By Lisa Dukart and Julia Lowndes
If there’s one thing 2020 taught us, it’s to cherish what matters most: our health, our mental well-being and our relationships with one another. Daily stressors may have caused slippage in our self-care, from slacking on fitness routines to being less forgiving of loved ones we’re spending every moment with. Here, Delaware experts weigh in on how to break bad habits and develop healthier ones so you can make 2021 your best year yet.
According to a 2019 YouGov survey, about half of Americans who make New Year’s resolutions vow to exercise more. What’s the best way to get moving? Make fitness convenient, says Glynn Willard, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and owner of Paradigm Fitness in Newark. “If it’s not convenient, you’re not going to stick to it,” he says. Choose a gym, trainer or workout site that’s nearby, and start slowly, with two days of light exercise per week. Exercise can even include a brisk walk. “Any moderately intense movement is still exercise, so find something enjoyable,” Willard suggests.
If you’re already moving but need to kick it into higher gear, consider a new, higher-intensity routine. “Runners and joggers might try a hike, or swimmers might consider standup paddleboarding,” Willard suggests. “Whatever you do, make sure you’re breaking a sweat.”
If your goal is weight loss, stepping on a scale can sometimes be frustrating if you haven’t hit your target. While scales are no doubt useful, Cindra Holland, a registered dietitian and the founder of Healthy You Nutrition in Middletown, argues that they might do more harm than good.
“You know you have an unhealthy relationship with your scale when you feel disappointed or upset time and time again,” she says. “It’s putting you in a mindset that’s not healthy.” If this sounds like you, try tracking your progress another way. Holland suggests finding a pair of jeans that might fit when you’re close to your ideal weight; try them on periodically to measure your progress.
If you feel compelled to step on the scale, do it once a month at the same time of day. “It’s not about how much you weigh,” Holland says. “It’s about how you feel in your body.”
In modern society, so much stimuli can lead to mental fatigue. “At any point in time, our brain is taking in way more information than we are evolutionarily meant to,” explains Dana Vitrano, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Delaware’s Center for Counseling and Student Development. Several studies suggest that nature is the perfect antidote to both mental fatigue and physiological stressors. Whether forest bathing or frolicking in a creek, communing with nature lowers blood pressure and levels of the stress hormone cortisol, as well as activity in the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for negative emotions.
Something as simple as taking a walk outside can be enormously beneficial, Vitrano says, noting that as little as 20 minutes a few times a week can still improve well-being. When outdoors, be sure to engage all five senses, tuning in to sound, smell, touch, sight and even taste.
Too cold to go outside? Invite nature indoors. Displaying pictures of the outdoors in your home, sitting by a window or even watching a nature documentary, as well as infusing your space with scents reminiscent of the ocean or woods, can be beneficial. “We’re all connected to nature, but everyone’s relationship to it is different,” Vitrano says. “What’s nice about Delaware is that it’s pretty biodiverse. You can really engage outdoors in a whole lot of different ways.”
For the better part of a year, many of us have spent our days cooped up in the same few rooms. When you only have a certain amount of square footage to keep you occupied, your home can start to feel pretty empty. That’s where four-legged and feathered friends come in.
If you haven’t already adopted or fostered an animal since the beginning of quarantine, you might soon become the odd one out. According to Linda Torelli, marketing director at the Brandywine SPCA, their shelters have seen a 24 percent increase in adoptions in the past year—and for good reason.
“Those who love cats and dogs have personally experienced the positive impact of animals on our well-being,” Torelli explains. “No one greets you like your family pet, and our cats and dogs have a way of making us smile and laugh at even the toughest times.”
If you’ve been thinking about giving an animal their forever home, there’s really never been a better time. Just reach out to your local shelter to see what their COVID-19 adoption policies are. If you’re interested in adopting from the Brandywine SPCA, visit their website to see all the wonderful pets needing a home, then stop by and ask one of their volunteers to connect you with the perfect furry friend.
The ever-present threat of a potentially deadly virus has led to worldwide systemic trauma, explains Wilmington-based psychologist Dr. Margo Lewis-Jah of Synergy Consultants and Psychotherapy Practice. “Collectively, we have all had an intense stress reaction to the coronavirus,” she says. “Our physical, social, emotional and spiritual well-being has all been questioned.”
Living in close quarters with little reprieve (i.e., time apart) has taxed some romantic relationships and is even impacting couples who are dating but live apart. Couples who cohabitate might be under strain from a lack of separation, impending financial crisis and trying to do remote learning with their children while also keeping up at work. If one partner works outside the home, the physical nature of the relationship can also suffer. “If you’re out in public, you’re scared to come home and touch your kids or hold your partner because you don’t know if you’ve been exposed or not,” Lewis-Jah explains. “That’s creating some subconscious distance.” Touch “creates a calming effect on people,” she adds, and for many, it’s been absent for months.
