12 Monthly Challenges to Improve your Health
Pick a challenge and commit to following through for one month. They say it takes 21 days to create a habit, so perhaps after the month, what you’ve implemented will stick.
This year, rather than resolve that forever-more you are going to stick to your diet or exercise program, only to find you’ve fallen off the bandwagon a while down the road, try a monthly challenge instead. Wrapping one’s head around making a commitment for only one month is much easier. After the month is over, you can re-evaluate, and decide if you like the new behavior you tried on for the month and wish to continue it. Either way, you can then focus on another challenge for the next month, or give it a break for a month and pick up another challenge for March. These challenges can be done in any order - they are just ideas, so see if any of them resonate with you, or make up your own.
Commit to exercising for at least 20 minutes every day for one month. This does not mean the exercise needs to be crazy intense every day. In fact, I would suggest mixing it up. A couple or three days a week work hard at strength training, do yoga in between, and when you lack energy go for a walk, for example. Pull out those work-out DVDs and have them on hand in case you need new ideas. Just do something every day for the month, and mark your exercise on your calendar. Notice how much more energy you have and how much better you feel when you exercise regularly! If implementing a daily exercise habit is difficult, consider getting a dog, at least to get you out walking daily.
Commit to being in bed with all the lights out (including the TV and Ipad!) every night by 10pm for one month. This is a good challenge for many, and is important for regulating hormones. This will help decrease cortisol, insulin and estrogen levels, the hormones that keep us fat, and will increase melatonin, that all powerful night time hormone that helps us get to sleep, soaks up free radicals and helps our bodies repair. It is the darkness that is important. If you want, you can listen to relaxing music or a calming audio book if 10pm seems too early to go to sleep. For best results, make sure your room is as dark as possible, so get blackout drapes or put foil on the window that is allowing the street light to come in.
Commit to avoiding sugar in all its forms for one month. That would include soda pop, sweetened juices and fruit drinks, coffees with syrup added, sweet desserts, cookies, muffins etc. Depending how strict you want to be with yourself, you can also read labels and avoid all packaged food that contains ingredients ending in “ose” like sucrose, glucose, fructose, lactose, galactose, maltose, dextrose, or “accharides” like disaccharides, monosaccharides, polysaccharides, as well as all forms of syrups, like corn syrup, agave syrup, HFCS (high fructose corn syrup) etc. Unpasteurized honey, organic maple syrup - the real stuff, not Aunt Jemima’s - and black strap molasses are healthy sweeteners, but it may be good to avoid them for a month too, to reset your sense of taste for sweetness. I don’t eat much sugar, and find now that when I have a sweet dessert, the sweetness is almost overwhelming. I figure that is probably a good thing. If you have a sweet tooth, you will probably find that you lose weight on this one.
Commit to 15 minutes of meditation in the morning and at night each day for a month. Or if twice a day is too difficult, commit to once a day. Meditation is great for stress relief, it quiets the mind by silencing the left half of the brain, and it brings us into the present, which makes us happier. If you are not sure how to meditate, just find a quiet place to sit comfortably, close your eyes, and focus on feeling your breath. Feel the air come in through your nostrils, fill your lungs, and come out all by itself past the tip of your nose. When you realize your mind has wandered, come back to focusing on the breath. Don’t worry about your mind wandering - it probably will. Very few people can focus on only the breath for 10 breaths in a row. Can you after a month of practice?
Commit to having a good serving of colorful vegetables at every meal. No, French fries or potato chips don’t count. And yes, breakfast too. If that is too hard, commit to just lunch and dinner. This one takes planning, but if you feel you don’t eat enough vegetables it may be a good challenge to try. Cherry tomatoes are easy to pack along. Or perhaps you can cut up some carrots to bring to work. Try and include at least one serving of dark green vegetables every day. Don’t forget that broccoli, kale, Swiss chard, collard greens, spinach and cabbage are healthier cooked than raw. Sauerkraut or fermented cabbage is also a very healthy option.
Commit to avoiding gluten for one month. That entails avoiding all grains except for rice, corn, buckwheat and millet. If you are always bloated with a belly that seems to hang out like a big basket ball, or you just don’t feel well, this may be a worthwhile challenge to try. Many people are sensitive to gluten and don’t know it. After some time off especially wheat, but also other grains that contain the protein gluten, like rye, oats, spelt, barley etc. they feel much better, and the stomach muscles start to function better again, holding the belly in. This challenge means reading labels, as wheat is in many foods including soy sauce, soups, crackers, baked goods, cereals etc. It is quite likely that this challenge will result in weight loss too.
