Self-care is more than a buzzword—it’s a must right now. Here are 17 fresh ideas that can shake up your routine and make this year healthier and happier.
You know that you should probably get more exercise and sleep. You know that you should meditate and that it’s important to eat less sugar and rein in your binge-watching.
You know, you know, you know.
But it has been a challenging and in some ways catastrophic year and a half. So you’re probably in a rut—almost everyone is—and don’t know how to get your mojo back.
Quit blaming yourself, behavior scientist BJ Fogg, PhD, says in his book “Tiny Habits” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020). And don’t waste time searching for one magic product that will make everything better. Instead, “take your aspirations and break them down into tiny behaviors.” The truth is, small adjustments and actions can add up.
And if the tried-and-true just doesn’t motivate you, we’ve found a bunch of novel ways to help you get unstuck and restore your sense of well-being.
Let’s get started.
Feeling worried and nervous is a reasonable response to uncertain circumstances. In an October nationally representative Consumer Reports survey of 2,036 people (PDF), 42 percent of Americans said they’re experiencing more anxiety than they did before the pandemic.
Untended, chronic stress can lead to digestive issues and headaches, and is linked to a higher risk of anxiety, depression, and heart disease. But therapists are in short supply. So if your normal coping mechanisms aren’t cutting it and you’re looking for practical new ways to ease your unease, consider the following de-stressors. (If you suspect an anxiety disorder or depression, alert your primary care provider, or call 800-273-8255 if you’re in a moment of crisis.)
Green Your Space
It’s not surprising that sales of houseplants are absolutely booming right now. The greenery can keep indoor air cleaner, and seeing and nurturing it can help you feel more tranquil and more connected to nature.
Case in point: In a 2021 survey of 4,205 people, published in the journal Urban Forestry & Urban Greening, three-quarters of respondents said the presence of indoor vegetation positively contributed to their mood and was linked to greater calmness, cheerfulness, and optimism, and less fearfulness, sadness, and stress.
This all makes good sense when you think about our ancestral conditions, says Kate Truitt, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Pasadena, Calif. “The brain and body are designed to live immersed in plants and to have a symbiotic relationship with the world around us,” she says.
If you don’t have much of a green thumb, check out harder-to-kill items such as the baby rubber plant, cast-iron plant, Chinese evergreen, corn plant, heart-leaf philodendron, parlor palm, snake plant, spider plant, and pothos. And you don’t need a whole lot of flora. Even adding a few plants to your home can bring major mood benefits, Truitt says.
Check CR’s guide to buying plants online.
Cozy Up Under a Weighted Blanket
As we’ve looked for ways to cope with anxiety, sales of weighted blankets—which are filled with small glass or plastic beads—have risen. Think of the soothing effect of a hug, and you get a sense of the appeal. “It’s giving your body an external stimulus of comfort and safety, which can create comfort and safety in the brain,” says Kate Truitt, PhD.
There’s some scientific reason for their popularity. A review published in the American Journal of Occupational Therapy in 2020 suggested that weighted blankets can be an effective way to quell anxiety. And a 2020 trial found that they reduced insomnia and daytime fatigue in people with ADHD, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and depression.
Interested? Aim for a blanket that’s about 10 percent of your body weight. See our review of weighted blankets.
Try Nasal Breathing
When we’re nervous, we tend to take quick, shallow breaths—often only through our mouth (like a panting dog).
But that simply increases the anxious feelings. Nasal breathing, or breathing in through your nose instead of your mouth, makes it much easier to take long, calming breaths because it brings a lot more oxygen into the body.
“Shallow breaths cause us to hold in CO₂, which depletes energy stores and triggers the brain into thinking something’s wrong,” says Truitt, the clinical psychologist. “Oxygen essentially sends a message to the brain that we’re okay.”
Bonus: Breathing this way warms the air you take in, which helps your lungs make better use of oxygen and relaxes you even more.
