Self-care is not self-indulgent, and you can start now with these tips
By Laura Williamson, American Heart Association News
"Slow down, you move too fast," Simon and Garfunkel once cautioned.
Today, that musical advice could be the anthem for self-care – the act of making our own health and well-being a priority. While it could include kickin' down the cobblestones, as suggested in the duo's "59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin' Groovy)," good self-care covers far more.
"It's all-around well-being," said Dr. Helen Lavretsky, a professor in residence in the department of psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles. "Mental, physical, spiritual, emotional, environmental and societal – self-care should address most of these components."
But self-care often falls to the bottom of the priority list. Experts say it should be at the top.
"Many times, people feel self-care is selfish and you're indulging yourself," said Dr. Laxmi Mehta, who co-wrote an opinion letter from the American Heart Association and other cardiology groups about physician well-being and the importance of preventing burnout. Mehta is faculty director of the Gabbe Health and Well-Being program and section director of preventive cardiology and women's cardiovascular health at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus.
You're not being selfish, she said. "You're staying healthy so you can do all the things you want to do in your life."
Lavretsky agreed. "It's not a luxury, it's a must," she said.
The doctors offered these steps anyone can take to better manage their overall well-being.
Pay attention to your body
"The first step is to listen to your body's needs," Lavretsky said. "In Western society, we are taught we can run on empty forever. We create chronic disease by not listening to our bodies. You listen to your car, because it will not run if it's broken. We do not do this with our bodies."
That doesn't just mean going to the doctor if you feel sick. It includes getting regular health and wellness exams to check blood pressure, cholesterol and blood glucose levels, Mehta said. "Know those numbers and act upon them."
"Exercise is key," Mehta said. "It not only helps physical well-being, it helps mental well-being."
Federal physical activity guidelines call for at least 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise or 75 minutes a week of vigorous aerobic activity, or a combination of both. The guidelines also discourage people from being sedentary.
"If you are sitting eight to 10 hours a day, this is not good," said Mehta. "Chart out time to get up and walk around."
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, staying physically active can help people think, learn, problem-solve and maintain better emotional balance. If fitting regular exercise into a busy day is tough, the CDC suggests taking short walks, dancing in your home and doing squats or marching in place during commercial breaks while watching television.
Research suggests moving for just three minutes once an hour can help keep blood glucose levels under control.
Eat a healthy diet
"Diet is important," said Mehta, so eat healthy foods and avoid sugary beverages that can affect mood as well as physical well-being.
A Mediterranean-style eating pattern is among those supported by the AHA and federal dietary guidelines. It includes a lot of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds and olive oil and low to moderate amounts of dairy products, eggs, fish and poultry. This eating pattern is associated with overall better heart and brain health.
If finding the time to shop and cook meals during the work week is a challenge, Mehta suggests planning on the weekends and prepping items that can be eaten throughout the week.
Taking the time to focus on breathing lowers stress levels, heart rate and blood pressure, said Lavretsky, who teaches breathing techniques as part of her practice. "Even one minute of breathing gets you out of stress overdrive and into a more reflective and controlled state," she said. "You make wiser decisions and don't have knee-jerk reactions. It's a tool for self-regulation, and that's good for self-care."
Lavretsky teaches a technique called "box breathing" that involves breathing in for three seconds, holding the breath for three seconds, exhaling for three seconds and pausing for three more seconds before taking the next breath.
Tai chi, yoga and meditation all help people focus on their breathing, Mehta said. But simply taking a few minutes each day to take a few deep breaths will help.
Avoid harmful substances and excess anything
"The No. 1 thing to avoid is smoking," Mehta said. It is the leading cause of preventable death in the U.S. and is a major risk factor for numerous chronic illnesses, such as heart disease, stroke and cancer.
All nicotine products, including e-cigarettes, should be avoided, she said.
"Avoid excess of everything," Lavretsky said. That includes not eating too much, drinking too much alcohol or caffeine or working too much. Excessive eating and drinking can feel like a quick fix, she said, "but they will never make anybody happy."
And don't spend too much time on social media, said Mehta. "If you have time for this, you certainly have time for yourself."
Get enough sleep
The AHA recently added sleep duration – from seven to nine hours a night for most adults – to its list of key measures for good heart health, known as Life's Essential 8. The list also includes not smoking, eating a healthy diet, getting enough physical activity and maintaining blood pressure, weight, cholesterol and blood glucose levels in the normal range. The list also includes not smoking, eating a healthy diet, getting enough physical activity and maintaining blood pressure, weight, cholesterol and blood glucose levels in the normal range.
"Sleep is critical to being in your best physical and mental health," Mehta said.
Cultivate gratitude and joy
"Spend at least five minutes a day doing joyful things," said Lavretsky, who asks her patients to also practice gratitude every morning when they wake up. "Focus on what you have instead of what you don't have."
Research shows happiness and having a positive attitude can lead to healthier behaviors and a longer, healthier life.
"You don't have to wait until you are burned out," Lavretsky said. "You don't need to wait for a heart attack to start practicing yoga."
American Heart Association News' mental health coverage is supported by Diane and Daniel Shimer. AHA News is solely responsible for all content and editorial decisions.
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