We’re all trying on some level to look better, feel great, live longer, and generally radiate health. Yet most of us find ourselves foot-dragging at the prospect of a major overhaul to our comfortable routines. What to do? Look for hacks! Hacks are shortcuts that make getting to our destination a bit less overwhelming.
Here’s a collection of 21 simple health hacks anyone can do with minimal effort, time and cost. Start with the one that appeals to you most, and aim to make it a habit before moving on. Soon you’ll be “hack stacking” and experiencing big breakthroughs in your health and well-being without feeling like you sacrificed anything at all.
1. Take a cold shower.
Sure, hot showers feel luxurious and will warm you up on a wintry day, but what else do they offer? Um, nothing. It’s cold showers that have an impressive array of benefits. And you need nothing other than a hefty dose of willpower to take advantage of them. One cold shower a day (lukewarm water won’t cut it) will improve circulation, increase metabolism, tighten pores, boost immunity and alertness, and speed recovery from a tough workout. To ease your way in, alternate between hot and cold water, a technique known as the “Scottish Shower.” Or switch over to cold water for the last couple of minutes, just like in the James Bond movies.
2. Try intermittent fasting.
You already fast to some degree without thinking about it (“break-fast,” anyone?), but 8 hours is probably your norm, less if you’re a late-night snacker. Longer bouts of fasting have been shown to help the body remove toxins, shed pounds, even slow aging. Can’t bear the idea of 24 hours without food? Try the 16:8 technique, a more civilized approach to fasting that involves eating normally until, say, 7 p.m. and then fasting (coffee, tea, and water are fine) until 11 a.m. the next day. Choose any 16-hour period. If you’re trying to lose weight, avoid overeating when your fasting period ends; just resume your normal meals. Yes, you’ll be hungry at first, but adjusting won’t take long.
3. Eat without distractions.
For most of us, mealtime is spent multi-tasking: We mindlessly munch on chips while scanning Facebook or inhale a plate of pasta while watching Netflix. Mindful eating is the opposite. It’s the practice of paying full attention to the eating experience: recognizing your hunger and fullness cues, noticing your emotions, observing the aromas, flavors, and textures of the foods. When you eat mindfully, you naturally slow down, eat less, and enjoy improved digestion. The first step toward becoming a mindful eater is to remove distractions, so close your laptop, put away your phone, shut off the TV, and turn your full attention to the food in front of you.
4. Breathe into your belly.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that breathing is something you already have the hang of. Yet most of us take shallow breaths, inhaling just as much oxygen as we need to stay alive. Breathing deeply into your belly — “diaphragmatic breathing” — for just 5 to 10 minutes a day can lower blood pressure, slow the aging process, and improve mental focus and sleep quality. Lie on your back, close your eyes, think good thoughts, and send big, deep breaths to your belly. To enhance focus, place a moderately heavy object, like a kettlebell or encyclopedia, on your belly, and notice it rise and fall with each breath.
5. Brush your teeth with coconut oil.
Coconut oil has become popular for its seemingly endless list of uses (coffee creamer! deodorant! sunscreen!). One of the lesser known uses is as a toothpaste, either straight up or mixed with baking soda. Coconut oil boasts both antibacterial and whitening properties while being free from the chemicals, foaming agents, and artificial flavors found in most commercial toothpastes. If you live in a hot climate, keep your coconut oil in the fridge so it stays solid, and if you don’t want clogged drains, avoid spitting it down the drain.
6. Eat dark chocolate.
It’s no longer wishful thinking: Study after study has proven that a daily dose of about 1.6 oz of dark chocolate is good for your heart, brain, and overall health. But before you rush out to buy a 3-pound bag of Hershey’s assorted miniatures, let’s be clear on the type of chocolate the science is talking about. It’s the cacao that packs the healthy punch, not the sugar, milk, and cream typically mixed in. Choose brands with cacao content of at least 70%. Even better, make it yourself with raw organic cacao powder, coconut oil, and maple syrup.
