lower their risk for cardiovascular disease events and death. Heart attacks and strokes are the leading cause of death not just in America but across the globe!
Alongside improvements to your physical health, research shows that nutrition also has a positive impact on your psychological well-being and life satisfaction.
“Consistent quality nutrition is a prerequisite to good health,” says Ben Reale, an NASM-certified personal trainer and nutrition coach. “Without quality nutrition, sleep, energy, mood, vitality, longevity, and cognitive ability… is all significantly limited.”
Why Exercise Is Vital for Good Health
We know exercise is good for our bodies, but the impact of movement on our present and long-term health is more significant than some of us may realize. In fact, studies have referred to simple inactivity as, "the greatest public health problem of the 21st century."
“Not only has it been established as an essential component for a healthy lifestyle, but also research is finding more benefits of movement every year,” says Bryan Osuna, an ACSM-certified personal trainer and the owner and founder of health and fitness lifestyle brand, Committed HP.
Research has revealed time and again that our exercise habits have the power to prevent a variety of diseases and illnesses, from obesity to cancer, hypertension to dementia, and more. In fact, exercise is so effective at reducing disease risk that some clinicians argue exercise should be prescribed as often as medication.
As if these stats weren’t compelling enough, studies have shown that exercise improves our mental health as well. “When it comes to emotional health and stress management, research is showing that much of our focus should be on the body,” says Osuna. “Regular movement has been shown to improve reported emotional health, elevate mood… relieve tension or other bodily sensations that contribute anxiety, and [more].”
Why Healthy Habits Are Vital for Good Health
There are four primary factors that influence an individual’s health: genetics, environment, access to health care, and behavior. How much would you guess “behavior” contributes to your health?
The answer is 50%. Your behavior, your lifestyle and habits, make up half of your overall health status.
Among the many behavioral choices that affect your health, three hold the most weight: smoking, exercise, and diet. Next to not smoking, the daily food and exercise habits you create are imperative for overall health. Simple ways to implement healthier food and exercise habits: Walk every day and limit your sugar intake to one treat a day or week. Creating a healthy lifestyle starts with the establishment of healthy habits.
What Choices Contribute to a Healthy Lifestyle
Ironically, the sheer volume of workout trends and diet fads available can deter us from establishing any healthy habits at all. It’s analysis paralysis.
That’s why we’ve done the research for you. We’ve consulted reputable publications and professionals to provide you with five suggestions each for diet and exercise choices, as well as general health habits to help you maintain a healthy lifestyle.
In many ways, dietary health is a moving target. Is fat good or bad? Should I cut back on my meat intake or do I need it for protein?
There are plenty of evidence-based, industry-accepted recommendations for good nutrition that you can consult. In fact, every five years, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, along with the Department of Agriculture, publish a set of dietary guidelines for Americans, based on the most recent discoveries in nutrition science.
Here are some of the tips they’ve promoted in recent years:
Choose water first: Research indicates that drinking water can help your body accomplish everything from regulating temperature to eliminating waste. “Being hydrated is essential for healthy weight loss, athletic performance, brain health, and a variety of essential bodily functions,” says Reale, who encourages his clients to drink half their bodyweight in ounces of water daily. Save sweetened drinks for occasional treats and drink alcohol in modest moderation.
Cut back on ultra-processed foods: Ultra-processed foods produce a range of adverse health outcomes, including an increased risk of coronary artery disease, cardiovascular disease, and more. Reducing your consumption of ultra-processed foods is an easy and effective healthy habit you can start today. “Rule of thumb: If it comes in a package, there is a certain level of processing,” says Reale. “Better to stick with lean cuts of meat, veggies, and minimally processed starchy carbs.”
Eat more vegetables: It’s easy to grab a bag of potato chips instead of a bag of spinach, but a healthy gut demands a hearty dose of veggies every day. “Most people are deficient in healthy levels of vitamins and minerals, and it’s due in part to lack of veggies,” says Reale. To combat this deficiency, Reale suggests one to two servings of vegetables (from leafy greens to legumes) at lunch and dinner.
Reduce sugar and salt intake: Today’s food industry is characterized by an excess of both sugar and salt, inhibiting our body’s ability to identify nutrient-rich foods and increasing risk of obesity and other diseases. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends adults consume less than a teaspoon of salt per day. As for sugar, the WHO suggests limiting sugary beverages and opting for whole fruits (fresh, canned, dried, frozen, whatever! Just be wary of added sugar and fruit canned in juice.).
Focus on a variety of nutrient-dense foods: Newsflash: An apple a day does not keep the doctor away. A healthy diet is complex, diverse, and nutrient-rich. Add a variety of healthy foods from all food groups to your daily diet.
