Self-care is a hot buzzword these days, but what does it really mean? Beyond the obvious tenets of eating healthier, exercising regularly and relaxing more, what could or should you be doing to pamper and protect your mind and body?
Dr. Heather Hammerstedt, a board-certified physician and CEO of lifestyle coaching company Wholist, says that self-care is far from selfish, and is in fact an essential health tool. It resets your cortisol levels, which helps with prevention of weight gain, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and a multitude of other issues—not to mention what it does for balancing your neurotransmitters for mood and emotional reset.
"You can't fill anyone else's cup if yours is empty, something that busy moms, dads and professionals often forget," Hammerstedt says. "Planning is key. You will always make better decisions ahead of time than you will in the moment. This means that you have to find a way to schedule and plan for you.”
So, you know this self-care thing is legit—but how are you supposed to carve out time in your busy days when every minute seems to be monopolized by other people's needs? Good news: It's easier than you might think to sneak in some much-deserved selfishness.
- Schedule an hour each week to do something you love, and stick to it. "This will remind you of how valuable you are and why you are worth this lifestyle change," says Dr. Hammerstedt. "It also helps balance your cortisol levels from stress, and cortisol hormonally makes you store more fat than burn it."
- Meditate every morning. Immediately upon waking up, before reaching over and scrolling through your phone, holistic nutritionist Amber Romaniuk suggests setting a timer for five to 10 minutes of meditation.
- Shake the "spotlight effect." According to Dr. Hammerstedt, we all suffer from the spotlight effect, which makes us think people are paying more attention to us than they really are. "Give yourself a break and relax—little ups and downs aren't a big deal when you realize it is only you that notices."
- Temper the negative voices. Most of us have an internal dialogue that tells us that we won't achieve our fitness, nutrition or weight-loss goals. Helena Plater-Zyberk, founder of the Supportiv network, says the key is to silence or redirect those voices, and rely on other supportive people to break the patterns of negative thinking.
- Make your workouts your sacred "me time." And, most importantly, make them an activity that you enjoy. "That way, workouts become therapeutic and fun instead of another chore on your to-do list," notes Adi Nouriel, founder and coach at This Irresistible. "If you're constantly checking the clock during a workout or wishing it was over, start looking for something else—whatever gets your body moving and puts a smile on your face."
- Set self-reminders. Romaniuk sets reminders on her phone throughout the morning, midday and evening to take a five-minute break and ask herself, "What do I need right now?"
- Give yourself a daily compliment. Congratulate yourself for knocking out that tough work project, recognize how a certain color flatters you or just pat yourself on the back for making a healthy choice.
- Eat mindfully. Turn off the TV, put your phone away, shut your laptop and simply enjoy your meal, savoring each bite until you're satisfied and not overly full.
- Write down your stressors, then throw them away. Romaniuk suggests this practice as a symbolic act of letting go of the things that bring you tension and anxiety.
- Breathe. Karly Powell, a naturopathic doctor at the Strata Integrated Wellness Spa at Garden of the Gods Resort and Club, recommends four-square breathing as an easy, five-minute technique to calm your mind and promote relaxation and mindfulness. To do this: Inhale through your nose for four seconds, depressing the diaphragm so the belly expands with air. Hold for four seconds. Exhale through your mouth for four seconds, letting go of tension and stress you may be holding in your shoulder, chest or other areas of the body. Hold again for four seconds, and then repeat the cycle. "This can help shift your nervous system out of a ‘fight or flight’ response and into a calmer state, improving your focus and making you more efficient and productive throughout the day," Powell says.
- Drink herbal tea. Jill Nussinow, MS, RN, also known as "The Veggie Queen," finds herbal tea to be soothing and relaxing. "I choose a different tea for each mood–chamomile or something with lavender for relaxation, turmeric for healing, mint or ginger for digestion or general health," she says.
- Start a gratitude list. Each day, write down 10 things you are grateful for. This practice will help shift your focus from negative to positive influences, and will keep your motivators front and center.
- Create a new digital calendar that is just for you. Use it for exercise, meal planning, massages, meditation or whatever constitutes "you time"—not for work, family or anything else. "That way, your time is as valuable as work time, and if someone asks you to schedule something, your calendar is busy and it is easier to say no," says Dr. Hammerstedt.
- Drink a glass of water. “Take five minutes to pack that reusable water bottle and make sure you are drinking enough water throughout the day," says Keith Nelson, wellness manager at the Strata Integrated Wellness Spa at Garden of the Gods Resort and Club. "Hydration has a major effect on energy levels and brain function: Studies have shown that even mild dehydration can impair mood, memory and brain performance, while drinking 17 ounces of water has been shown to increase metabolism."
- Write love notes to yourself. Stick them on your mirrors, desk, fridge or anywhere you'll see them throughout the day. Some examples might include "You are getting stronger every day" or "You are more beautiful than you think."
- Do some morning stretches. Shane Wells, doctor of chiropractic medicine at the Strata Integrated Wellness Spa at Garden of the Gods Resort and Club, says that daily sun salutations—a five-minute series of yoga poses—are a great warm-up for meditation, cardio or just a healthy way to start your day. These poses work all the major fascial planes of the body and can easily be done anywhere. A few of Wells' favorites include a simple series of adho mukha svanasana (downward-facing dog), anjaneyasana (low lunge), plank pose, urdhva mukha svanasana (upward-facing dog) and tadasana (mountain.