7. Don’t sit still.
Do you sit at a desk or stand at a counter all day pretty much frozen in position? If so, you’re probably feeling chronic stiffness, even pain, in your lower back, neck, shoulders, or feet. Your body is designed for movement and can be manipulated into countless positions, so no wonder it complains when you park it for hours. Aim to rotate through different body positions every 20 minutes: Stand up straight, stand on one leg, sit on a chair, sit on the floor with your legs crossed and then straight or to one side, sit on your knees, sit on your feet, stand up and stretch. If your job doesn’t allow for that much flexibility, fidget as much as possible while seated, and save the creative positions for home, when you’d normally sit on the couch or in a chair at the kitchen table. Yes, you can even eat while sitting on the floor!
8. Look into the distance.
When you look near (like you are right now), the ciliary muscles in your eyes contract and stay that way. Eventually those muscles tire, triggering eyestrain and headaches. When you look into the distance, however, the ciliary muscles relax. This is because we evolved as hunters and gatherers; our eye muscles are most relaxed when we use our distance vision. So, for every 20 minutes you’re glued to a computer, phone, book, or TV, make a habit of taking a 20-second break to look as far into the distance as you can.
9. Enforce a “no-tech” rule.
With the exception of toddlers and folks living off the grid, most of us struggle with some degree of technology dependence. We’re hardwired to respond to our devices peeping at us, but often the reward is short-lived — and not even rewarding. It never feels great to interrupt a conversation with a friend to read a reminder text from your dentist. Plus, our digital dependence contributes to stress, depression, and sleep deprivation. For a couple hours each day, put your devices out of sight and earshot, and play a board game, read a real book, cook something, go out for coffee, walk in the park, or (gasp!) have a conversation with someone you live with. You might be surprised at how relaxing and freeing it feels to be untethered from technology.
10. Drink coffee.
Coffee has fallen in and out of favor among health experts for decades, but recent scientific evidence has tipped the scale in its favor. The consensus now is that coffee is good for you — great news for the 82% of Americans who drink it every day. Still, let’s be sure we’re all envisioning the same beverage: black coffee. Forget the milk, whip, caramel sauce, and sugar. To reap health benefits, such as a decreased risk of cancer, improved mental focus, and possible protection from Alzheimer’s disease, drink 3 to 5 cups of black coffee daily.
11. Scrub with sea salt.
About 96.5% of the world’s water is salt water, containing roughly the same concentration of minerals and nutrients as the water in our own bodies. So, it’s no wonder sea salt is a natural ally to balance, protect, and restore the body and skin. One of the major differences between sea salt and ordinary salt is the mineral content. Sea salt is rich with magnesium, calcium, sodium, and potassium; minerals vital to our skin’s health and function. If you’ve ever returned from an ocean vacation with clearer, more radiant skin, you can credit sea salt. Mix a good quality fine sea salt (no sharp edges!) with a light oil or a gentle cleanser like Cetaphil, and start scrubbing.
12. Have a mindful moment.
Mindfulness meditation is all the rage, so you probably know all about its many benefits. But if you really don’t enjoy meditating or can’t seem to practice consistently, take a daily mindful moment instead. Pick an activity so mundane that your mind typically wanders while doing it: brushing your teeth, walking to the bus, washing the dishes, blow-drying your hair, taking a shower. As you go through the motions, stay in the moment by using your senses — notice the soap bubbles glistening on the dishes, the hum of the blow dryer, the sensation of your feet making contact with the ground. When you catch yourself thinking about your boss or your lunch plans, gently bring yourself back to the task at hand.
13. Learn something new.
The connections between the nerve cells in our brains (neurons) are capable of multiplying and growing stronger as we age, but only if we keep challenging them with new information. So aspire to learn something new — maybe set a goal that frightens you a bit, like learning how to write in Japanese or program in Ruby — and chip away at it each day. There’s no end to online learning options, so start building that muscle in your head!
14. Take a walking break every hour.
If you arrive at your desk at 8 a.m. and hardly get up until 5 p.m., you’re not only being unproductive, you’re also compromising your physical and mental health. The human brain isn’t great at focusing for extended periods, and the human body wasn’t designed to sit all day, so why not parlay those two facts into a killer hack for health and productivity? The most productive people work with intense focus for 52 minutes and then break completely for 17 minutes, according to research from the Draugiem Group. Using those 17 minutes to take a walk will not only counteract the stresses of sitting (or standing) but will also increase blood flow to the brain, leading to creative thinking and problem solving. It’s a win-win!