Commit to spending an hour at least, of quality time with your spouse, child, someone special each day. That means doing something together, not watching TV or a movie. Something that involves an interaction between the two of you. Having a discussion, playing a game, going skating, cooking together, working on a project together …
Commit to avoiding all plant oils except for olive, flax and coconut oils for one month This challenge is easy, yet can have powerful impacts on health. Vegetable oils like canola, corn, safflower, sunflower, soy, peanut, grape-seed etc. are inflammatory to the body and should not be consumed at all. Make salad dressings with olive oil or flax oil, and cook with coconut oil, butter, ghee, or a mix of olive oil and butter or ghee. Read labels, as these oils are everywhere in packaged foods, including in baked goods, often in the form of trans fats. If you bake and the recipe calls for a vegetable oil, perhaps try melted butter instead. Use lard instead of shortening. Body inflammation is a key factor in most modern diseases including heart disease and arthritis, and may be part of the reason one has pain. So avoiding inflammatory foods like these omega 6 oils may make a big difference to your health. Hopefully once you’ve made the switch, this will be a very easy habit to maintain.
Commit to staying adequately hydrated for one month. Drinking enough water is critically important to our health, yet it is not a habit that many of us have internalized very well. So, make the commitment for one month. To calculate how much water you need, take your bodyweight in pounds and divide by 2. That is the number of ounces of filtered water your body wants you to drink per day. There are 32 ounces in a liter. Calculate your goal and figure out a way that will work for you to keep track, and go for it. You can measure the amount needed into a large container in the morning, and pour your glasses from that until it is all gone, or simply calculate as you go. Remember that caffeinated beverages and alcohol don’t count. Water is better than juices and other drinks too.
Commit to avoiding flour for a month. Flour is everywhere and it is not healthy. The body treats flour like sugar, so every time we eat something made of flour, like bread, crackers and other baked goods, we may as well be eating sugar. Flour is any starch that is ground up into a powder. Certainly some flours are healthier than others, but nothing made of flour is very healthy in my opinion. So, how much better is whole-wheat bread than white bread? A little bit better, but best not have bread at all. Grains that have been ground into flour react in our bodies completely differently from grains that are cooked whole. Grains should be treated like legumes and consumed whole, after having been soaked for several hours. Avoiding products that contain flour is challenging, but will force you to think differently about your meals and hopefully come up with healthier options that work well for you.
Commit to avoiding all packaged food for one month. This is a tough one but will pay huge dividends in health benefits. For this challenge you are only eating food that you can pick, pull out of the ground, chase after to obtain, or food that comes from the ocean. So your diet will consist of fresh vegetables, fruit, nuts and seeds, flesh foods like beef, lamb, chicken, fish and seafood, as well as eggs and plain dairy (not sweetened, packaged yogurts, chocolate milk or processed cheese etc.). Nothing that comes in a package, a can, a box from the freezer section, no protein powders or bars, boxed cereals, no soda pop, no deli meats. Vegetable oils are processed using heat to get the oil out of the seed, so they are out. Obviously no fast food either. This would be a fantastic challenge to use as a vehicle to learn how to cook, so find yourself a great cookbook and have fun.
Commit to eating something raw or fermented at every meal. Raw and fermented foods are highly nourishing as they have never been heated. Heat destroys vitamins as well as enzymes in food, so eating some food raw is very healthful. The obvious raw choices are fruit and vegetables, but it is usually not hard to find raw cheese. If you are in part of the world where raw milk from grass-fed cows is available, that would also be a wonderful choice. Most cultures of the world have special recipes that they use to prepare raw meat. France does steak tartar, Italy does carpaccio, Japan does sushi, and the Middle East does kibbeh (a raw lamb dish), for example. Make sure you have a good recipe for these meat dishes, as there are tricks to ensuring that raw meat is safe. If you are purchasing fermented food, ensure it has not been pasteurized after the fermentation process, as the heat destroys the benefits of the fermentation process.
Commit to the Paleo Diet for one month. This is probably the toughest challenge of all. The goal of this diet is to eat like primitive humankind, eating only foods that would have been available before the dawn of farming. So no grains, no dairy, no processed foods. The diet consists of vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, and flesh foods including wild game, beef, bison, lamb, chicken and other poultry, fish and seafood. This is a great diet, as it takes out the most common allergens, grains and dairy. This diet is extremely nourishing, particularly if you eat some foods raw, as well as eat some organ meats, which are very nutritionally dense. This diet takes planning, as convenience foods are out, and you will need to be able to spend time in the kitchen, cooking lots of extra food to take to work for lunch. Tough challenge. Can you do it for a whole month?
I gave you a baker's dozen of ideas, but feel free to come up with your own, and make your commitment for a month.