Most Americans equate “health care” with access to professional caregivers and hospitals.
But it’s hard to argue with the fact that most of the “care” that promotes health involves practices we do on our own behalf or that of our loved ones.
I’d go so far as to say that self-care and family-based caregiving is the foundation both of good health.
Here in no particular order of importance I offer a few of my top self-health-promoting practices. Learned from living and backed by scientific research, none of them takes much in the way of hard cash.
The hard truth, at least in my experience: they never become habits. Each one requires daily recommitment (remembering) and daily practice (just doing it).
- Eat lots of vegetables. Although science doesn’t identify a single vegetable, group of vegetables, or plant constituent as the “most important” for health, piles of research confirms that the people who eat the most and the greatest diversity of vegetables (and fruits, too) enjoy better all-around physical and psychological health. You can’t overdose on green, red, and yellow vegetables (but go easy on the fried potatoes).
- Exercise (almost) every day. I aim for an hour total, and don’t neglect my weight training. I exercise outside as often as possible, and think of ways to incorporate daily life tasks as “exercise” (e.g., digging, raking, shoveling, stacking wood, stair-climbing, walking or biking as a form of basic transportation). Staying physically active makes everything else easier. It enriches every corner of my life.
- Floss and brush. Teeth, gums, and other tissues in the mouth are connected to the rest of the body. Poor oral health can lead to a host of whole-body problems. (Note:Dental hygienists have taught me the importance of using correct brushing and flossing techniques. Ask yours for a tutorial.)
- Aim for 7-8 hours of quality sleep most nights. Research shows that getting around seven hours of quality sleep every night helps manage weight, improves memory and slows cognitive decline, reduces risk of diabetes and heart disease, and more.
- Apologize. It took a long time before I understood that when things go bad in almost any situation, I’ve usually played a big part in it. Apologizing fully and without qualification (regardless of the role another or others played in the bad situation) clears my emotional decks so I can move on.
- Forgive. A closely related psychological truth it took me a long time to absorb: forgiving doesn’t absolve others of the consequences of their actions, but it does free up the energy I expend holding them accountable for my pain. Holding accounts means I expect others to change before I can feel better. Forgiveness empowers me to move on.
- Invest in high-quality relationships. Again, an abundance of research supports the notion that cultivating close family and friendship ties promotes physical and emotional well being. Like everything else associated with health, it takes time, energy, and knowledge to sustain healthy relationships.
- Cultivate an understanding of many points of view. Getting at the heart of how people develop their points of view on a particular issue, and what values and actions attach to them helps me develop compassion. I’ve found working on this skill has also helped me refine my attempts to persuade others to see and respect other points of view.
- Express gratitude. I find the act of saying aloud or writing about something I'm grateful for causes an immediate internal shift away away from self-pity, blame, anger, and other energy-sapping emotional states. Feeling grateful and saying so is a good way to start the day, or start any day over.
Margaret Boyles lives in a wood-heated house in central New Hampshire. She grows vegetables, eats weeds, keeps chickens, swims in a backyard pond in summer, snowshoes in the surrounding woods in winter, and commutes by bike whenever possible.