Set a new health goal — be kind to yourself
Many of us rush into the heart of winter with a flurry of big health goals, like losing a certain number of pounds and hitting the gym more often.
These are admirable aspirations. But it’s also important to engage in more forgiving types of self-care — especially as the days shorten and many of us are left in the winter doldrums.
“Of course, setting traditional health goals is important if you need to lose weight or be more active,” says Dr. Joseph Candelore, a primary care doctor at Geisinger. “But being kind to yourself in other ways and establishing rituals for self-care can also benefit your physical and mental well-being. This is especially true in winter, when people tend to be more isolated and at risk for SAD (seasonal affective disorder).”
Here are 5 self-care tips for year-round mental and physical well-being:
1. Reduce stress
Whether you’re on the go or hunkered down at home during a pandemic, life can be stressful. And when stress piles up, you might experience headaches, fatigue, sleep problems and muscle tension. Stress might even cause you to overeat or withdraw from your family and friends. And left unchecked, stress could contribute to high blood pressure, heart disease and obesity.
“Taking a few minutes every day to breathe deeply, meditate or practice mindfulness can go a long way toward reducing stress,” says Dr. Candelore, adding that studies have linked meditation and mindfulness to reduced blood pressure, improved immune response and better cognition. “These are simple steps you can take to boost your physical and mental health.”
2. Get more sleep
If you’re like more than one-third of American adults, you could benefit from more sleep. “Your body actually repairs itself while you’re asleep,” says Dr. Candelore. “Though it varies from person to person, aim for 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night for maximum health benefits.”
A lack of sleep can make it harder to focus. And chronic sleep deprivation can impact your body, contributing to conditions like high blood pressure.
To get more rest, Dr. Candelore suggests:
¯Going to sleep and waking up at the same time every day, even on weekends
¯Keeping your room quiet, dark and cool
¯Avoiding caffeine or a big meal before bed
¯Ending screen time about an hour before going to sleep
3. Do something you love
Practicing a hobby can be a beneficial part of your self-care routine. Activities like gardening, hiking or martial arts can get you moving and help you have a good time. And hobbies that challenge or focus your mind — think crafting, doing puzzles or listening to music — can have big mental and emotional benefits.
“Taking up a hobby is a fun way to enjoy self-care,” says Dr. Candelore. “Hobbies have been associated with improved mental health — and can even help combat depression by stimulating the release of endorphins, the chemicals in your brain that promote a feeling of well-being.”
Taking part in activities with a social component can further boost the benefits. “That’s why Geisinger’s 65 Forward Health Centers offer social activities like crafting, game nights and group fitness classes,” Dr. Candelore notes. “Staying connected to others can help you stay healthier and happier.”
4. Care for your body
Exercising isn’t the only way to take care of your body. Simple things like flossing your teeth daily, taking a long bath or keeping your nails trimmed are all part of self-care.
“Maintaining good hygiene might seem like an expected part of daily life, but these habits might have changed during COVID-19, which has kept us home more and disrupted schedules,” says Dr. Candelore. “Showering and getting dressed each morning gives us an important sense of routine, while giving yourself a home manicure can help you feel pampered. Even brushing and flossing your teeth can have huge benefits, reducing bacteria in your whole body and just making you feel good.”
5. Know when to seek help (H3)
A lot of people get the “winter blahs” — minor sadness or restlessness — after the holidays. But if symptoms started in the fall, or become more severe, you may have seasonal affective disorder (SAD), also called seasonal depression.
Symptoms of SAD include:
¯ Reduced energy
¯ Trouble concentrating
¯ Increased appetite
¯ Increased desire to be alone
¯ Greater need for sleep
¯ Weight gain
Having some or all of these symptoms doesn’t necessarily mean you have SAD. But talk to your healthcare provider if you have any concerns.
“While we don’t know the cause of SAD for certain, experts believe it’s related to shorter days and altered production of the chemicals serotonin, which is linked to mood regulation, and melatonin, which causes drowsiness,” Dr. Candelore notes. “Therefore, light therapy may be part of your prescribed treatment plan, if you’re diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder.”
Light therapy for SAD involves exposure to a full-spectrum bright light. During the treatment, you’ll sit near a special device that emits a glow that mimics natural light. Therapy starts with one 10- to 15-minute session a day and may be increased depending on your response.
“If you believe you may have SAD, contact your primary care doctor first,” Dr. Candelore says. “Effective treatments, including light therapy and antidepressants, are available.”
He adds, “Most importantly, remember that exercise and diet, while part of a healthy lifestyle, aren’t the only components of good health. Self-care is also a valid, even vital, part of a healthy, happy life.”