Starting a healthy lifestyle can involve eating nutritious foods, engaging in regular physical activity, and prioritizing your mental health.
When you’re not at your healthiest, you can probably tell. You may simply feel “off.” You may find that you feel tired, your digestive system isn’t functioning as well as it normally does, and you seem to catch colds. Mentally, you may find you can’t concentrate and feel anxious or depressed.
The good news: a healthy lifestyle can help you feel better. Even better, you don’t have to overhaul your entire life overnight. It’s pretty easy to make a couple of small changes that can steer you in the direction of improved well-being. And once you make one change, that success can motivate you to continue to make more positive shifts.
Ask 50 people to define what a “healthy lifestyle” is, and you’ll likely get 50 different answers. That’s because there’s no one way to be healthy. A healthy lifestyle simply means doing things that make you happy and feel good.
For one person, that may mean walking a mile five times a week, eating fast food once a week, and spending virtual or in-person time with loved ones every other day. For someone else, a healthy lifestyle may be training and running two marathons a year, following a keto diet, and never having a sip of alcohol.
Neither of these is better than the other. Both are perfect for that person. You get to decide what your healthy lifestyle looks like.
Making changes to improve your health can lead to benefits for your body, your mind, your wallet, and even the environment.
1. Prevents disease
Healthy habits can reduce the risk of various diseases, including those that may run in your family.
For example, in a recent study, adults who followed a standard American diet (rich in fruits and vegetables) for 8 weeks had a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease.
Swapping out some refined grains for whole grains also reduces the risk of disease. In an observational
In terms of exercise, as little as 11 minutes a day may add years to your life. In a 2020 study, researchers tracked more than 44,000 adults. Those who got 11 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity each day had a lower risk of death compared to those who only exercised at that intensity for 2 minutes. This comparison held true even if people sat for 8.5 hours every day.
2. Saves money
It’s always smart to see your primary care physician for an annual physical exam. This is especially true seeing how some health conditions, such as high blood pressure, are “silent.” This means they don’t have any symptoms, so unless you are checked, you usually don’t know you have the condition.
However, the healthier you are, the less likely you will have to see a doctor. This could save money by reducing co-pays, the need for prescriptions, and other treatments.
3. Lengthens lifespan
Basic healthy habits are connected with living a longer life. If, at age 50, you’ve never smoked, maintain a healthy weight, are regularly active, follow a healthy diet, and keep alcohol to a moderate consumption, you could live
4. It can be good for the environment
Ultra-processed foods are those that contain refined grains and additives to change the texture, taste, or color. Some examples of these foods are cheese puffs, packaged dessert cakes, chicken nuggets, and sweetened breakfast cereals. More than 70 percent of foods in U.S. supermarkets are ultra-processed.
The making of ultra-processed foods contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, water scarcity, decreased biodiversity, plastic waste, and deforestation.
Then, there are animal products. According to a 2013 study by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (an agency within the U.N. that focuses on reducing hunger and food inequality worldwide), raising livestock for meat and dairy makes up 14.5 percent of human-created greenhouse gases.
However, there are easy fixes for this. For example, if every American cut their weekly beef consumption by 1/4 pound, the decrease in global warming gas emissions would be the equivalent of taking four to six million cars off the road, according to the National Resources Defense Council.
But it’s not only about what you eat more or less of. Replacing short car rides with biking can also cut back on the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere.
In a non-peer reviewed 2010 study, researchers estimated that if 20 percent of citizens in Madison, Wisconsin biked for trips less than 5 miles, it would reduce carbon dioxide emissions by more than 57,000 tons each year.
And, a 2017 study in Stockholm found that, if drivers who lived within a half-hour bike ride to and from work commuted by bike rather than car, it could save 449 years of life annually in the county due to reduced vehicle emission.
These estimates aren’t simply dreams. Barcelona’s bike-share program reduces emissions of carbon dioxide by about
Your journey toward a healthier lifestyle starts with small changes that you feel confident you can achieve. Consider making “SMART” goals. SMART stands for:
- time-bound (met by a deadline and done in a certain amount of time)
When you focus on SMART goals, you could find more success. And one initial “win” will propel you to set new, bigger goals.
Consider the following tips for beginning to improve your overall health.
1. Eat more vegetables
Although eating more vegetables is better, you don’t have to go from zero to nine servings a day. Perhaps your goal is eating one serving of vegetables at dinner. If you already do that, consider eating one vegetable or fruit at every meal.