In a study published by the International Journal of Applied Exercise Physiology, 233 first-year university students completed a subjective survey on health and physical culture and how they relate to their lives. The vast majority of these students, 96%, agreed that physical education was an essential component of healthy living; but, only 29% believed that they personally adhered to a healthy lifestyle.
Fortunately, establishing healthy exercise habits is much easier than you may think. Little changes to your lifestyle can have a significant positive impact on your health. “You don’t need a full workout routine to get the benefits of exercise,” says Osuna. “That you move is more important than how you move.”
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise for adults and two days of muscle-strengthening activities every week. Here are some practical exercise habits to help you check these to-dos off your list.
Focus on compound exercises: If you’re not an experienced fitness professional, it may feel challenging to find workouts you like. For the best results, focus your attention on exercises that work the whole body, impacting multiple muscle groups. Incorporate compound exercises, like squats and push-ups, into your exercise routine.
Include some strength training: Meeting the 150-minute moderate exercise recommendation mentioned above shouldn’t be too challenging to complete, but how do we accomplish the two days of muscle-strengthening activities? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests at least one set (8–12 repetitions) of exercises like lifting weights, push-ups, and sit-ups, two times a week. Be sure to mix and match your exercises to benefit the whole body.
Pick up an active hobby: There are so many different ways to exercise. Some people like going to the gym and lifting weights. Others may find yoga more satisfying. Traditional “exercise” isn’t the only way to move. Take a dance class. Play volleyball. Go kayaking. Find a hobby you enjoy that also works your body.
Increase NEAT: Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) refers to the energy we expend doing trivial, everyday tasks. NEAT excludes eating, sleeping, and exercise, but includes simple activities like carrying your groceries, standing instead of sitting, or taking the stairs instead of the elevator. Research shows that NEAT can have a significant impact on your metabolic rate and can also play an important role in one’s weight loss journey. “Make movement a way of life, not just something you do in the gym,” says Osuna.
Walk every day: A healthy lifestyle does not necessitate that you spend all your free time at the gym. Small changes can have a major impact on your overall health, so begin your journey with simple goals, like walking every day. “Do some sort of movement first thing in the morning even if it's just a walk or stretch,” says Osuna. “Have long-term goals but also ridiculously easy to accomplish short-term goals.”
One of the reasons it may be difficult to maintain healthy habits is because there are so many resources that encourage exercise and diet changes in spurts. A 21-day workout plan to finally earn that flat tummy. A 30-day diet trend to help you drop 30 pounds fast. The problem is these guides are focused on short-term results rather than long-term health.
To help you create a truly healthy lifestyle, you must implement healthy habits that you can keep. Here are a few to consider.
Get good sleep: Studies have shown that sleep deprivation has a substantial negative impact on our ability to function, hampering our motor and cognitive performance as well as our mood. Adequate sleep can have the opposite effect, improving our emotional wellbeing, mental health, and even life satisfaction.
Find a source of accountability: When an individual works with a Kickoff trainer or even a close friend to achieve their fitness goals, it produces a shared accountability. You can lean on your accountability partner for support in moments when you feel overwhelmed or lack motivation. “Invite friends and family,” suggests Osuna. “Create community around exercise.”
Manage stress: In your pursuit of health, you may feel overwhelmed at times and forget that your mind needs attention, too. Practices like meditation, breath work, yoga, and tai chi can help you address any stress and anxiety you may be feeling.
Set meaningful goals: Evidence shows that, when it comes to health and specifically exercise, setting goals can help you increase your physical activity substantially. Your goals must align with your personal wants to be meaningful and realistic. Motivation must come from within you, not an external voice or resource.
Choose healthy habits you enjoy: As you pursue long-term health, it’s important to create habits that fit your preferences. One individual may enjoy frequent visits to the gym, followed by a dinner of grilled chicken, broccoli, and wild rice. Another may prefer yoga and hikes paired with spinach salads and smoothies. Create a healthy lifestyle that you actually like.
How Nutrition, Exercise, and Habits Create a Healthy Lifestyle
Health is complex. Our ability to exercise consistently relies on feeding our bodies with quality, high-nutrient foods. In the same way, the amount of water we drink and vegetables we eat is most impactful if we’re also operating on sufficient sleep and well-managed stress.
If you want to develop a healthy lifestyle, you must give equal attention to your exercise routine, food choices, and general healthy habits because each influences the other.
That said, give yourself grace. Make sure that you’re realistic about the goals you set and the habits you pursue, and be willing to adapt to ensure effectiveness. “Perfection… should not be the goal,” says Reale. “When things do not go exactly as planned, be good to yourself.”
Your ability to create a truly healthy — and effective — lifestyle depends on you. Your drive and your commitment to pursuing long-term health on a daily basis is imperative. When you commit to establishing a wide range of consistent healthy habits, you’ll slowly build a lifestyle that produces the results you want to see.