Truitt recommends that you inhale through your nose, hold it, and inhale through your nose again. Exhale through your mouth for longer than you’ve inhaled. (Aim for a slow count of 2, then a slow count of 3 for the extra inhalation.)
Or try this simpler approach: Inhale slowly through your nose, then exhale even more slowly through your mouth. Doing this even three to four times, which takes less than a minute, should help calm you.
You can add this sort of breath work to your daily routine, or use it anytime you feel particularly stressed.
Chill Out With a Slow Beat
Hearing favorite tunes can boost your mood, reduce anxiety and blood pressure, and even slow a rapid heart rate. Formal music therapy—listening to or creating music with a therapist to achieve certain mental health goals—may alleviate pain, minimize stress, and ease symptoms of depression.
But research suggests that not all music has such effects. One study found that while Mozart—notably his Symphony No. 40—lowered participants’ heart rates, ABBA did not.
So if you want sound to soothe, consider a DIY version of music therapy using a carefully curated playlist. For maximum calm and cool, choose music with a slow beat. Research shows that songs with a tempo of 60 beats per minute (such as Elton John’s “Can You Feel the Love Tonight”) create an alpha wave brain state, which Truitt describes as a “low-grade chilling brain wave.” (Want song suggestions? You can find alpha wave playlists on many streaming services.)
If even slow beats are not relaxing enough, consider a sound bath, a meditative practice that uses sound waves from Tibetan singing bowls and other instruments. In a small 2016 study, most people reported improvements in anxiety, mood, and pain after a 60-minute sound bath. Some yoga studios host these aural experiences; or do it at home via a sound bath channel on YouTube.
Check our review of the best headphones of the year.
Photo: Adobe Stock Photo: Adobe Stock
Routine exercise is key for wellness, and 24 percent of people in CR’s survey said they ramped up activity during the pandemic. (Almost one-third, though, reported a drop.)
Wherever you are, keep this in mind: What all those reminders to get moving don’t tell you is that over time, your body adapts to physical challenges. So while a mile run might have given you a heart-pumping workout when you first started doing it, once it starts feeling easy, you won’t get the same health gains.
Switching up your regular fitness practice is a powerful way to get more out of exercise. “Variety isn’t only good for the body, but also for your mental state,” explains exercise physiologist Kyle Kercher, a certified American College of Sports Medicine personal trainer. “It can prevent workouts from feeling repetitive and stale.” Whether you’re hoping to increase the benefits of workouts or just want to find a fun physical activity, these ideas can leave your body feeling stronger and better.
Recline Into Sleep Yoga
Any style of yoga can be relaxing, but yoga nidra, or sleep yoga, has unique effects. Rather than a “pose and hold till your muscles are shaking” yoga, it’s more akin to a guided meditation—except you can lie on your back the whole time. The result, for many, is a deep quietude that physiologically mimics sleep and leaves practitioners feeling restored.
Studies suggest that yoga nidra can induce calm by activating what’s called the parasympathetic nervous system and triggering the release of the sleep-regulating hormone melatonin.
A 20- to 40-minute class is a great way to try out yoga nidra, but you can also explore it at home using instructions from YouTube. In a class, you’d lie on a yoga mat or sit up with support; at home, you can sit in a chair or lie on your bed.
While you can do yoga nidra anytime, it may be ideal right before bed, says Michelle Schultz, director of Firefly Yoga Loft in Wauwatosa, Wis. Before you begin, take two simple steps, she says: Find a comfortable position, and prepare yourself to be still.
Ditch the Bad Habits and Create Better Ones
Making and breaking habits isn’t just a matter of willpower. Indeed, tested strategies can short-circuit negative patterns and move you toward the positive. These three steps can really help, says psychologist Wendy Wood, PhD, a professor at the University of Southern California and the author of “Good Habits, Bad Habits” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019).
