For better health, try fitness from the inside out

Diana J. Smith

But over the years, the health lessons that have stayed with
me haven’t been about physical change. The biggest improvements in my own
health and well-being have come from inner fitness.

Inner fitness means focusing your energy on your emotional
well-being and mental health rather than berating yourself about your diet,
weight or not getting enough exercise. It can include mindfulness and
meditation techniques, a gratitude routine or a variety of other practices.

This inside-out approach to health ultimately can lead to
changes in your physical well-being, too. Research shows, for instance, that
mindfulness can lower blood pressure, improve sleep, lead to better eating
habits and reduce chronic pain.

“Inner fitness means developing the mental, emotional and
spiritual skills and practices that foster resilience,” said Tina Lifford,
author of “The Little Book of Big Lies: A Journey Into Inner Fitness.” “I’d
like to see the idea of inner fitness become as ubiquitous, well understood and
actionable as physical fitness.”

Lately, because I’ve decided it’s time for a change, I’ve
been reflecting on the lessons I’ve learned about inner fitness since starting
the Well section nearly 15 years ago. As I depart The New York Times for a new
opportunity, I’d like to leave you with some of the most memorable tips for
inner fitness that I’ve collected in recent years.

Give yourself a break: The field of self-compassion has
exploded since I first wrote about it in 2011. The concept is simple: Treat
yourself as kindly as you would treat a friend who needs support. About 75% of
people who find it easy to be supportive of others score very low on
self-compassion tests and are not very nice to themselves, said Kristin Neff,
an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin and an expert on
self-compassion. If you often berate yourself for perceived failures, like not
losing weight or not being a better parent or spouse, try taking a
self-compassion break. Start by asking yourself: What do I need right now?

Be generous: Our bodies and minds benefit in a variety of
ways when we help others. Studies show that volunteering, donating money or
sharing advice with friends can release the brain’s feel-good chemicals and
activate its reward system. Volunteers had lower stress hormones on days when
they donated their time. “One of the best anti-anxiety medications available is
generosity,” said Adam Grant, an organisational psychologist at the Wharton
School of the University of Pennsylvania, when I interviewed him for one of my
favourite stories of the pandemic, called “The Science of Helping Out.”

Pay attention: Good things happen when we pay attention.
We’re more able to manage negative thinking when we take a moment to notice
negative thoughts. Watching for small wonders around us when we take an “awe”
walk can amplify the mental health benefits of exercise. Identifying your
feelings and naming them — something scientists call “affect labelling” — can
calm your brain and reduce stress.

Find your calm: Learning to quiet my mind and soothe my
anxiety has been the greatest benefit I’ve gained from writing about health. I
use meditation apps often — lately I’ve been listening to the teachers of the
Unplug app, who helped us create “Meditations for Uncertain Times.” I learned
“five-finger meditation” from Dr Judson Brewer, director of research and
innovation at Brown University’s Mindfulness Centre. I also like to find
mindful moments in everyday activities, like brushing my teeth or savouring a
morning cup of coffee.

Give yourself the best hours of the day: What one- or
two-hour period in each day do you feel your best? Your most energetic? Your
most productive? Now ask yourself: Who gets those hours? Chances are you’re
spending those highly productive hours on work demands, paying bills, sorting
through emails or managing the needs of the household. But now that you’ve
identified the time of day when you’re feeling your best, try giving that time
to yourself instead, advises Jack Groppel, an executive coach and professor of
exercise and sport science at Judson University in Elgin, Illinois. For me,
this advice has been transformative. Giving yourself your best time each day to
focus on your personal goals and values is the ultimate form of self-care.

Make fresh starts: Katy Milkman, a professor at Wharton and
author of the book “How to Change,” has studied the science of new beginnings,
which she calls the fresh-start effect. She and her colleagues have found that
we’re most inclined to make meaningful changes in our lives around “temporal
landmarks” — those points in time that we naturally associate with new
beginnings. New Year’s Day is the most obvious temporal landmark in our lives,
but birthdays, the start of spring, the start of the school year or a new job
are all temporal landmarks that create psychological opportunities for lasting

As I leave The Times for my own fresh start, the hardest
part is leaving you, the readers, who have given me so much support and asked
so many smart questions over the years. It is your curiosity and your
scepticism that have pushed me to understand more about what being healthy
really means — both outside and in.

Stay well!

©2022 The New York Times Company

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