A career in health journalism has taught me that when it comes to living well, it’s the inner workout that counts the most.
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When I first started writing about health more than 20 years ago, my columns mostly focused on the physical body: A healthy diet, exercise and screening for disease were regular topics.
But over the years, the health lessons that have stayed with me haven’t been about physical change. The biggest improvements in my own health and well-being have come from inner fitness.
Inner fitness means focusing your energy on your emotional well-being and mental health rather than berating yourself about your diet, weight or not getting enough exercise. It can include mindfulness and meditation techniques, a gratitude routine or a variety of other practices.
This inside-out approach to health ultimately can lead to changes in your physical well-being, too. Research shows, for instance, that mindfulness can lower blood pressure, improve sleep, lead to better eating habits and reduce chronic pain.
“Inner fitness means developing the mental, emotional and spiritual skills and practices that foster resilience,” said Tina Lifford, author of “The Little Book of Big Lies: A Journey Into Inner Fitness.” “I’d like to see the idea of inner fitness become as ubiquitous, well understood and actionable as physical fitness.”
Lately, I’ve been reflecting on the lessons I’ve learned about inner fitness since starting the Well section nearly 15 years ago, because I’ve decided it’s time for a change. Although my talented colleagues on the Well desk will continue to write this newsletter each week, this is the last time I will be doing so.
I’m leaving The New York Times for a new opportunity at The Washington Post. If you’d like to keep track of what I’m up to, you can follow me on Twitter or on my personal website. But before I go, I’d like to leave you with some of the most memorable tips for inner fitness that I’ve collected in recent years.
The field of self-compassion has exploded since I first wrote about it in 2011. The concept is simple: Treat yourself as kindly as you would treat a friend who needs support. About 75 percent of people who find it easy to be supportive of others score very low on self-compassion tests and are not very nice to themselves, said Kristin Neff, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin and an expert on self-compassion. If you often berate yourself for perceived failures, like not losing weight or not being a better parent or spouse, try taking a self-compassion break. Start by asking yourself: What do I need right now?
Our bodies and minds benefit in a variety of ways when we help others. Studies show that volunteering, donating money or sharing advice with friends can release the brain’s feel-good chemicals and activate its reward system. Volunteers had lower stress hormones on days when they donated their time. “One of the best anti-anxiety medications available is generosity,” said Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, when I interviewed him for one of my favorite stories of the pandemic, called “The Science of Helping Out.”
Good things happen when we pay attention. We’re more able to manage negative thinking when we take a moment to notice negative thoughts. Watching for small wonders around us when we take an “awe” walk can amplify the mental health benefits of exercise. Identifying your feelings and naming them — something scientists call “affect labeling” — can calm your brain and reduce stress.
Learning to quiet my mind and soothe my anxiety has been the greatest benefit I’ve gained from writing about health over the years. I use meditation apps often — lately I’ve been listening to the teachers of the Unplug app, who helped us create “Meditations for Uncertain Times.” I learned “five-finger meditation” from Dr. Judson Brewer, the director of research and innovation at Brown University’s Mindfulness Center. I also like to find mindful moments in everyday activities, like brushing my teeth or savoring a morning cup of coffee.
What one- or two-hour period in each day do you feel your best? Your most energetic? Your most productive? Now ask yourself: Who gets those hours? Chances are you’re spending those highly productive hours on work demands, paying bills, sorting through emails or managing the needs of the household. But now that you’ve identified the time of day when you’re feeling your best, try giving that time to yourself instead, advises Jack Groppel, an executive coach and professor of exercise and sport science at Judson University in Elgin, Ill. For me, this advice has been transformative. Giving yourself your best time each day to focus on your personal goals and values is the ultimate form of self-care.
Katy Milkman, a professor at Wharton and author of the book “How to Change,” has studied the science of new beginnings, which she calls the fresh-start effect. She and her colleagues have found that we’re most inclined to make meaningful changes in our lives around “temporal landmarks” — those points in time that we naturally associate with new beginnings. New Year’s Day is the most obvious temporal landmark in our lives, but birthdays, the start of spring, the start of the school year or a new job are all temporal landmarks that create psychological opportunities for lasting change.
As I leave The Times for my own fresh start, the hardest part is leaving you, the readers, who have given me so much support and asked so many smart questions over the years. It is your curiosity and your skepticism that have pushed me to understand more about what being healthy really means — both outside and in.
You can also email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or find me here.
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The Well newsletter will be back next week, bringing you essential news about personal health and wellness. And if you have any questions or things you’d like us to cover, you can always reach us at email@example.com.