1. Watch Netflix while you work out. If you dread a task, you’ll be far less likely to commit to it. Set yourself up for positive change by making your new behaviors more pleasurable. Wood suggests “temptation bundling,” or pairing a not-so-enjoyable activity with one you enjoy. Not looking forward to 30 minutes on a treadmill? Turn on the show you’re currently binge-watching or listen to a compelling podcast. Build a walking habit by meeting up with a friend, or prep healthy meals with your favorite music on. “We’re more likely to repeat what’s fun and rewarding in some way,” Wood says.
2. Drive home by the gym, not the bakery. Ever notice how much easier it is to shift routines when you move to a new place or start a new job? Habits go hand in hand with context, Wood says. When your surroundings stay the same, it’s that much harder to create meaningful changes. But you don’t have to shift your residence. Switching up context in minor but creative ways can also help old habits fade and set the stage for new ones. For example, if you usually stop at a fast-food restaurant on your way home from work, reroute your commute so you drive by the park or gym instead.
3. Keep your running shoes by the door. Removing roadblocks between yourself and your positive habits can make a big difference. When a data analytics company tracked people through their phones, they found that those who traveled 3.7 miles to the gym went about five times a month, while those with a 5.1-mile trip went only once a month. “That’s a very small difference [in mileage], but represents that convenience makes it more likely you’ll do something,” Wood says. So consider what you can do to make your habits feel like no-brainers, whether it’s keeping your sneakers in plain sight, joining the closest fitness center, or stocking your fridge with healthy, easy-prep foods.
Add Some Weight to Your Walks
Walking is a great way to stay active, but adding a bit of weight to this workout can force your heart to work harder and, in turn, increase the cardio benefits you receive.
Rucking, where you wear a weighted vest or carry a weighted backpack, offers one possible approach for augmenting a walk or hike. Vests that carry 20- or 30-pound flat, compact weights called ruck plates are an easy way to increase the load while reducing strain on your back; one example is the Ruck Plate Carrier 2.0, $95. But you can also simply carry a free weight or two in your backpack. If you have neck or back pain, check with your doctor before toting weights around.
Want to add intensity to your workouts without additional equipment? Incorporate occasional lunges, squats, or pushups, Kercher says. Vary your pace and diversify walking terrain to keep your heart challenged and your walks interesting.
Grab a Jump Rope
Not a runner but want to reap the sport’s cardiovascular benefits? Try jumping rope. “You can get a really great jump rope workout in 5 or 10 minutes,” says exercise physiologist Kyle Kercher.
While jumping rope is pretty straightforward, it’s intense, and you may need to ease into it. Kercher suggests splitting your jump rope workout into 30-second or 1-minute sets, depending on your fitness level. Start with two or three sets, then work your way up to five to 10 as your endurance improves (and your calves and ankles feel better about repetitive jumps).
For those who want to do more, a weighted jump rope can make the workout more challenging, while a smart jump rope can count your revolutions and track your cardio exercise when you connect it to your smartphone.
Photo: Getty Images Photo: Getty Images
Treat Yourself to a Self-Massage
Massage is a research-backed method for soothing aches, pain, and stiffness—and can help reduce muscle soreness after exercise. If seeing a massage therapist isn’t an option, you can try self-massage using basic tools you may have at home. Just be sure to avoid massaging bones, joints, and injured areas, and talk to a doctor about any soreness that doesn’t go away.
Kercher suggests foam rollers for large muscles, such as your upper back, calves, hamstrings, and glutes: Lie on the floor with the roller beneath you and roll on the area that needs relief. Or use two tennis balls taped together with athletic tape. Simply place the balls between your body and the wall, then roll up and down.
Powered devices, such as massage guns, can be useful because they vibrate faster and can go deeper into the muscles. Simply pinpoint the spot where you are experiencing muscle soreness, and gently run the massager over it for 5 or 6 minutes to relieve pain, says Shashank Davé, DO, an associate professor of clinical physical medicine and rehabilitation at the Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis.
Put Tech to Work for You
Among people who have made positive changes to their health habits during the pandemic, 1 in 5 say they are more often using apps designed to improve physical or mental health, according to CR’s survey. These three tech tools can provide an exercise routine or relaxation on demand.
