Living a healthy life isn’t just about looking a certain way; it’s an investment you make in yourself so you can share your best with the world.
Health and happiness are intertwined in a way that science can’t fully explain. It’s sometimes difficult to determine which comes first. Are people happier because they’re healthy, or do happy people experience better physical and mental health? The answer to both questions seems to be yes.
What science can definitively tell us is that people who practice healthy habits, such as exercising and eating well, enjoy a wide range of benefits, including:
- Better sleep. One study found that people who exercised at least 20 minutes a day reported 65 percent better sleep quality.
- Better concentration. Exercise stimulates blood flow, which can help you feel more alert and focused.
- Fewer colds. Regular aerobic exercise (moderate activity five times a week) has been shown to increase immunity against bacteria and viruses.
- A longer life. Research shows that even 15 minutes of daily exercise could increase a person’s lifespan by three years.
- Other studies have credited healthy living to a better sex life, a happier disposition and reduced risk for depression, migraines and cardiovascular disease.
Happy Act: Make One Positive Choice
What small step toward a big goal to be healthier can you take today?
The long list of benefits that come with regular exercise is hard to ignore. So why is it so difficult to get up and get moving? Busyness is one of the most common, reasonable-sounding excuses for not exercising. But it turns out that physically active people tend to have more energy and be more productive than those who sit at their desks all day. Then there’s the excuse that you don’t have time to take care of yourself, because you have to care for everybody else. Another fib. Self-care, including exercise, refuels the body and mind and equips us to be better caregivers.
John Ratey, M.D., an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard and author of the book Spark, explains why exercise and happiness go hand in hand.
“People talk a lot about endorphins that are released through exercise, but that is just part of it. When we begin exercising, we almost immediately begin releasing dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin. Those are all neurotransmitters that deal with feelings of reward, alertness, contentment and well-being.”
Even more important, the brain begins to secrete something known as brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that is associated with the growth and development of neurons within the brain. Ratey calls BDNF “brain fertilizer,” noting that it has been proven effective in combating both depression and anxiety and has even been successful in fighting substance abuse issues. “In general, it allows us to combat stress hormones directly within the body but also to combat outside stresses overall. And all of those things contribute to our feelings of happiness.”
Maybe you, like me, enjoy running. Great. Lace up and get out there. But if you loathe running, don’t force it. Go for a walk, ride your bike or take up ballroom or salsa dancing—alone or with a buddy. Just get moving.
Change Your Diet, Change Your Mind
Eating the right foods can also change your mood, enhance your memory and even affect conditions like attention-deficit disorder. And getting rid of the wrong foods can have just as amazing an effect. Eliminating foods with added sugar, for example, can not only help you shave off a few pounds and decrease the risk of heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure, but doing so has also been linked to less depression and greater mental alertness.
Simple shifts to more wholesome, less processed foods can also change your energy and your mind. Beans, nuts, eggs and kale are among the natural choices that will rejuvenate your body while feeding your brain.
The great news is, the better you feel, both mentally and physically, the more you’ll enjoy your life.
Happy Act: Shut It Down
When you’re done with your day’s work, silence your phone and turn off your computer. Give yourself the gift of a little downtime every day.
Four Ways to Get Started
Do what you enjoy. You don’t have to “hit the gym” to get healthy. Go for a bike ride. Take a dancing class. Walk to the park with your children or grandchildren—and don’t just sit on the bench. Swing, play catch, and, even if everyone’s looking, try out the slide.
Catch some zzz’s. Sleep allows the body to reboot. Go to bed a little earlier today and see how you feel after an extra hour of sleep.
Choose brain foods. Beans, nuts, eggs and kale are all great options.
Find a buddy. Having someone join you in an effort to live healthier gives you some accountability and can add to the fun.