Everybody's an expert nowadays. Drink a shot of apple cider vinegar before every meal to lose weight. Wake up at 5 a.m. every day to be more productive. Unschool your kids like all those California tech entrepreneurs.
There's so much advice out there, it's hard to separate scientific fact from passing fad. So we've assembled five daily habits that research has actually proven will improve your health, boost your mood and lower stress.
1. Eat the Same Thing Every Day for Breakfast
It's estimated that the average human makes 35,000 decisions every day, including more than 200 decisions about food alone. The combined effect of all of this deliberating and deciding is something called "decision fatigue." Research has shown that humans have a limited amount of energy to expend on making smart decisions. Once we expend that energy, we either start making rash decisions or give up deciding entirely, neither of which are terribly productive.
The best way to avoid decision fatigue is simply to make fewer decisions by "routinizing" parts of your day. It's no accident that Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg put on the exact same outfit every day or that Dr. Dre laces up the same pair of kicks every morning. Rich people can get away with eccentric clothing choices, but we suggest streamlining another daily choice: what to eat for breakfast.
Instead of wasting valuable brain power trying to decide between a bagel and cream cheese or scrambled eggs, pick one healthy, energy-packed meal and stick with it every day (at least every weekday, with some variety on the weekends). Nutrition and weight loss experts suggest a high-fiber cereal with low-fat milk and fresh fruit or a low-fat protein shake with frozen fruit.
2. Schedule Some Standing Time
Although sitting is not exactly the new smoking, a growing body of research has found that sitting on your butt for eight hours or more a day causes increased blood pressure, high blood sugar and unhealthy cholesterol levels.
But exactly how much time do you need to get off your duff to combat the effects of sitting? One study found that standing up and engaging in light physical activity (taking a lap around the office) for just two minutes every hour was associated with a 33 percent lower risk of death! That's reason enough to set a reminder on your phone to get up and move around every hour.
Standing desks are one solution; so is propping your laptop on a high table. Standing, like walking, forces the muscles and heart to work a little more. You could also invite coworkers for a "walking meeting," especially if it's a brainstorming session. As a bonus, taking a walk outside has been linked with greater creativity.
3. Take a Meditation Break
You don't have to be Buddhist or twist yourself into a full lotus position to reap the stress-reducing benefits of meditation. One study on mindfulness meditation found that people who mediated for six weeks had lower levels of anxiety, depression and insomnia than people who didn't.
So how do you do it? It's actually very simple. Pick a time of the day where you can find a quiet place to sit (or stand, if you're likely to doze off). Then choose a mantra that elicits feelings of relaxation and peace. Dr. Herbert Benson, former director of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine suggested in a Harvard Heart Letter repeating positive words like "peace" and "relax," a short prayer, or a rhythmic phrase like "breathing in calm, breathing out tension." Aim to do this for 20 minutes, but start with five if you need to.
If your mind starts to wander, rein it in by returning to your mantra. Or if it's simply too hard to quiet your thoughts on your own, consider downloading pre-recorded meditations or signing up with a daily mindfulness app like Headspace.
4. Keep a Gratitude or Laughter Journal
There's mounting evidence that a daily dose of gratitude is good for lifting your mood, improving relationships and cultivating patience. If you want to stave off depression and invest in long-term happiness, consider setting aside 10 minutes every night to practice an exercise called Three Good Things.
Created by Dr. Martin Seligman, the father of modern positive psychology, the exercise is simple. Keep a journal in which you write down three good things that happen to you each day. It could be as fleeting as enjoying a great sandwich for lunch or as momentous as the birth of a child. Next to each entry, explain why it happened and who helped make it happen.
According to the Journal of Happiness Studies, when participants tried the Three Good Things exercise for just one week, they were less likely to be depressed and the positive effects lasted for months. Interestingly, the same research found similar mood-boosting effects from writing down three funny things that happened today and why. So if a gratitude journal sounds too cheesy, try a laughter journal!
5. Turn Off All Screens 30 Minutes Before Bed
Getting a good night's sleep is one of the most important things you can do to improve your overall health, reduce stress and depression, and boost daytime productivity. But so many things get in the way of a truly restful and uninterrupted night's snooze. In addition to drinking too much caffeine too late in the day, we're addicted to our screens.
Electronic devices like smartphones, tablets and e-readers emit blue wavelengths of light that suppress the production of melatonin, the hormone that helps our body maintain a steady circadian rhythm. Computers and TVs also produce blue light, but we sit further away from them, so the dosage isn't as high. When melatonin production is suppressed, the body and brain miss their normal cues to wind down and prepare for sleep.
In one small study, participants who spent time on an e-reader before bedtime took longer to fall asleep, averaged less REM sleep and were more tired when woken after eight hours compared to people who read a printed book before bed. The researchers also worried about the long-term effects of melatonin suppression, which has been linked with higher incidences of breast and colon cancer in night-shift workers.
As a general rule, turn off all electronic devices a half-hour before bedtime. In addition to letting melatonin do its thing, it will give your eyes and brain a rest in preparation for sleepy-time.