Alexa’s mini-workouts: Amazon’s Alexa offers various workouts, relaxation exercises, yoga instructions, and more. You’ll need a smart speaker that works with Alexa, such as an Amazon Echo device. On your Alexa app, tap More, then Skills & Games, and enter “fitness” in search. See something you like? Ask Alexa to start the “skill,” or select it, then tap Launch. (Some may have a fee.) For speaker options, see the best Amazon Alexa smart home devices.
Apple Watch walks: If you’re an Apple Fitness+ subscriber, the Time to Walk feature may help you take more (and longer) walks. Each episode simulates a walk with a public figure—such as Dolly Parton—who shares inspiring stories while they, too, are on an actual walk. After the story, you’ll hear a playlist of motivating songs curated by the week’s guest. Fitness+ is available inside the Fitness app on any Apple device. After a free trial, it costs $10 per month or $80 annually.
Fitbit’s mood monitor: Feeling a little overwhelmed? Some wearable devices can make it easy to monitor and even alter your physiological state. The Fitbit Sense smartwatch, starting at $300, has a built-in sensor that quantifies stress by measuring tiny changes in sweat that are linked to spikes in stress. Simply place your palm over the screen for 2 minutes to get a reading, then log your mood. With a Fitbit premium membership, $10 per month, you can also practice guided meditation using the device, then measure your stress again afterward to see how much it has come down.
Learn This Treadmill Skill
If you have access to a treadmill, you can do more than just walk or run in place. Consider trying a so-called sled workout, which Kercher says can engage your core and work your upper and lower body at the same time. To do this, turn the machine off. Then hold on to the handrails and manually push the belt with your feet to mimic the effects of pushing a weighted sled across the floor. (If you’re at the gym, make sure to ask first; at home, make sure your treadmill can withstand a sled workout without voiding the warranty.)
For another challenge, you can try your machine’s interval training programs or increase the incline. Kercher also likes to use the treadmill as part of a DIY circuit workout. He advises starting with short, intense intervals of 10 to 20 seconds on the treadmill, then (after stopping the machine completely and stepping off), 60 seconds of lifting. Rest for 30 seconds, and repeat, aiming for five to 10 rounds.
Use Heat to Melt Away Pain
Saunas have been found to ease muscle, joint, and back pain, promote relaxation, and reduce the risks of high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. Mayo Clinic research suggests that the health effects are similar to moderate- or high-intensity physical activity.
Full-on home saunas can cost thousands, but less expensive, one-person options—some of which look like small, wearable tents—are on the market, too. Also available: the HigherDose Sauna Blanket, $500, which uses infrared heat, though there are no studies yet on its efficacy or safety. The simplest saunalike experience of all might be the one you can create by steaming up a home bathroom and sitting inside.
Note that the latter two options may be soothing but might not have the same benefits as traditional saunas, which are healing largely because of their unusual high-heat, low-humidity environment, says Jari Laukkanen, MD, PhD, a professor of cardiology at the University of Eastern Finland.
The good news? Finding a real sauna may be as easy as taking a trip to a local gym or community center.
Photo: Beyond Meat Photo: Beyond Meat
To reset your eating habits, experts suggest thinking about the kinds of foods you want to add to your diet, instead of those you feel like you should ditch. “By focusing mental energy on ways to include more whole, plant-based foods, there’s no wasted time or effort fixating on what is ‘wrong’ or what needs to be cut out,” says Rachel Cheatham, PhD, adjunct assistant professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University in Boston.
Get More Protein From Plants
We’ve long known that plant foods such as lentils and soybeans can supply protein, but today, companies such as Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods seek to mimic the taste and texture of meat with plant products. Sales of plant-based meats jumped 45 percent in 2020.
Studies have linked plant-based diets with a lower risk of heart disease. Here’s why: Whole plant foods offer plenty of heart-healthy fiber and nutrients, but eating them also probably means consuming less red and processed meat.
You don’t have to give up meat entirely to get the benefits of plant-based eating. A study published in 2019 in the journal Circulation found that even swapping a single serving of red meat for nuts or soybeans could improve cholesterol.
