Summer is the perfect season for self-improvement. Read on to see how warm weather activities can rev your health—minutes from now, and years down the road.
If you're among the .002 percent of people who actually managed to overhaul their diets or adopt exercise regimens back on January 1, please accept our congratulations. But if you're like the rest of us, now is your time to shine.
In our experience, making healthy changes is a whole lot easier in summer. Bright days beckon us outside, farm-fresh veggies make nutritious meals a snap, and the front porch practically demands that we sit with a good book. What's more, once those habits take hold, we stand to reap a lifetime of benefits.
Get started today!
Today: Swimming, hiking, running, tangoing—after 30 minutes of these heart-pumping pursuits, stress shrivels up. A team led by David Raichlen, an anthropology researcher at the University of Arizona, found that aerobic activity stimulates the brain's endocannabinoid system, where blissed-out moods are born. Exercise also jogs the opioid system, which churns out feel-good endorphins. "We're beginning to understand that these two systems interact to heighten one's sense of satisfaction, reduce anxiety, and induce calm," Raichlen says. Take note, grammar nerds: "Happy dance" is officially redundant.
In four months: You probably won't be hitting the snooze button too often. In a 16-week study led by Dr. Phyllis Zee at Northwestern University, volunteers who started exercising for 30–40 minutes at least four days a week reported major improvements in sleep quality and daytime energy—great news for the 50 percent of us who regularly toss and turn at night.
In six years: You'll be a disease-fighting machine. In a long-term study of more than 3,000 people published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, people who were rated the most fit (via treadmill tests and measurements of body fat) were 28 percent less likely than nonexercisers to develop hypertension and 50 percent less likely to develop metabolic syndrome, a precursor of type 2 diabetes. In addition to promoting a healthy weight, exercise works by tamping down systemic inflammation and controlling blood sugar, researchers say.
Get started: Forget the idea of "working out" and focus on having fun. Competitive streak? Consider joining a softball league. Love the wind in your hair? Try a high-speed sport like bicycling. People who enjoy their chosen activity have the best chance of sticking with it long-term, says Jessica Matthews, an exercise physiologist with the American Council on Exercise.
Today: You'll open the door to greater confidence. Researchers at the University of Essex in England crunched the numbers on 10 mental health studies and discovered that outside activity heightens self-esteem (as well as general mood)—and the biggest boost is in the first five minutes. Part of the reason could be that the scale and timelessness of nature put our more common daily concerns in their place, study coauthor Jules Pretty says.
In one week: You'll be better armed against summer colds. In a recent Japanese study, adults who visited a forest preserve on two consecutive days experienced a jump in immune activity—as measured in blood levels of germ-fighting NK cells—that lasted a week. "As a defense against harmful bacteria and fungi, plants produce airborne compounds called phytoncides," explains naturopathic doctor Alan Logan, coauthor of Your Brain on Nature (Wiley). (Logan was not involved in this study.) "Once we breathe them in, these compounds help the body's defenses, as well," he says.
In one year: You might find yourself increasingly moved to volunteer or perform other generous acts. According to Logan, people who regularly immerse themselves in nature have high levels of brain activity in regions associated with altruism and love.
Get started: Having a busy schedule means the day can slip by before you enjoy any green time. Try heading outdoors before things get hectic—say, by sipping your morning coffee on the back patio. If possible, avoid squandering weekends on indoor chores. (Can we get a law against Saturday bathtub scrubbing, please?) If all else fails, bring nature inside. Even small doses—a potted plant, a bouquet of freshly cut blooms—can lift your spirits.
Today: Summer picks such as juicy blueberries, crisp snap peas, and sweet corn are delicious multitaskers: They're bursting with flavor and they're largely composed of water, which means they satisfy while they slenderize. In fact, sit down to a produce-packed lunch, and you'll eat about 10 percent fewer calories than usual at dinner, says registered dietitian Leslie Bonci, author of The Active Calorie Diet (Rodale).
In two weeks: As your body is nourished by the rich stores of nutrients and fiber in fruits and vegetables, you'll feel noticeably more energetic, says Andrew Weil, M.D., founder and director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona Health Science Center. Many plant-based nutrients have anti-inflammatory properties, Bonci adds, so you might experience fewer aches and pains, too.
