How to Start Living a Healthy Lifestyle
You've heard the phrase, “healthy lifestyle.” But what does it really mean to have a healthy lifestyle, and where do you start?
“Healthy lifestyle” is a buzzword that has confused and overwhelmed many of us. But with so much disease around us, we need to adopt healthier lifestyles now more than ever.
You don’t have to figure out how to do that all on your own. Our top tips on how to start living a healthy lifestyle show you how.
A healthy lifestyle should not revolve around just one thing—that’s a recipe for disaster. Many of you reading right now have probably ventured down that road, and probably more than once.
But don’t let that discourage you. There is a better way. Many people on Signos have achieved healthy lifestyle changes using their AI-driven health recommendations.
A truly healthy lifestyle plan—one that you can actually stick to—should do the following:
- Include all parts of health and well-being: stress management, relaxation, sleep, hydration, and nutrient-dense diet.
- Embrace an approach to weight loss that you can stick to.
- Focus on micro changes—small improvements over time improve your chance of success.
- Use words you can understand.
- Be encouraging and non-judgmental.
- Be well researched with up-to-date and clearly explained science.
So let’s dive in and see what a healthy lifestyle entails.
Stress is an unpleasant emotion linked to chemical changes in the body<sup>1</sup>. Stress makes you feel unsettled, worried, and tense—it may even interfere with your sleep<sup>2</sup>.
Stress is subjective for everyone. What causes stress in one person may not cause it in another person. In fact, when you experience repeated negative events, you can become more sensitive to stress, according to a study of 75 healthy people<sup>3</sup>.
Why Stress Matters for Weight Loss
A randomized clinical trial enrolled 472 obese individuals in a weight loss program. The study found that lower stress and weight loss go hand in hand. The participants in this study who started the program with lower stress levels were more likely to lose weight<sup>4</sup>.
So, it’s important to make sure you are managing stress levels when on the weight loss journey.
Also, in a study looking at a cohort of 5,115 women and men between the ages of 18 and 30 looked at the relationship between depression and obesity<sup>5</sup>. They found that depression may be linked to the development of obesity.
They suggested that chronic stress arousal, common in depression, could be one reason why depressed individuals gain weight. Chronic stress has a known linkage to endocrine and metabolic imbalances that promote abdominal fat storage<sup>5</sup>.
So, when we experience stress for long periods of time, this can make it difficult to lose weight.
Ways to Reduce Stress
Please know that you can reduce your stress. There are ways you can change your perception, actions, and reactions to decrease your stress.
1. Redefine stress and realize that it can be good for you.
One study suggests that our culture tells us stress is: “bad for me.” However, the stress optimization approach shifts the focus to stress: “can be good for me<sup>6</sup>.”
The study’s technique for redefining stress lays out the following steps:
- Valuation — tell yourself that stress: “can be good for me.”
- Action impulses — focus on how the stress can empower you.
- Situation selection — choose a situation that creates a chance to learn and grow.
- Attentional deployment — focus on the opportunity you have to achieve your goal.
- Cognitive change — tell yourself, “I have what it takes.”
- Response modulation — don’t try to suppress the stress; use it to respond in line with your goals.
So, let’s say you’ve reached a plateau in your weight loss journey—and you want to break through this snag.
Instead of shaming yourself or giving up on weight loss, you can use this technique instead. Reframe your stress by saying the following:
- “Right now, I feel…(name your emotion, such as ‘frustrated’ or ‘sad’).”
- “However, I can use this feeling to help me reach my goal of losing weight.”
- “I’m going to focus on choosing foods that work better with my blood sugar.”
- “What I’m feeling right now provides me with an opportunity to lose weight.”
- “I have what it takes!”
- “Every time this feeling pops up, I’m going to name it and say these words again.”
2. Eat PUFAs, vitamin B, and vitamin D
They may be beneficial for decreasing stress<sup>7</sup>:
Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), especially omega-3 fatty acids: You can find these in flaxseed oil, walnuts, fish and seafood, and fish oil.
Vitamin B, specifically niacin, folate, vitamin B6, and vitamin B12: Meat contains high amounts of niacin and B6; leafy green vegetables are a prime source for folate<sup>8, 9</sup>. Meat, milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, and dried seaweed are high in vitamin B12<sup>10</sup>.
Vitamin D: Sun exposure helps our bodies make vitamin D<sup>11</sup>. You can supplement with this vitamin as well.
3. Exercise regularly
The American Heart Association recommends at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise most days (preferably all) per week <sup>12</sup>, either in one session or broken up throughout the day.
A great deal of scientific literature suggests that exercise improves stress, largely through decreasing inflammation in the body <sup>13</sup>. Exercise also leads to the release of endorphins, chemicals released in your body that help you feel better and keep a positive attitude.
Another study shows that aerobic exercise may decrease stress by changing the amount of dopamine and serotonin in our brains <sup>14</sup>. These neurotransmitters are chemicals that help regulate mood and behavior.
Relaxation is important for personal well-being. Researchers have even found that relaxation can increase happiness <sup>15</sup>.
How Relaxation Affects Weight Loss
The benefits of relaxation go beyond improving mood. As wonderful as happiness is, relaxation also appears to play a role in weight loss.
