Adopt These 7 Small Habits and Boost Your Mental Well-Being

By Shelley Levitt
July 18, 2022

Prioritizing our mental health can seem daunting. Oftentimes, we view acts of self-care as grand gestures or time-consuming habits that are difficult to stick with. At the same time, we tend to underestimate the power small—very small—changes have over the way we feel, physically and mentally.

Simple tweaks to our daily habits can help lower the risk of certain illnesses, regulate mood, and boost optimism and hope. If you’re still not convinced—or if you’re looking to refine your routine for better well‑being—try these tips. Collectively, they’ll take you mere minutes a day.

1. Lighten Up Your Mornings

Instead of lingering in bed once you’re awake, head outdoors or enjoy your breakfast next to a bright, sunny window. Research shows that natural light in the morning helps regulate your circadian rhythm, an internal cycle that rises and falls all throughout the day. When properly regulated, your circadian rhythm will promote wakefulness in the morning and allow you to get restorative sleep at night.

Plus, basking in some sunlight in the A.M. will give you a healthy dose of vitamin D, which has a wide range of benefits, from strengthening your bones to lowering your risk of depression, heart disease, and certain forms of cancer.

2. Make Your Bed

The simple act of making your bed in the morning creates a “win” that sets a positive tone for the rest of your day. Tidying the sheets, notes Charles Duhigg in his best-selling book The Power of Habit, is a “keystone habit” that’s associated “with better productivity, a greater sense of well‑being, and stronger skills at sticking with a budget.” It’s an easy shift, he says, that can have a domino effect, ultimately helping other good habits stick.

3. Build a Better To-Do List

If your to-do list is just a litany of tasks you don't particularly enjoy but have to do anyway, it’s missing something—the things you love to do. Researcher Lahnna Catalino, Ph.D., suggests carving out time each day to include activities that lend themselves to positive emotions, whether that’s gardening, meeting friends for an after-work walk, or baking a batch of chocolate chip cookies. Catalino calls this approach “prioritizing positivity” and points out that it "goes hand-in-hand with optimal mental health."

4. Munch on a Healthy Snack

When you’re in a rush, downing a bag of chips can be all too easy. To better support your mental health, set aside a few minutes each day to prep a healthy bite to eat (think: sliced veggies, a handful of nuts, an apple with a dollop of peanut butter). A study of more than 70,000 women revealed that consuming heavily processed foods loaded with sugar and refined carbs can trigger a release of stress hormones, initiate mood swings and fatigue, and create a higher risk of depression. "Food, beyond just sustaining us, has the capacity to nourish us on a deeper level," says chef and nutritionist Karen Wang Diggs, author of Happy Food: Over 100 Mood-Boosting Recipes. “I think of food as edible happiness.”

5. Take a “Time Out” for Gratitude

Traffic. Noisy neighbors. Long lines at the supermarket. It’s easy to find things to complain about. It can also be easy to overlook things—both big and small—that bring us joy. The health of our family. That first bite into a crisp green apple. The friend whose quirky sense of humor always makes us chuckle. As a growing body of research shows, taking a few minutes to acknowledge the positive and overlook the negative is consistently associated with greater happiness.

Best of all, maintaining a gratitude practice doesn't take a big commitment. Jot down what you're grateful for once a week, write a thank you note to someone, or simply let your partner or a friend know that you appreciate them.

6. Empty Your Water Bottle

Even mild dehydration, research from the University of Connecticut reveals, can lead to forgetfulness, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, and negative changes in your mood. The conventional advice is to drink eight glasses of water a day but your intake should also depend on your activity level, the weather, and whether you’re consuming water from other sources. Some golden rules to keep in mind: drink more if you’re engaging in physical activity and if it’s humid outside and you’re sweating. Consider eating foods like cucumbers, watermelon, strawberries, and celery, which all are high in water content. Need a reminder to keep sipping? Place a filled water bottle within reach and set your smartphone to send sip alerts.

7. Squeeze a Supershort Workout into a Superbusy Day

When best intentions collide with reality—your boss schedules a virtual meeting at the same time as your spin session—exercise can fall to the wayside. But, a 2016 study shows you can fit an effective workout into even the most jam-packed, stressful days. That’s because tiny slivers of vigorous exercise can provide many of the same benefits—like blood-sugar regulation—that longer sessions can. Study participants warmed up for two minutes on a stationary bike, pedaled as fast as they could for 20 seconds, then cooled down at a slow speed for two minutes. They repeated the 20-second sprint, followed by two minutes of recovery, a final 20-second sprint, and a three-minute cool down. The participants only engaged in intense exercise for one minute, but after following the regimen for 12 weeks, showed significant improvement in their cardiometabolic health. You can design your own 10-minute interval training without even leaving your home—try jumping rope or jogging in place for quick stress relief and mood elevation.

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