With the start of every new year—and every new season of the year—masses of people embark on a health overhaul, vowing to make huge changes in their fitness and diet. Few succeed.
Often, it’s because the goals are too ambitious. Or not measurable. Or not impactful enough for lasting health benefits. Here we solve all those problems by ranking the five savviest changes you can make to improve your fitness, complete with simple, concrete steps to take. Implement one or two of these this season to kick off your fitness reboot.
I know you’ve heard it before, but don’t tune me out: Stretching is an important part of any exercise regimen. In fact, it may be the key to remedying back and neck pain and other aches. A study in the Archives of Internal Medicine (now called JAMA Internal Medicine) found that regular stretching diminished back pain and the need for medicine. That’s because tight muscles can be not only painful themselves, but they can also pull other parts of your body out of alignment or force other muscles to compensate in unnatural ways. Tip: If you need a starting point, try this full-body stretching video.
- Work five to 10 minutes of stretching into your morning or evening routine five days a week.
- Stretch for 20 minutes three days a week while watching TV.
Experts at the Mayo Clinic assert that strength-training can help you: develop strong bones, manage your weight by increasing your metabolism, improve or prevent chronic conditions and diseases, sharpen your thinking skills and enhance your quality of life—quite a list! If you don’t exercise at a gym, you can still strength-train at home using dumbbells (your best bet: invest in adjustable ones), exercise bands or simply your body weight. Tip: Get started with this no-equipment-needed workout.
- Commit to two to four, 20- to 30-minute, full-body strength-training sessions per week.
- Join a group strength-training class at your gym, and attend twice a week.
3. Increase your intensity.
Whatever you do for exercise, bumping up the intensity can make it more efficient and more effective. It burns more calories, boosts your cardiovascular system, improves your endurance and speeds your metabolism—all in a shorter amount of time. In fact, a study published in Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases found that higher-intensity exercise is the best way to maximize health outcomes. Tip: Ease into it with this 10-minute HIIT workout.
- Plan for two higher-intensity workouts per week.
- Tack two to 10 minutes of higher-intensity exercises onto each workout you do.
4. Move more throughout the day.
Of all the recommendations here, this is the easiest to implement: Make a habit of “incidental physical activity” (IPA), defined as activity done as part of your daily living that doesn’t take much extra time. This would include: parking farther away, taking the stairs, squatting as you load and unload the dishwasher, pacing as you talk on the phone, doing crunches while you watch TV and the like. Research in the British Journal of Sports Medicine concluded that people with higher IPA levels also had better cardiovascular fitness.
- Identify three IPAs you can consistently work into your day—and do them!
- Set a once-an-hour reminder on your phone to encourage bonus movement.
5. Sleep more.
About 35 percent of Americans get fewer than seven hours of sleep per 24-hour period, according to the CDC. If this includes you, the most powerful change you can make is committing to seven to nine hours each night. A lack of adequate sleep zaps your fitness gains, energy levels and cognitive function—and can make you unpleasant to be around, to boot. Tip: If you have trouble sleeping, this primer can help.
- Identify things you can cut out of your schedule to make room for more sleep. Two places to start: TV and social media.
- Commit to avoiding screens starting 30 to 60 minutes before bedtime. This can help with both quantity and quality of sleep.