A study of 108 obese women found something interesting: women who spend more time on both leisure and work can maintain their weight loss better than women who spend less time on these activities <sup>16</sup>.
So it appears that the old adage of “work hard, play hard” is actually true—at least if you want to maintain your weight loss as best you can.
Ways to Relax Better
Most of us could learn more about how to relax. Since relaxation can help us feel happier—and may help us keep off unhealthy weight—try these relaxation techniques:
1. Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR)
PMR involves listening to guided instructions about muscle relaxation, then working to physically relax major muscle groups of the body. This technique has been shown to reduce anxiety and help nurses better cope with stress <sup>17</sup>. This short video walks you through how to perform PMR.
2. EMG biofeedback
This type of training has been shown to decrease nurses’ arousal of their sympathetic nervous system, which is the part of the nervous system that controls the fight-or-flight response <sup>17</sup>.
Biofeedback devices vary, but the unit used in this study played a tone for nursing staff <sup>17</sup>. The tone raised in pitch when muscle tension increased and fell in pitch as muscle tension lessened. The biofeedback tone helped people learn how to relax their muscles.
3. Stretch-release relaxation
This technique is low intensity. People perform it by either applying gentle pressure to certain muscles or gently stretching their muscles with natural movements.
One study showed how nurse managers in Hong Kong improved their mental health with this technique <sup>18</sup>. Stretch-release relaxation has also helped people with borderline hypertension lower their blood pressure and feel less tense <sup>19</sup>.
4. Virtual reality-based cognitive therapy
VR uses realistic images that look like the real world <sup>20</sup>. It can help people visualize scenes that are difficult to imagine. It also creates a safe environment to face scary situations.
This type of therapy may improve depression and anxiety, along with helping people better control their eating habits <sup>21</sup>.
One study showed that when virtual reality (VR) was added to cognitive behavioral treatment, mental well-being improved even more in 13 subjects <sup>20</sup>.
A review of 47 studies revealed that meditation can improve anxiety, depression, and pain <sup>22</sup>. Meditation can also reduce emotional stress.
There are many types of meditation. One type is called mindfulness meditation <sup>23</sup>. It involves focusing the mind on the present, helping the person become aware of both their surroundings and internal sensations.
It’s common for people to wonder, “how much sleep do I need?”
The most recent guidelines from Eric J. Olson, MD, a sleep specialist with the Mayo Clinic, suggest that adults need more than 7 hours of sleep per night <sup>24</sup>.
According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, regularly getting less than 7 hours of sleep per night is linked to weight gain, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and depression. Also, people who sleep less than 7 hours each night experience a lowered immune function <sup>25</sup>.
Why Sleep Is Important for Metabolism
Sleep is closely connected to metabolism and hormones. If you don’t get enough sleep, this can profoundly hinder metabolism <sup>26</sup>.
Metabolism involves the amount of calories the body burns to keep itself running. Sleep is so important to metabolism that just one night of too little sleep will throw off your glucose regulation, according to a study done on healthy young men <sup>27</sup>.
Another study showed that healthy subjects who got less for 5.5 hours of sleep per night ate more calories from snacks—even though they didn’t burn any more energy <sup>28</sup>.
Ways to Get Better Sleep
It’s important to learn how to sleep better at night if you’re someone who doesn’t normally follow the recommended sleep guidelines. Here are some simple ways to fix a sleep schedule:
Keep a sleep diary
Sleep diaries help people self-assess their sleep <sup>29</sup>. The best way is to fill out the diary immediately upon waking up in the morning.
There are many sleep diaries designed by medical professionals such as the “Consensus Sleep Diary.” You can also download diaries in the form of mobile apps. Examples are Sleep Diary Pro and Healthy Sleep Diary <sup>29</sup>.
2. Use a sleep app on your smartphone
The smartphone is the most commonly used device to monitor sleep. With a microphone, accelerometer, and a camera, it’s a great tool to keep track of sleep.
Common smartphone apps are Sleep as Android and Sleep Cycle Alarm Clock <sup>29</sup>. You can also use the Signos app to track how much you sleep each night.
3. Keep a consistent bedtime and wake time
This technique improved sleep quantity and quality in elite female athletes. Following this rule also cuts down on daytime sleepiness <sup>30</sup>.
4. Ensure a quiet, cool, and dark sleeping environment
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommend this type of sleep set-up to improve sleep. <sup>31</sup>.
5. Avoid caffeine and other stimulants before bed
Systematic studies have shown that 400 mg of caffeine taken even six hours before bed can interrupt sleep <sup>32</sup>.
Read Also: How to Not Wake Up Tired
Many people often wonder, “how much water should I drink a day?” A study from the Netherlands recommends the following:
- 3 liters (about 101 ounces) per day for men
- 2.2 liters (about 74 ounces) per day for women
These recommendations cover people who live in a mild climate and exercise moderately. For different scenarios, water intake needs may be different <sup>33</sup>.
Why Water Is Important for Weight Loss
You may not realize it, but drinking enough water is another potential key for sustainable weight loss.