- Try a loving kindness meditation. When Ziskind is feeling angry or resentful toward someone who has wronged her, she does a five-minute loving kindness meditation. "You start off by giving yourself loving kindness, then send it to a loved one, a stranger and then the person who has wronged you," she explains. "Then at the very end, you give yourself loving kindness. You’ll find your anxiety is lowered, your anger has softened and you feel more present."
- Spend time with pets. Studies have shown that animals can help improve physical and mental health. Cuddling with your furry friend could extend your life, alleviate depression, boost immune function, keep you more active and improve heart health, among other benefits.
- Write down your worries before bed. Ron Apgar, director of well-being at the Strata Integrated Wellness Spa at Garden of the Gods Resort and Club, says sleep plays an important role in both physical and mental health. To prevent nighttime anxiety, he suggests taking five minutes before bed to write down the worries, thoughts and to-dos that are distracting you. "It affords us the relief of clearing the mind, confident that all of our responsibilities and anxieties exist elsewhere, so we can easily access them at a more appropriate time," he explains.
- Track your words. "The words you are thinking and speaking create your life. Notice how many words are optimistic and positive and how many are pessimistic and negative," suggests inspirational author Milana Perepyolkina. "Pinch yourself each time you use a depressing word, and change it to an encouraging one. Write several happy words on pieces of paper and place them in different parts of your house—marvelous, miraculous, spectacular, splendid, fabulous, breathtaking, remarkable, luminous—and later, you will accidentally find them and smile."
- Take a walk outside—without your cell phone. This can be on a nature trail or just around the block. Pay attention to the details of your surroundings, breathe in the fresh air and let the sounds, sights and smells of nature energize you.
- Give someone you love a big hug. It's an instant mood lifter for both of you.
- Make yourself a large salad every day, and eat many more vegetables than you think that you need. "You will feel better and you will likely eat less calories, as long as you aren’t dolloping on the dressing," says Nussinow.
- Treat yourself to a daily facial. Spoil yourself with a quick, five-minute body and face treatment each morning before you shower, suggests Rebecca Johnston, spa director at the Strata Integrated Wellness Spa at Garden of the Gods Resort and Club. Start with a quick facial cleanse with a milky cleanser, then take one minute to gently massage the areas where you hold stress, like your jaw, in between the eyebrows and your temples. Remove with cool water and apply your favorite face mask, then start your shower. As you stand under the water, remove the face mask and massage the oil into your skin.
- Get your groove on. Studies have shown that listening and dancing to music can help to alleviate depression.
- Say "no" more often. "Saying 'no' to extra stuff often means saying 'yes' to your health," says Pam Sherman, personal trainer with The Perfect Balance. "No to treats at work, no to extra food when you don't need it, no when you don't have time to do something."
- Check in with your needs every day. "Ask yourself, 'what do I need, right now in this moment, to care for myself?'" nutrition and life coach Emilia Francesco says. "We are ever-changing as humans, and our needs can differ hugely from one day to the next. This is a way to show honor and respect for your mind and body."
- Delete apps that you don't use. Purging all of that electronic clutter will make it less stressful and overwhelming every time you pick up your phone.
- Break an addiction. "Caffeine, alcohol and cigarettes can have very negative health implications and can even lead to an untimely death," warns yoga teacher Caroline Klebl. "Reducing caffeine and alcohol intake can also be extremely beneficial to your health."
- Relax with lavender oil. Try making a relaxing lavender room spray by adding 10 to 15 drops of lavender oil to purified water.
- Don't be embarrassed about your goals. "We (especially women) are constantly getting this mixed message: On the one hand, you should always look amazing. On the other hand, if you care too much about how you look, you are labeled as self-centered," notes Nouriel. "A stronger, healthier body can help leaps and bounds in achieving a stronger, healthier, happier mind."
- Listen to your body. "It is the only one you have, and it can only communicate with YOU," points out wellness coach Jasmine Conway. "A huge part of self-care is tending to your body's needs when it requires your immediate attention. Your body sends unique signals when it is in distress, and sometimes the signal is not proportionate to the damage your body feels. Don't skip the doctor's appointment. Don't overwork yourself."
- Find your wellness sanctuary. Conway says this can be any place where you feel safe and can go into deep thought or meditation: "A wellness sanctuary can be your car on the way to work or the top of your apartment parking garage. The point is to find somewhere you can process your emotions and thoughts."
- Unfollow social media accounts that spark negativity. "The more you eliminate the negativity in your surroundings, the more light and positivity you will find," says registered dietitian Ilana Muhlstein.
- Look a year ahead. Liza Baker, health coach with Simply: Health Coaching, suggests taking 30-60 minutes to think about what you'd like your life to look like a year from now. "Use all your senses, and figure out what you want it to look, feel, taste, smell and sound like," she says. Next, spend some time looking at your calendar or planner and determine what you can remove and replace with activities that will move you closer to that vision.