15. Ditch the high heels.
Ladies, there’s no arguing that high heels look pretty great, and for most of us, an evening dress just doesn’t work without them. But unless you’re an A-list celebrity, evening wear is probably a rarity. If you wear high heels as part of your standard daily attire, consider the damage they’re inflicting on your feet, knees, and back, and ask yourself if it’s worth it. Then consider the many benefits of flat shoes: You can take a brisk walk around the block, walk to your favorite lunch spot 10 blocks away, or get off the bus a few stops early and walk to work. You can alternate sitting and standing throughout the day, and maybe best of all, flat shoes with a neutral sole can replicate the many benefits of walking barefoot.
16. Stop eating before you get full.
Even if we don’t regularly eat ourselves into a Thanksgiving-like food coma, many of us do often eat to the point of discomfort and regret. The human stomach is mighty stretchy! Problem is, overeating leads to weight gain and digestive problems. Want to finish a meal feeling light and energetic instead? As you begin each meal, pause to assess how physically hungry you are on a scale from 0 (ravenous) to 10 (overstuffed) and aim to put down your utensils when you’ve reached a 7. At that point, make a gesture to signify you’re finished: Cover your plate with a napkin, nudge your plate forward, cross your silverware over your plate, or simply declare out loud, “I’m satisfied”.
17. Have yourself a hearty laugh.
Absolutely no scientist can dispute the incredible health benefits of laughter. From boosting your immune system and lowering stress to reducing pain and preventing heart disease, laughter is considered by many health professionals to be one of nature’s best medicines for both mental and physical health. How to laugh when you’re just not feeling the funny? Play with a dog, watch stand-up comedy, indulge in a couple of viral toddler videos. Or, attend a laughter yoga class; studies show laughing in groups beats laughing alone, helping turn “forced laughter” into real laughter.
18. Eat or drink something fermented.
Thanks to processing and preservatives, our modern Western diet is sorely deficient in natural sources of probiotics. Probiotics are live “good” bacteria that keep your digestive system healthy and your body functioning optimally by helping food move through the gut. Fermented foods — such as miso, sauerkraut, tempeh, kimchi, soy sauce, kombucha, ginger beer, or anything pickled — are probiotic powerhouses you can find almost anywhere.
19. Do a 10-minute HIIT workout.
The ‘80s aerobics craze gave us grapevines and high-knee jogs, but it may also shoulder blame for a common misconception: that unless you’re going to work out for 60 consecutive minutes, you shouldn’t bother snapping on your headband. Enter High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT), which, in a well-planned 10 minutes, can blow that one-hour step class out of the water. As long as you get your heart rate into the right zones, you can get a super effective workout every day. Don’t know where to start? Here’s a 10-minute bodyweight workout you can do today.
20. Do 10 minutes of stretching and self-massage.
If you spend most of your day parked at a desk or behind the wheel of a car, you’re headed for aches and stiffness — or maybe you’re already there. Chronic sitting is an express ticket to chronic pain. But you can head off backache, tension headaches, and overall stiffness with a quick daily routine of self-massage and stretching. No, “self-massage” doesn’t mean kneading your own muscles (no fun!); it means rolling around on a foam roller, a lacrosse ball, or a couple of tennis balls taped together (aka a “peanut tool”). These inexpensive tools boost blood circulation and smooth out tight spots in your muscles and connective tissues, bringing pain relief and better posture.
21. Drink lemon water.
If you’ve ever sipped hot lemon water when you’re down with a cold and your throat feels like it’s stuffed with a Brillo pad, you know its soothing powers. Otherwise, you probably don’t give lemon water a second thought. But there’s a surprising body of evidence that supports drinking a glass of lukewarm water mixed with the juice of half a lemon on a daily basis, ideally right after you wake up. Lemons have all sorts of wonderful vitamins, nutrients and antioxidants that can boost energy, reduce inflammation, improve your immune system, clear up your skin, and aid in digestion. The only downside: the acid in the lemon juice can erode tooth enamel. So make sure you dilute it well with lukewarm water.