One study of 71 participants showed that drinking water instead of diet beverages helped to decrease BMI and improve insulin resistance <sup>34</sup>.
Another study showed that drinking more than 1 liter of water per day promoted weight loss in overweight dieting females. The authors suggested that water may drive weight loss by increasing calories burned, especially in the form of fat <sup>35</sup>.
Ways to Make Sure You Drink Enough Water
There are some simple ways to drink more water. Liana Reiland, D.N.P., a family medicine specialist with the Mayo Clinic, recommends some tips:
1. Flavor it
Add citrus, cucumber, melons, berries, or herbs to make water tastier.
2. Connect it to a routine
Drink water every time you eat, use the bathroom, or brush your teeth.
3. Eat it
Several vegetables and fruits have a lot of water content, especially celery, lettuce, melon, and cucumbers.
4. Take it to go
If you take a water bottle with you, it’ll prompt you to drink enough water during a busy day.
5. Challenge a friend
You can have a friendly competition to see who can meet their water goals most often <span class="super">36</span>. Start a hydration challenge in the social tab with your friends on the Signos app.
Avoid Caffeine, Cigarettes, Alcohol, and Sugar
Why is it important to avoid these substances? Because they all increase cortisol, a stress hormone made in the body.
A study of healthy volunteers showed that repetitive caffeine intake during a day increased cortisol levels in both men and women <sup>37</sup>.
Another study on nicotine showed that cigarettes increased cortisol in the body of male frequent smokers <sup>38</sup>.
Alcohol increased cortisol, relative to the amount of alcohol drunk in a week, in a study of both men and women <sup>39</sup>.
Eating sugar before an acute stressful event increased the cortisol response in a study of young, healthy men and women—although the study included a few more men than women <sup>40</sup>.
<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Learn about </strong><a href="/blog/alcohol-weight-gain">the links between alcohol and weight gain</a></p>
What Is Cortisol?
Cortisol is commonly known as the stress hormone of the body. It’s a steroid hormone, made from cholesterol. Cortisol affects nearly every organ system in the body.
Cortisol controls the stress response and maintains metabolism. It also helps control inflammation <sup>41</sup>.
Excess cortisol may lead to weight gain and impaired blood glucose. Caffeine, cigarettes, alcohol, and sugar can all potentially play a role in weight gain and blood sugar problems.
One thing to remember: quitting smoking may lead to small amounts of weight gain. However, in the long run, quitting smoking is very beneficial to your health — especially in regard to your heart <sup>42</sup>.
And once someone has quit smoking, they won’t have to worry about the cortisol jump that can come from nicotine.
Cortisol and Stress
The human body is constantly responding to stress inside and outside of the body. When stress happens, the sympathetic nervous system will start a cascade of chemical release inside the body. If the body continues to feel stress, then the adrenal glands will release cortisol <sup>41</sup>.
<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Learn about </strong><a href="/blog/how-to-manage-stress">managing cortisol and stress levels</a></p>
Cortisol and Hunger
Cortisol affects hunger. Higher levels of cortisol running through the body were linked to eating more calories in a study of healthy women <sup>43</sup>. The calories eaten were in the form of sweet foods. Also, those who ate more food also reported an increase in negative mood.
How Lifestyle Factors Contribute to Your Personal Weight Loss Journey and Overall Health
All the lifestyle factors above—stress, relaxation, sleep, hydration, and diet—contribute to your weight loss and overall health.
It’s important to focus on all these aspects, but don’t get overwhelmed. Don’t tackle every factor all at once.
Try working on just one factor at a time so you can make gradual, lasting changes.
Benefits of Sustainable Weight Loss
To really reap the benefits of weight loss, your plan must be sustainable. You want the changes to last. Any sustainable plan may include the following <sup>44</sup>:
- Have realistic goals: if goals are too hard to reach, people get discouraged
- Be tailored to individual needs: no single diet is the right fit for all people
- Be geared for slow weight loss that can be maintained
Read more about the benefits of sustainable weight loss.
Micro Changes Increase Likelihood of Success
It’s important to know that one good way to lose weight and keep it off is through micro changes, the little things you can practice every day that add up gradually over time <sup>44</sup>.
For example, try going to bed 30 minutes earlier each night for the next two weeks—see what kind of effect this may have on your energy levels. You may find that you have more energy to move around more throughout the day, which can help you use more of the fuel you take in.
Micro changes in weight loss are important because your body may start to resist weight loss after the first few months. Once your body starts to lose weight, it can shift hormone levels and slow down your metabolism, making it tougher to lose weight as you go along <sup>44</sup>.
This means that losing weight is a naturally gradual process, and here’s what you can do to prepare yourself for that:
- Set a modest weight loss goal of about 1–2 pounds per week. Expect some variation and plateaus. Many factors contribute to daily weight. Focus on the trends, not daily variations.
- Practice one of the relaxation techniques recommended above, if and when you ever feel like you are progressing too slowly.
Find a partner to encourage you during your weight loss journey. Connect with someone using the social tab on the Signos app.
<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Keep reading about </strong> <a href="/blog/mindfulness-metabolic-health">how mindfulness can improve metabolic health</a>.</p>