10 Ideas to Start the Year Right

Hey, it’s a new academic year, full of promise and possibility! Now is the time to establish a realistic plan for making sure the year goes well. In terms of overall wellness, let’s take a minute to think about a few simple things you can do to improve your semester and your year. You don’t haveto do things PERFECTLY to make them better!

(1) Prioritize sleep. Students who get adequate sleep (7-10 hours per night, depending on the individual) have HIGHER GPAs! All nighters result in lower quality work and lower GPAs – along with greater stress, weakened immune system (more cold and flu!), appetite problems, low energy, moodiness, and anxiety. Sleep is important. Make it a priority.

(2) Eat more foods that look the way they grew and less of the stuff that could never exist in nature. I.e., more “whole foods” (which just means food where you eat the whole plant, instead of some refined part of it) and fewer processed foods. This is an easy rule to follow. Just ask yourself: did it grow that way? Spinach? Yes. Donuts? No. More spinach, fewer donuts. Corn? Yes. Pasta? No. You don’t need to eliminate any foods, just change the proportions, so that MOST of the food you eat is whole and less of it is processed.

(3) MOVE. YOUR. BODY. Exercise is the single most efficient strategy for reducing and managing stress. Some people are natural exercisers, who need to move their body in order to feel good. Your brain will work better if you allow yourself the exercise you need! Others are not natural exercisers; for you, know that you don’t need an intense gym workout to make a difference. A 20 minute walk downtown or around campus will do it. Just go.

(4) Alcohol: limit yourself to beer and wine. Basically no one is ever transported to the hospital because they were drinking beer or wine, only when they’re drinking liquor – it’s just much harder to drink more than you intended when you don’t have to be so careful about measuring. If you’re going to drink liquor, MEASURE CAREFULLY. (*PS – Obviously this tip is just for the 21+ folks in the crowd.)

(5) Another alcohol tip: limit yourself to 2 or 3 drinks – 4, at the absolute max. Students who don’t have more than 4 drinks have higher GPAs than students who have more.

(6) Spend two minutes per day paying attention to your breath. Two minutes. You’ve got two minutes, right? Spend two minutes a day paying attention to the movement of breath into and out of your body, and notice when your mind wanders – which it will. One reason our brains are so amazingly powerful is that they easily connect ideas together, so your mind SHOULD wander. The trick is to NOTICE that your mind has wandered, let those thoughts go, and gently return your attention to your breath. This practice of noticing when your mind has wandered and returning it to what you WANT to attend to trains you to be in control of your brain, so your brain isn’t in control of you.

(7) Be selective about what TV you watch. Recent research has suggested that every hour of TV you watch takes 22 minutes off your lifespan. Ask yourself, “How many minutes off my lifespan would I trade to watch this show?” For example, I would TOTALLY give about 10 minutes to watch an episode of “The IT Crowd,” because it’s AWESOME. But I wouldn’t give anything to watch “The Bachelor.” It’s just not my thing. (Clearly I’m a nerd.) How many minutes of your life is a show worth?

(8) Cultivate a “loving presence.” You know how there are some people who, when they walk into a room, everyone just feels better? You just love spending time with them because they have this warm, positive energy. And then there are people who walk into a room and everyone feels uncomfortable. To be one of the people everyone is glad to see, practice thinking of something positive about each person you meet, when you meet them. Allow yourself to relax with them, give them your full, undivided attention, and make genuine eye contact.

(9) Beat self-critical thoughts by contradicting them! When you notice yourself thinking anything like, “Ugh, I’m a failure,” contradict it right away with a thought like, “Actually I’ve got a lot going for me!” The more you contradict that negative self-talk, the less you’ll believe it! (Which will improve your mood and your GPA!)

(10) Keep your mood positive and stable by avoiding the “exhaustion funnel.” When we start to get burnt out, often we’ll begin trying to simplify our lives by eliminating the “optional” things – which are often the things that GIVE us energy. Instead, when you notice yourself feeling worn out, cranky, or sad, take time away from the things that drain your energy and engage with the things that make you feel alive and whole. You’ll work more efficiently afterward, more than making up for the time spent away from work stuff.

You don’t have to do all of these – heck, you can just do one or two and your whole semester can change!


Dealing with a hangover

The SmART Squad in 2011 made this excellent little video about preventing and managing hangover:

Thanks, SmART Squad! Water, carbs, and sleep, FTW!

wellness education in 1953

The cast and crew of the 2011 SmART Squad introduced to me Archive.Org, an amazing resource for public health and ephemeral films of the 40’s-80’s.

