3 Ways to Get Healthier and Happier in the New Year (Besides Running)

I bought the bestseller 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, and it sat on my bedside table for two full years, as if mocking me.

Self-help feels like homework, and I didn’t want to break bad habits and nurture good ones. I finally gave the book away, with my old, ineffective habits (like buying books I think will be good for me but not actually reading them) intact.

You might assume that advice I have for feeling better in the new year would revolve around running, not self-help for your lifestyle. But running isn’t a panacea.

As much as I evangelize running as arguably the most effective, simple, satisfying and low-cost option for getting in shape, we runners aren’t necessarily healthy, broadly defined. Sometimes we neglect other areas of our lives because we think the almost-daily act of sweating while running 45 minutes or longer guarantees better physical and mental well-being.

I guess it’s about time I drop the universal first-person plural “we” and admit I’m talking about me. It’s no secret to longtime readers of this blog that I’m somewhat delinquent about taking care of other facets of my heath and wellness.

When I reflect on my past year, it seems healthy and successful in terms of running. I did well at races, averaged 40 to 70 miles of running a week, avoided injury, and stuck to a consistent routine of strength conditioning.

But the reality is that during 2015, I often felt worn out, moody, heavy or bloated, and alternately frazzled and unproductive. Running and coaching sometimes seemed to be the only areas where I felt focused and successful. As for writing, parenting, managing our household, and other work commitments, I sometimes couldn’t do anything right. Or couldn’t do anything, period.

Therefore, I’d like to share three ways—other than exercise—I’m attempting to improve my health and happiness, so that you might try them, too:

1. Reduce distractions and multitasking, especially while driving, working and relating to other people.

My ability to write, read novels, and finish large projects in a timely manner nosedived this past year, and I blame it largely on an attention span shortened and distracted by an addiction to multitasking and incessantly checking email and social media.

sweet spot coverMy “a-ha” moment came last summer when I listened to a friend from high school, Christine Carter, speak about her book The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Home and Work. If you read one self-help book, make it that one. I finally read it, and it’s worth it! Her book details the myriad ways we are incessantly busy yet not particularly happy or productive—and what to do about it.

“We are drawn to our smartphones in the way we are drawn to slot machines. We never know when we’ll get a satisfying message on Facebook or an email with good news, so we just keep checking,” writes Carter. “We check constantly to abate our anxiety that we are missing something.”

One of the riskiest, most unhealthy behaviors I started engaging in more and more is texting and checking email while driving—something I forbid my 17-year-old daughter, who’s a new driver, to do. It has become a habit due to instant gratification, and I vow to break it, because it truly is so dangerous. I can’t ask my kids to do something I’m not willing to do myself.

I actually pasted a photo of my kids on my dashboard to remind myself it is not worth driving distractedly and risking an accident because my life and others’ are at stake. It’s an in-my-face reminder, and it works. It also helps me feel more calm and focused.

dashboard pic of kids

I also am endeavoring to stop the constant checking of email and social media while trying to accomplish concentrated work, or when I am in public with other people. This connection to devices is robbing us all of real, meaningful connections to each other and diminishing our ability to concentrate thoughtfully.

The time I spend running is the only significant time when I am unplugged and fully observant of my surroundings. If I run with my phone—which is only on longer runs, for safety—I keep it out of reach in my pack, not in my hand or front pocket. It’s no wonder I do my best thinking while running, free from distractions and multitasking.

2. Get more sleep. Sleep has been called the most effective legal performance enhancer for athletes. Most adults need seven to nine hours nightly, and athletes need even more.

I thought I got around seven most nights, until I actually started monitoring my sleep in November with a Fitbit Surge device.Turns out, I tended to get around six and a half hours of sleep nightly.

A few weeks ago, I made a commitment to be in bed between 9:30 to 9:45; to read a real book or magazine (resisting the urge to be on my phone, which I use as an alarm clock); and fall asleep by 10. My alarm goes off at 6 a.m. now instead of 5; I have shifted my running to later in the morning or, occasionally, in the afternoon.

