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!


The easy answer to “what should I eat?”

The easy answer to “what should I eat?” (which I get asked a lot) is actually very, very simple and very, very strongly evidence based. It’s this:

Eat as much as you like of things that look basically the same on your plate as they did when they were alive. And eat as little as you like of anything with sugar.

The more steps something that has gone through between when it was alive and when it got to your plate, the more likely it is that good, nutritious stuff has been taken out of it and scary, unhealthful stuff has been put it.

Like, take a chicken breast. A baked chicken breast looks essentially the same as it did the day it was carved from the chicken carcass.

And compare that to a chicken nugget. From which part of a chicken comes the “nugget”? You see what I’m saying?

Or how about wheat? Shredded wheat. That looks pretty much like it did when it was a growing plant, right? It’s been through some processing, but still. Compare that with a slice of bread. Flour has been through LIKE WOAH processing. Anything with flour counts as highly processed, and you’ll be healthier if you eat less of that and more of the stuff that looks like it did when it was growing.

Brown rice is less processed than white rice, but white rice is less processed than rice pudding. See how it works?

All fruits and vegetables. Eggs. Unprocessed meat. Beans. Water. It’s hard to overdo it on these things – technically it’s possible, but you really have to be trying.

Sugar is the exception. Even “unrefined” cane sugar causes a giant insulin spike, which in turn causes a cascade of biochemical things to happen that, well, you don’t want to happen. Less sugar is better.

It happens that there’s often an overlap between things with sugar and things that are highly processed – baked goods, candy, breakfast cereal, etc. Those are DEFINITELY things to eat less of.

Beyond these rules, it’s all feelings and politics, which are very complicated and seriously impact how easy or difficult it is to follow these two easy rules. Food is social and emotional and political and it’s not just about nourishing your BODY, it’s about nourishing your SPIRIT. The basic rules don’t address food culture or the food system or the environment or body image or any of the rest of it.

And the rules don’t address all the next questions, like, “Why is it so hard to eat that way?” and “What if I LOVE sugar?” or “What if I don’t have access to food that grew that way?” or “What if I don’t eat animal products?”

But that’s all another post.

If you just want to know what to eat, that’s what to eat. Food that looks the way it grew, and less sugar. Done.