Like this one.

It’s hilarious and kitschy and adorable to say things like, “Going to the toilet to stay clean inside, washing with soap and water to stay clean outside, and brushing your teeth to keep them clean are good health practices to follow every night at bedtime.”

But what makes these films so hilarious to someone like me, a professional health educator, is how unlikely they are to be effective in getting people to improve their health behavior.

If just TELLING people to practice health behaviors (e.g., “Eat more fruits and vegetables!” or “Get 7-9 hours of sleep!” or “Don’t drink too much alcohol!”) made people actually DO those things, we’d all be totally healthy. But that’s not how it works – and yet all the videos of this genre rely utterly on the declarative sentence, announced cheerfully and confidently, as though that’s all it takes to persuade someone or create an environment where it’s both possible and important to do those things.

In Dan Ariely’s book, The Up Side of Irrationality, he mentions asking his students, “What would motivate someone to give money to feed starving children? Students routinely say, “Just tell people the statistics, tell them how many children are hungry, tell them how important it is to help.”

And students often tell me the same thing about wellness on campus – “If only more students knew this stuff about sleep/alcohol/stress/relationships!”

But the research is unambiguous: knowing isn’t enough, and sometimes knowing even makes it LESS likely that people will do what you’d like them to do! Tell a person the statistics about starving children and they’ll just feel overwhelmed, like their contribution couldn’t possibly make a difference, and so they do nothing.

But tell a person the story of ONE starving child, and they’ll feel they can make a big difference for that one little kid who needs their help. Then you can be a hero!

And, in parallel, help a person think specifically about a time when they could have used information about sleep/alcohol/stress/relationships, and they’ll feel a gap in their own knowledge, a little vacuum that motivates them to inhale the information you have to offer.

Or ask a person to consider what’s good about their current behavior (like drinking alcohol or smoking tobacco), then ask them what’s not-so-good. Then ask them to consider what they might do to maximize that good stuff while minimizing the risk of the not-so-good stuff.

Those are just two examples of the kinds of health messages that actually result in increased motivation to change and a greater likelihood of actually making different, more healthful choices.

Health communication has come a long way in the last 60 years (though that doesn’t stop some state health departments from creating totally 1953-esque messages!). So when you see wellness education events and materials around campus, you might think about why that information is being presented in the way it is.

In fact, you might think that about ANY health information you receive! How does it make you feel? Will it change your behavior? Who benefits from me feeling this way or making a different choice?

And in the meantime, how about a moment of gratitude to archive.org for the hilariously awesome vintage public health movies!


A version of this post was included in the “She’s Eating That” booklet in fall 2011, and several people have said how useful they’ve found it, for themselves and their friends. So here it is, for everyone to read:

No one asked your permission before they put toxic thoughts about your body in your head. No one waited until you could give informed consent and then said, “I’d like to tell you what’s wrong with your body; would that be okay with you?”

No one said, “Would it be all right if I say how broken and ugly and inadequate you are?”

No one stopped to find out if it was okay before they told you all the made-up, fictional reasons you should feel bad about yourself.

They just knew they could make a profit if you hated yourself.

No one asked your permission to put those thoughts and beliefs in your head, but there they are. And each of us has the job of finding the beliefs we’re not interested in carrying with us anymore, uprooting them, and finding something new and healthier to take their place.

It’s not easy – it’s not even simple.

And you can get by without ever managing it; most people do in this culture, which is so inherently toxic. But with practice, you can change your brain and live in the center of your own power.

Anyone who tells you that your body is anything other than the beautiful, glorious MIRACLE that it is, is probably, as they say in “The Princess Bride,” selling something. Don’t pay attention to those voices that tell you that you are broken. They are ignorant and they are selfish.

Pay attention instead to the moment by moment beat of your heart, the rise and fall of your lungs, the regular oscillation of hormones, the unparalleled complexity and power of your human brain, and notice how whole you are, how healthy. Listen to the movement of blood through your veins and recognize what an astonishing, breathtaking work of art you are.

Pay attention to the sensual delights of food—the way chocolate melts on your tongue, the way chicken soup really does feel good for your soul, the way a meal prepared with love seems to taste so much better.

And pay attention to the other sensual delights of being alive. Listen to a loved one’s heartbeat. Notice the rain on your skin, notice the sun on your skin, notice the wind on your skin. Notice the position of your spine and the feel of ground under your feet.

Live inside your humanity. Pay attention this, this moment, this heartbeat, this exhalation, this flash of eye contact, this easing smile.

Live inside beautiful.