Now I am sleeping eight hours from 10 to 6 most nights, and the result is significant: Even though I have an hour less during the day, I feel better and can get more done. The occasional nights when I sleep less or am up in the middle of the night with insomnia, I pay for it all day.

Really, it’s a no-brainer. Better sleep means better health and productivity.

3. Eat mindfully. Do you eat your lunch in front of your laptop? I do. And then I can scarcely recall what I ate—and I often want more.

I’m trying to replace mindless munching with mindful eating, which means slowing down and tuning in to what you’re eating so you can enjoy your food and respect your hunger and fullness cues. Admittedly, I have been trying this for years (see this article I wrote on the subject back in 2009). I go in and out of doing it successfully. It’s worth the continued effort.

(I also am working with a nutritionist and ultrarunner I admire, Meredith Terranova, to get my eating in line with being an athlete in training. More to come on that in a future post.)

Try this: Make a meal. Eat at a table to enjoy it, slowly. Do not read or check your phone while eating; just sit there or talk to your dining companion. If you’re eating in a group, try to be the last one to finish. Savor the taste and texture. Wait several minutes before you get second helpings, to gauge whether you’re really still hungry.

I love to cook and eat, so I don’t want to compromise culinary pleasures. But this can be a win-win situation: If I focus more fully on enjoying the mealtime, then I can be more satisfied by smaller portions and stop eating when I’m full, rather than over indulging.

It’s well documented that family mealtimes improve family life in terms of communication and nutrition. Try to eat with your family and linger over your meal, rather than rushing and checking your phone between bites.

In today’s world, this is all easier said than done—believe me, I know. Tell yourself, “Some is better than none.” If you can have at least one mindful meal, on most days of the week, you will find your nutrition and weight easier to manage, you’ll feel better, and maybe you’ll even improve your family life.

And now, back to running: I updated the widget on the righthand column of this blog to show the races planned for 2016. I’m psyched for the next six months of training.

Happy holidays everyone! I’m spending four days in Yosemite with my husband’s side of the family, and then we’re heading to Mammoth Lakes for Christmas through new year’s.

Unplug, look around, stretch. Photo taken last summer in Ouray, Colorado, by James Richard Kao.

Unplug, look around, stretch. Photo taken last summer in Ouray, Colorado, by James Richard Kao.

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4 Responses to 3 Ways to Get Healthier and Happier in the New Year (Besides Running)

  1. Holly December 19, 2015 at 1:25 pm #

    Great post.

    Last weekend I crewed for a friend at one of the MOAT Ultras. Like most MOAT races, it’s in the middle of no where so cell reception wasn’t the greatest. Those that were crewing and those that finished the shorter races sat around and actually talked to each other. It kind of amazed me. Admittedly we all had something in common, but still… I wish we did this more often.

    As a Nurse who covers our Trauma ICU, I commend your decision to stop the texting. It really can wait, and the recovery from those types of accidents is generally long and will keep you out of any of the awesome races you have planned for 2016… WS100!

    Hope you have a healthy and low stress 2016!

  2. David December 19, 2015 at 4:19 pm #

    Love that last photo of you in Ouray! Good advice throughout: ditch the phone (I’ve never had one); sleep (I’m usually in bed by 8:00); and be a mindful eater (go vegan!).

    Most of all, though, let gratitude be your default setting.

    Lars is here. Gotta run. But enjoyed this post.

  3. Dr. Deena December 26, 2015 at 10:06 am #

    Meditation, and eating mindfully are my main focus for new year. Exercise is top on my list, so that I can keep in shape. Thank you for this article. It really makes me think of all the ways I need to motivate myself for 2016!


  1. Ultramarathon Daily News, Mon, Dec 21 - UltraRunnerPodcast: Ultramarathon News, Podcasts, and Product Reviews - December 21, 2015

    […] Three ways (besides running) to get happier and healthier in 2016. Yes, yes, and yes. […]

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