In 10 years: A 2012 study found that people who ate the most servings of fruits and vegetables—about 3½ per day—had a 21 percent lower likelihood of developing type 2 diabetes than people who avoided produce. Weight control is one reason, researchers say, but specific nutrients also might play a role.
Get started: People tend to overestimate the number of fruit and vegetable servings they eat in a given day, Bonci says. Her visual rule of thumb: At every meal, reserve half your plate for produce. If that seems too daunting, try adding at least one fruit or vegetable to every dish. Stack a lean burger with lettuce and tomato, enjoy scrambled eggs with salsa, and toss peas into rice pilaf.
Today: Whether you're lounging at the shore or exploring Mayan ruins, a getaway is your ticket to clarity. "Taking a break from the daily grind affords you an opportunity to step back, put life into perspective, and remember what's really important," says clinical psychologist Elizabeth Lombardo, Ph.D., author of A Happy You (Morgan James Publishing). "It helps get your priorities straight."
In three months: You'll have a ready relaxation tool. Lombardo says when her patients are kept awake by anxious thoughts, focusing on vacation memories helps them get to sleep. "Reflecting on that happy time brings back the emotions, and the body responds in kind by easing muscle tension and decreasing breathing rate," she says. For daytime calm, click through vacation photos or slip on the silly T-shirt you bought at the souvenir shop.
In 10 years: A large long-term study at the University of Pittsburgh found that people who vacationed at least once a year were 17 percent less likely to die of any given cause than people who never took a break. The combination of stress relief, quality time with family, extra sleep, and physical activity could explain the link.
Get started: Many people feel they can't escape because they have too much to do. "Your first step is to start thinking of a vacation as an investment in your well-being," Lombardo says. "You'll return happier,\ saner, and more productive."
Today: Any immersive read—in any genre—can yield an immediate boost in mental acuity, says psychology researcher Maryanne Wolf, author of Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain (Harper). Your visualization skills sharpen as you picture the action; memory and focus get a workout as your brain organizes incoming details; and critical thinking cranks up as you evaluate what you're absorbing.
In one month: You might feel more compassionate. Compared with people who rarely read for pleasure, bookworms tend to be more empathetic, according to a study at the University at Buffalo in New York. Reading about views and experiences that are different from your own might help you put yourself in other people's shoes, study coauthor Shira Gabriel says.
In 10 years: Your brain will thank you. People who frequently read for pleasure are 52 percent less likely than reluctant readers to develop mild cognitive impairment, according to a study in the Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences. Researchers are still figuring out why, but one theory is that reading activates neural pathways that would otherwise languish with age.
Get started: Not to worry if you can't curl up with the complete works of Shakespeare. Get into the habit of slipping a book (or your e-reader) into your purse. Whenever you have unexpected downtime, pull it out and peruse what you can. Need help choosing a book? Check out goodreads.com, a site that generates recommendations based on ratings of books you've read.
Today: Meet a pal for coffee, and you'll come away better equipped to cope with life's big challenges. "Whenever you spend time with a friend, you're reinforcing your support system," says Rosemary Blieszner, Ph.D., a specialist in adult development and aging at Virginia Tech. "As a result, your selfworth, sense of security, and emotional resilience get a boost."
In six months: You might catch a few good habits. A study of 3,610 women found that those whose close friends walked for exercise, ate lots of fruits and vegetables, and avoided junk food tended to adopt those traits themselves. The researchers say this positive peer pressure might arise from the human tendency to mirror people we care about. (Just watch out: Unhealthy habits can be contagious, too.)
In five years: You won't be singing the blues. Socializing is a release valve for stress, a major risk factor for anxiety and depression, Blieszner says. In tough times, all you need is one close confidant to lend a sympathetic ear.
Get started: When life gets busy, social outings are among the first obligations women abandon, Blieszner says. Try merging to-dos by involving friends in the errands and activities you'd otherwise tackle solo, such as exercising, volunteering, or browsing the farmer's market. (Blieszner even has friends who iron together!) Can't get around scheduling conflicts? Pick up the phone and give your pal a call—live interaction might be more beneficial than posting on someone's Facebook wall.