By Caroline Shannon-Karasik | Women’s Health Magazine
Instagram might have you thinking that the only way to practice self-care is to take a photo-shoot worthy bath (and post a picture of it, obvi).
But uh, that’s definitely not the case (though if you love a good bubble bath, do you). In terms of self-care, you’ve got to do one thing first: Nix the idea that there’s a perfect or correct way to do it.
Even then, it can still be hard to know where to start. Here, experts share self-care pointers for everything from snoozing more to spending time with the right people. Whether they suit you on the daily or you commit to them once a month, make it a priority to add them to your routine, to help yourself feel better, whenever.
1. Drink some water first thing in the a.m.
“Drink a glass of water as soon as you wake up,” says Vandana R. Sheth, R.D.N., a certified diabetes educator and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “We often wake up after a night’s sleep slightly dehydrated,” which often means starting your day off feeling crappy.
2. Write down five things every day that didn’t totally suck.
“No matter how bad your day sucks, we all have something to be grateful for—a home, a car, vision, two legs, etc.,” says Nancy B. Irwin, Psy.D. Focusing on what you’re grateful for can help put things into perspective—and not put so much emphasis on the stressors you might also be dealing with.
3. Make a menu for the week.
Eating healthy, fresh foods sounds easy enough until, well, life happens. Peter LePort, M.D., medical director of Memorial Care Surgical Weight Loss Center at Orange Coast Medical Center, says this is where scheduling solid meals comes into play. “By pre-planning your meals you can often eliminate the impulse, ‘pressed for time’ purchases,” he says (think: candy bars at the register).
4. Try that new yoga class.
Bert Mandelbaum, M.D., a sports medicine specialist and orthopedic surgeon, says a little bit of adaptability goes a long way, especially when it comes to fitness. Burnout and injury happen, and a willingness to change up your workouts makes it feel less stifling—and maybe even more exciting.
5. Take a new route to work.
It turns out that, like the rest of your body, your brain is subject to the “use it or lose it” theory, says Vernon Williams, M.D., founding director of the Center for Sports Neurology and Pain Medicine at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute. Take care of your brain by challenging it—and, no, you don’t need a fancy app. Williams suggests learning a foreign language or trying a new sport, or simply taking a different route to work in the morning.
6. Have a mini dance party.
“Our lives are so busy and scheduled these days that it’s important to remember to have some fun and connect with our loved ones,” says Erica M. Wollerman, Psy.D., psychologist and founder of Thrive Therapy Studio. Make plans with friends, indulge in your favorite television show, or blast some music and dance out your day in the middle of your living room.
7. Take five minutes to decompress every day.
“It’s important to take time to breathe,” says Alexandra Elle, author of Growing in Gratitude. “People believe self-care has to be expensive and lavish, but it doesn’t,” she says, adding that it can look as simple as putting your phone (or any other device) away for five minutes to just sit with your own thoughts.
8. Move for at least 30 minutes a day.
Should you do a full, high-intensity workout each and every day? Probably not, but getting in at least 30 minutes of some kind of aerobic exercise—whether it’s a solid gym session or a lunchtime stroll—is just as good for your mental health as it is your physical, says Sheth. Even better: You don’t have to do it all at once—take three 10-minute strolls if you can’t do a full half hour.
9. Get some sleep already.
It seems simple enough and, yet, 40 percent of Americans get less than seven hours of sleep a night, according to a 2013 Gallup poll. (Healthy adults should average seven to nine hours of shut-eye per night.) “During sleep, your brain rids itself of toxins, consolidates memory, and builds neural highways,” Williams says. Which, yes, means you can snooze your way through self-care.
10. Practice kegel exercises.
In case you haven’t heard, toning and strengthening exercises for your pelvic-floor are crucial to overall health down there, including better orgasms. “The best part of kegel exercises? No one will ever know you’re doing them,” says S. Adam Ramin, M.D., a urologist and medical director of Urology Cancer Specialists.
Not sure how to do it? Think about what it feels like when you stop your pee mid-stream (though, tbh, you should never do that). That squeeze happens in your pelvic floor muscles—once you find them, hold that squeeze for three to 10 seconds. You can do 10 reps of that, working your way up to three sets a day. Self-care that also improves your sex life? Yes, please.
11. Start your day with something pleasant.
So yeah, that doesn’t mean snoozing five times then racing out the door. “It can be very grounding to have enjoyable rituals built into your day,” Wollerman says. “Perhaps you start your day with a cup of tea or coffee or some gentle stretching.”
12. Get your om on.
Meditation can help reduce blood pressure, as well as symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), anxiety, and depression, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health—which makes it a skill worth learning.