What to do? To address any issues within the relationship, start by openly communicating your thoughts and feelings, Lewis-Jah says. Discuss risk tolerance and try to be more flexible. To keep the spark alive physically when keeping a safe distance from each other, try “other sexual variations” that are visual but don’t require direct contact. Paired with honest communication and other coping mechanisms like physical exercise, telehealth sessions and engaging with mindfulness, relationships can overcome the trauma, she says.
From reducing plastic consumption to shopping consignments and taking public transportation, there are many ways to reduce your carbon footprint. But perhaps the biggest impact comes from what we eat. Worldwide, food systems account for about 25 percent of greenhouse gases annually, with the largest percentage coming from livestock—and cattle is the greatest carbon contributor.
An analysis by the nonprofit World Resources Institute estimates that by replacing beef consumption with less impactful foods like legumes, people could decrease their individual carbon emissions by about 13 percent. This year, embrace the Meatless Monday movement, which is good for the planet and your personal wellness, too.
It might sound daunting to replace meat with plant-based alternatives, but it’s actually quite simple—and tasty. “It’s all a full circle,” says Kelly Leishear, a health and wellness coach in Milton. “When we eat more vegetables and more plants, we are going to help heal the environment.” Plus, these foods help heal our bodies and may promote weight loss.
Start by piling your plate with more fruits and vegetables. If you’re not a fan of nature’s candy in the raw, Leishear suggests dressing them up with healthy dips like nut butter, guacamole or hummus.
Getting your kids to love whole foods early in life can also set them up for a healthy lifestyle later on. To get started, says Leishear, “Use terms that they can relate to—‘grow-strong foods’ and ‘run-fast foods’—and make it accessible.” Garnish an English muffin with spinach and tomato for breakfast, or let them pile their own pizza with veggies at dinner. And keep in mind that it can take eight to 10 times of trying a food before kids develop a taste for it, so don’t get discouraged if they don’t love something right away.
However you incorporate whole, natural foods, remember that it’s not all or nothing,” Leishear says. “Every little bit makes a difference.”
According to a 2019 Bankrate survey, 28 percent of Americans don’t have any emergency savings. Amid the pandemic, there’s no better time to start evaluating your financial stability. Start with a comprehensive budget and then consider your goals. Are you saving for a vacation, or a down payment on a home or car? “A budget really is just a series of choices about how you want to use the money that you have,” explains Jude Liszkiewicz of Stand by Me, a financial coaching group in Delaware.
Look at several months’ worth of spending to nail down costs that don’t change, like rent or a mortgage, car payment, insurance and your kids’ school tuition. Then start looking at fluctuating expenses, like groceries and entertainment. If miscellaneous expenses still prove elusive, track them for a month. Next, account for regular expenses like quarterly bills, seasonal clothing shopping, vehicle maintenance, or gifts and celebrations for birthdays and holidays. “Add those things up and then divide that out over the course of a year, and you can get a sense of what you need to be setting aside,” Liszkiewicz says, noting that it’s easier to set small amounts aside each month for larger expenses than it is to try to find a large lump sum.
To track your budget, use a tool that’s convenient for you, be it a notepad that serves as a ledger, a computer spreadsheet or an app that tallies items for you. Incremental changes to spending or saving add up in the long run, Liszkiewicz point outs. He suggests a “pay yourself first” mentality when it comes to savings: Treat savings like any other bill by setting aside a certain amount each paycheck or month. Set a reasonable amount based on financial goals and consider putting savings in a separate account or even a secondary bank. However small you start, saving “1 percent is still better than none,” he says.
Assess finances monthly and make any adjustments “before they get way out of hand,” Liszkiewicz advises. And remember, saving takes time. “It’s not one change that you make overnight that fixes everything.”
It’s the end of a long workday and all you can think about is closing your laptop and enjoying a warm meal with your family. But before you can sign off, a request from a coworker pops up in your inbox. Next thing you know, you’re working late while your dinner goes cold. Sound familiar?
When priorities collide, saying no can feel like a non-option. “We’re hardwired to desire connection and acceptance from other people,” says Karen Barwick, a counselor and mindfulness practitioner in Rehoboth Beach who co-founded the Minds Over Matter initiative. “Because of this, there’s risk involved with saying no.”