Keep in mind that less-processed veggies are better. Rather than fries, try roasted potatoes seasoned with herbs or make a stir-fry of several colorful vegetables and drizzle them with a tasty vinaigrette.
2. Swap in whole grains
Replacing refined grains with whole grains will benefit your health. In a small
Start small by replacing one refined grain each day with a whole grain — maybe it’s your breakfast toast or the pilaf you make with dinner. Experiment with different grains and flavorings to see which ones you enjoy most.
Whole grains include:
- plain oats
- whole grain bread and pasta
- brown and wild rice
- bulgur wheat
Refined grains include:
- white bread and pasta
- white rice
- most breakfast cereals
3. Be more active
If the words “exercise” or “workout” put you off, think of this step in terms of physical activity or simply moving your body.
You don’t have to run a marathon — or run at all — to be healthy.
You could walk, go for a bike ride, take salsa dancing lessons, practice martial arts, or try a workout class online. The most important thing is to choose an activity you enjoy. Choosing an activity you have an interest in will increase the chances that you’ll stick with it.
Secondly, remember that you don’t have to start with a long workout. Aim for 10 minutes a day, 5 days a week. When you feel ready, add another 5 or 10 minutes. Keep doing this until you reach at least 30 minutes a day most days of the week.
4. Maintain friendships
Strong relationships and staying in communication with friends and loved ones can support mental health.
For one, the risk of depression is greater in people with low-quality relationships. Those with the poorest quality social relationships have more than double the risk of depression compared to people with the
Even if you cannot get together with friends or family in person, schedule a time to catch up over a phone or video call once a week. Or, simply start chatting with a neighbor when you see them.
5. Control stress
Chronic stress puts your body into fight-or-flight mode all the time. This taxes your immune system and makes you more susceptible to health problems, including:
- heart disease
- digestive problems
- high blood pressure
- difficulty sleeping
Exercise can help reduce stress by releasing pent-up energy. Physical activity can also boost the release of mood-lifting hormones called endorphins.
For others, mindfulness practices — like meditation, deep breathing, journaling, or spending time in nature — can help to lower stress. Talking to friends can also help.
If you would like more support relieving stress, consider therapy. Working with a trained psychologist, psychiatrist, or therapist can help you work through challenges life throws your way, and it can help you learn new skills to manage stress.
There really aren’t any downsides to a healthy lifestyle since each person gets to define what “healthy” looks and feels like for themselves.
This means you don’t have to do anything that doesn’t make you happy. After all, as we already covered, unhappiness can affect your health.
For example, if you don’t like conventional exercise, think of ways you enjoy moving your body. And if you hate kale, you don’t have to eat it.
Living a healthy lifestyle does not mean you have to give up the things that may be considered “bad habits.” It’s perfectly possible to balance healthy living with eating cookies, taking a day off from your workout, or having wine with dinner.
In fact, enjoying a treat once in a while can help you better stick to healthy eating habits. An all-or-nothing mindset where you can only eat “good” foods and never eat “bad” ones often backfires. Having the flexibility to eat your mom’s extra-cheesy lasagna — and savor every bite — is part of being healthy.
Rest days are also important for physical and mental health. Doing too much exercise can increase the risk of injuries or cause you to burn out and give up exercise altogether.
Furthermore, moderate drinking (one standard-size drink per day for women and two for men) is linked with various health benefits. A “standard drink” is:
- 12 fluid ounces of beer
- 5 fl oz of wine
- 8–9 fl oz of malt liquor
- 1.5 fl oz of spirit
On the other hand, if you feel as though you can’t control a habit that might bring negative health effects (such as drinking alcohol, using recreational drugs in excess, or smoking), talk to your doctor. They can help you find support.
A healthy lifestyle can not only help you feel better, but it can also reduce the risk of some diseases, lengthen your lifespan, save you money, and benefit the environment.
Your version of a healthy lifestyle is whatever you define it to be. There’s nothing you must or must not do in order to be healthy. Identify what makes you feel good and what brings you the greatest happiness. Then, start small when you make changes. You’re more likely to see success this way, and small successes will snowball into bigger benefits.
Lastly, if you want help with making any lifestyle changes, talk to your doctor. If they can’t directly help you, they may recommend other professionals, like registered dietitians or therapists.
Brittany Risher is a writer, editor, and digital strategist specializing in health and lifestyle content. She’s written for publications including Elemental, Men’s Health, Women’s Health, and Yoga Journal.