Don’t know where to start? Remember meditation doesn’t have to be a huge time investment (and you also don’t have to totally clear your mind)—here are a few quick tips on how to start meditating now.
13. Confront your negativity—on paper.
“Write down the lies—the negative self-talk, self-doubt—and then combat that with what you know to be true, what you’re capable of,” Elle says. “Putting that on paper helps to acknowledge the negative, while not letting it overtake the positives in your life.”
14. Get a tomato plant.
Even if you think you don’t have the space for a full garden (or simply lack a green thumb), choose one item that you consume regularly, and research how to grow it in space you have available, LePort says. “Can it grow in a pot? Indoors?” he asks. “By taking a trip to a local nursery, someone can help you figure out a way to make it grow.” Bonus? Nurturing plants has major therapeutic benefits, he adds.
15. Stop to smell the coffee—literally.
Try to find a few moments a day where you simply sit or stand and just connect with your senses in the present moment,” Wollerman says. “Really pay attention to what you hear, feel, see, etc. This is a quick way to bring a little mindfulness into your day.”
Need an example? Take a sniff of that coffee you’re brewing—but don’t just smell it; think about exactly how it smells: a little sweet, a little bitter, totally comforting.
16. Volunteer just one hour a month.
You know, or more. Giving back is good for the soul, plus it boosts community morale, Irwin says. “If everyone volunteered just one hour a month, imagine the difference it could make in the world!” she says. Whether you give back with a donation or volunteer your time and talents, it’ll feel like you’re making a difference.
17. Go purse shopping.
Twist your arm, right? But, seriously, your ultra-cute bag might be wreaking havoc on your neck and back, says Neel Anand, M.D., a professor of orthopedic surgery and director of spine trauma at Cedars-Sinai Spine Center in Los Angeles, California. Opt for a smaller handbag or lighten the load in the one you have, making room for only the essentials.
18. Have a family dinner.
“Having a set meal time where you either sit with your family, significant other, or just alone to eat and enjoy your meal can be a really nice way to connect with your loved ones or yourself,” Wollerman says.
19. Sit up straight.
Mom was right: Posture is crucial to overall body care. “If you’re like most people, it becomes second nature to walk around with bad posture or sit hunched over at a desk, and some people don’t even realize they are doing it,” Anand says.
Instead, try sitting up straight in your chair, placing your hands on your thighs and squeezing your shoulder blades together, holding for five seconds. Anand recommends repeating this exercised three or four times throughout the day for improved posture.
20. Don’t eat the kale if you don’t like it.
Yes, kale salads on Instagram are the epitome of “wellness”—but if you prefer romaine (or uh, plate of sweet potato fries), that’s okay too. It’s important to acknowledge that everyone is different in order to find the health sweet spot that works for you.
The same goes for exercise (if you hate running, don’t feel obliged to sign up for a half-marathon). “Work with your physician, or registered dietitian or trainer to respect your own body’s specific needs,” says Wollerman. Overall, don’t compare your body to others’ and don’t expect their health practices will also work for you.
21. Detox from technology and work.
“Since we often have our work lives following us everywhere through our phones these days, having strong boundaries around work emails, texts, and calls, or even just Facebook if that is very distracting for you, can really help create more downtime,” Wollerman says.
Still, it’s easier said than done to just limit your screen time—luckily, your phone might actually be able to help you out (some let you set a daily limit). If that’s not an option, set a specific time before bed and unwind with a book instead of scrolling through Instagram.
22. Plan a workout date with a friend.
LePort says it’s important to keep friends in your corner who support your overall health and life goals. “You can set yourself up for health success by sticking with the friends who will be there for you and support you rather than those who drag you down and guilt-trip you into old, unhealthy habits,” LePort says.
That doesn’t mean you have to drop your (somewhat toxic) BFF. Instead, ask her if she wants to join you for a jog the next time you plan to lace up.
23. Enjoy breakfast.
Sure, sometimes you have to eat on the run. But as often as possible, Sheth says you should sit down to eat, aiming to consume something with protein and carbs to help keep you fueled throughout the day (think: a piece of toast with bananas and peanut butter). Sheth says you should also enjoy regular meals and snacks throughout the day to avoid feeling hangry.
24. Do some planks.
Even if you don’t have time to squeeze in a full workout, Anand says planking can help strengthen your core and eliminate lower back pain. “Most everyone living with chronic back pain can benefit from strengthening their core muscles and introducing only a few exercises a day can help to improve the pain.”
25. Say no to those dinner plans.
Listen up, overachievers: “Our expectations of ourselves in different situations are unrealistic so you most likely are not able to do all the things you might think you need to do—that’s okay,” Wollerman says. “You are more important than your to-do list, so prioritize your well-being above some of the little extra tasks you might think you need to do.”