However, according to Barwick, seeing past this risk is a crucial act of self-love. When you learn how to say no, you’re doing something meaningful: setting boundaries and giving yourself permission to care for yourself.
Plus, when you start saying no to things you aren’t committed to, you allow yourself to be present with what matters most. “When we do something that we don’t really want to do, how much of you was really there?” Barwick says. “When we say yes but mean no, it impacts the quality of the experience.”
Take a moment to think about your breakfast this morning. Not just the fact that you ate a blueberry muffin or a bowl of cereal—think about what your breakfast smelled like, looked like, tasted like, and how you felt after you’d finished the meal.
It’s not always easy, right? When we’re constantly in a rush and distracted by what’s coming next, meals can feel more like a chore than an experience. According to Healthy You Nutrition’s Holland, we risk feeling disconnected from our bodies and moving farther away from our ideal weight when we stop appreciating our food. To combat this, she suggests practicing mindful eating.
“Pay attention to your body as you eat and the signals that it’s sending you,” she says. “Pay attention to the thoughts and feelings you’re having in response to each bite. When you try to be mindful and aware as you eat, it can help heal the relationship that we have with food.”
Becoming a mindful eater doesn’t happen overnight. Holland suggests taking it one bite at a time. “Eat a chocolate chip,” she says. “Taste the first one, the second one and the third. Push yourself to think about what it tastes likes and how the taste changes with each bite.”
When the world slows down and our loved ones are busy with their own lives, feelings of loneliness can follow. Since your longest relationship will always be with yourself, the effort you put into making it a good one is worth it.
The hardest part to becoming your own best friend is rewiring your thoughts, says Barwick. If you’re harder on yourself than others are on you, try not to jump to negative conclusions.
“The tool that I find to be most useful is suspending judgment and inviting curiosity,” Barwick says. “It’s easier said than done, but it’s really hard to be judgmental and curious at the same time. If we can invite ourselves to be curious about what’s happening, that may open the door to becoming more patient with ourselves.”
Rather than judging your feelings or actions, explore your decisions. It might be difficult, but wouldn’t you extend your best friend that same kindness?
Treating yourself to something nice can be a healthy, sometimes necessary, way to show self-love. But there comes a time when an endless stream of Amazon packages at your front door no longer equates to happiness.
Most of the time, our financial decisions don’t line up with what actually makes us happy, says Dinette Rivera, business coach and president of Delaware’s National Association of Women Business Owners in Wilmington. If you want to discover whether purchases truly bring you joy, go on a spending fast. For a month or longer, Rivera suggests, cut out frivolous expenses to monitor how your well-being is affected.
This time will help you focus on what you already have, but it can also help you establish your goals for the new year. “People do not spend time getting to know the most important person they will ever meet—themselves,” Rivera says. “As a result, they look for happiness and well-being outside of themselves. Once you are clear on who you are, you will make financial decisions that align with what makes you truly happy.”
If someone in your life made you feel drained and insecure, you would reconsider the value of the relationship. So why is it impossible to break up with our phones when they’re so often sources of stress?
According to Amy Bleakley, Ph.D, a professor in the Department of Communications at the University of Delaware, recognizing that you have an unhealthy relationship with your device isn’t always black and white. Your phone can simultaneously foster connections with loved ones and allow you to compare yourself to others in unhealthy ways, making it hard to recognize an unhealthy relationship.
“Consider what you might have been doing if you weren’t on the phone,” Bleakley suggests. “What kinds of activities does your phone displace, and are those activities things that might make you feel better?”
If your device is keeping you from doing something more fulfilling, like spending time with family or working on hobbies, enlist support of others who can help you cut down on screen time. Keeping your phone in another room while you sleep, or taking advantage of features like screen time trackers and do not disturb settings, can also help.
Winter might not seem like the best time to start gardening, but you can get a head start on your spring and summer yields with an indoor garden. Plus, it’s a great way to stay occupied and connected to nature during the colder months.
Liz Nazelle, a member of the Coastal Gardeners Club in Sussex County, says that starting seeds like tomatoes and green beans is a great option for both experts and novices. All you need are seeds, space to sprout them and a plant lamp if you don’t have much natural light. If you’re not into veggies, opt for houseplants like pothos, snake plants or the hardy Zamzibar Gem. (If you’ve adopted a dog, cat or other animal, just be sure your new plants aren’t poisonous to your pet.)
Though growing an indoor garden isn’t too time consuming, you might be surprised by the way it boosts your well-being. “Gardening is beneficial because it’s one small thing that you can control,” Nazelle says. “Especially now when so much feels out of our control, it’s a small thing that you can take care of and nurture.”