With so many plant-based options, the trick is sorting through them to find the healthiest choices. “Being plant-based doesn’t automatically make it healthy,” says Penny Kris-Etherton, PhD, a professor of nutritional sciences at Penn State. The smartest move, she says, is to stick to actual plants—such as beans, legumes, and nuts.
With newer products, opt for those that are more plant-forward, with few ingredients and little or no sugar and sodium, she says.
Tuck Into Healthy Fats
We’ve been told forever that the key to losing weight is to take in fewer calories than you burn off and that having a surplus of calories means you’ll store more fat and gain weight. But “we need new thinking,” says David Ludwig, MD, PhD, co-director of the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center at Boston Children’s Hospital. “Focus on where your calories come from, instead of the number.”
Highly processed carbohydrates, for example, raise insulin levels more than other foods. Try replacing processed, carb-laden foods such as white bread and sugary drinks with more nutritious and more satisfying options. “If you eat a meal with fewer processed carbs and more nutrient-dense, high-fat foods such as avocados, nuts, and oils, you might consume more calories,” Ludwig says. “But you’ll also stay fuller longer.” Plus, higher-quality calories may reward you with more energy throughout the day.
Grow Your Own Microgreens
Microgreens may be tiny, but they pack a big nutritional punch. These seedlings of edible plants come in a variety of types, such as broccoli and arugula, and can typically be found in the produce sections of food stores. They are also easy and fast to grow yourself (just search online for “grow microgreens at home”).
Microgreens, baby plants in a rapid growth phase, “can provide 20 to 30 times more nutrients,” like iron, magnesium, potassium, and zinc, than mature plants, says Rachel Cheatham, PhD. The flavor of microgreens is also highly concentrated, making them better as an accent than a meal. Toss a handful into a salad or use as a garnish on soup or pasta.
Give Teff a Taste
While there’s no official definition for the term “ancient grain,” it generally refers to heirloom grains that have gone unaltered for several hundred years. Those currently enjoying a comeback from years ago include amaranth, farro, freekeh, millet, and teff.
Like all whole grains, which can help lower cholesterol and decrease colon cancer risk, these are better for you than white rice, white flour, or plain pasta. And many “have much more protein than the traditional grains, plus fiber, vitamin A, folate, and calcium,” says Celine Beitchman, MS, director of nutrition at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City.
They can also make mundane meals more interesting by adding variety and texture. “Buy small quantities of many different grains to try,” Beitchman says. “Work one new one into your repertoire each week to find new favorites.”
Small ancient grains—such as amaranth, millet, and teff—cook fast and are highly versatile. You can make them into a breakfast porridge or a vegetable pilaf side dish, or shape into a loaf, slice, and bake like polenta.
Discover Enticing No-Alcohol Spirits
The days of O’Doul’s, seltzer, or nothing are long gone. You can now get beer, wine, gin, whiskey, rum, and other boozy drinks without the alcohol, thanks to products such as Töst sparkling wine alternative, Monday Zero Alcohol Gin, and craft IPAs from Athletic Brewing Co. Sales of these low- and no-alcohol spirits increased almost 33 percent between 2019 and 2020 as the options proliferated. (Check out these tasty DIY alcohol-free cocktail recipes.)
But isn’t an alcoholic drink a day good for you? “Supporting evidence is weak, and even moderate alcohol consumption is linked to other health issues—like sleep interference and cancer, especially breast cancer in women,” says Michael Criqui, MD, MPH, distinguished professor emeritus in the division of preventive medicine at the UC San Diego School of Medicine. “In a recent study that analyzed information from nearly 600 studies, we concluded that the amount of alcohol that improves health is none.”
Still, remember that a drink without alcohol isn’t necessarily healthy. Watch out for added sugars, sweeteners, and other ingredients you want to minimize, and enjoy in moderation.
Check out our reviews of meal-kit delivery services and grocery delivery services.
Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the January 2022 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.
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