5 little changes to your everyday life that make a big difference to your health

By Naveed Saleh, MD, MS
Published March 19, 2021

Key Takeaways

Many of us feel motivated to make healthy lifestyle changes, whether it be to exercise more, eat better, or sleep more. But oftentimes, these efforts to change fall short because lifestyle modifications are difficult. This challenge is compounded when we try to institute many changes at once. 

According to the American Psychological Association, “Lifestyle changes are a process that take time and require support. Once you’re ready to make a change, the difficult part is committing and following through. So do your research and make a plan that will prepare you for success. Careful planning means setting small goals and taking things one step at a time.”

The following are five small health changes that you can add to your daily routine, one step at a time.

Eat more protein

Eating suboptimal levels of protein may contribute to age-related loss of muscle mass and function. At a minimum, people need about 10% of their caloric intake derived from protein. Signs and symptoms of hypoproteinemia include edema, decreased muscle strength, lowered immunity, bone fractures, and hyperphagia. 

In a study published in Frontiers in Nutrition, researchers assessed the daily and meal-specific intake of proteins, the source of the proteins, and protein-intake patterns in 40 young, 40 middle-aged, and 40 elderly individuals who kept food diaries.

The team found that older people, on average, ate 83.4 grams of daily protein, which was significantly less than young participants, who ate a daily average of 105.1 grams of protein. On the other hand, middle-aged participants, on average, ate 97.0 grams of daily protein, which did not significantly differ from the consumption by older individuals.

The researchers also found that dietary protein intake patterns were inconsistent across meals among all groups. At lunch, older people ate lower-quality proteins than did younger and middle-aged participants.

According to the authors, “The majority of young, middle-aged and old individuals in our study met or exceeded current protein intake recommendations, even though relative and absolute protein intakes were lower in old compared with young individuals.”

They added, “Increasing protein intake, particularly at breakfast and lunch, in combination with regular physical activity/exercise in middle-aged and older individuals, could potentially mitigate age-related muscle loss.”

Try these tips to increase protein intake:

  • Eat your protein first, before you eat the starches on your plate.

  • Switch up your proteins. There are many protein alternatives to red meat, including nuts, legumes, eggs, cheese, fish, and tofu.

  • Replace breakfast cereal with eggs. Some research suggests that eating an egg a day might even keep cardiovascular disease away. Just skip the fatty bacon. 

  • If you are going to eat meat, choose the lean varieties

  • Eat protein-rich snacks like low-fat cheese, high-protein Greek yogurt, lean jerky, and edamame (steamed soybeans).

Walk more

Moderate or vigorous leisure walking can boost mental health and health perceptions, according to the results of a study published in Gerontology & Geriatric Medicine. Researchers mined the California Health and Interview Survey for data from 4,737 adults aged 65 years and older.

They wrote, “Older adults who engaged in moderate and vigorous leisure walking reported higher health perceptions than those involved in light leisure walking. In addition, older adults who participated in moderate leisure walking reported higher mental health than those who engaged in light leisure walking.” 

Studies show that walking is associated with longevity. Compared with adults who walked 4,000 steps a day (a low number for most adults), those who walked 8,000 steps per day had a 51% lower risk of all-cause mortality, according to a JAMA study

Try these tips to walk more:

  • To get the most benefit from walking, it’s best to have a goal. The gold standard is to aim for 10,000 steps a day, according to the Cleveland Clinic. But it’s OK to start slowly. You’ll get the most benefit if you do 10 minutes of nonstop walking, but if you haven’t walked for awhile, start with 5 minutes.

  • Break up your walks throughout the day and throughout the week  One day you might only have time for a 15-minute walk before work, but the next day you might have 45 minutes. Another day you might only have time for a 10-minute walk at lunch, but you can do a 30-minute walk after work. Try to aim for a total of 150 minutes of consistent movement by the end of the week. 

  • Park your car in the space farthest from the door when shopping or going to work.

  • Take the stairs instead of the elevator.

For the record, the WHO recommends adults perform at least 150-300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75-150 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity weekly—or an equivalent combination throughout the week. But, if you’ve been sedentary for awhile, the point is to start moving, even a little, and be consistent.

Avoid ultraprocessed foods

In a first-of-its-kind randomized controlled trial, 20 participants followed either an ultraprocessed or unprocessed diet for two weeks, followed by a crossover to the alternative diet for 2 weeks. The meals were matched for calories, energy density, sugar, sodium, macronutrients, and fiber.

Participants were instructed to eat as little or as much as they wanted. Investigators found that those on an ultraprocessed diet ate on average 508 more calories per day, with higher intake of carbohydrates and fat, but not protein. Furthermore, those on the ultraprocessed diet gained an average of 0.9 kg compared with that of an average loss of 0.9 kg in those on the unprocessed diet. Of note, weight gain was highly correlated with calorie intake.

“Limiting consumption of ultra-processed foods may be an effective strategy for obesity prevention and treatment,” the authors concluded.

Try these tips to eat fewer ultraprocessed foods:

  • Learn to identify processed foods. “Ultraprocessed” foods are those that have been changed from their natural state by the addition of ingredients such as salt, sugar, fat, artificial colors, stabilizers, and more. These include frozen meals, salty snacks like chips, sweetened cereals, packaged cookies and crackers, fast-food, cold cuts, soft drinks—you get the idea. Avoid these as much as possible.

  • Stock your pantry and fridge with healthy, whole foods. For the fridge, that means a lot of fresh vegetables and fruits, lean meats, and other foods that come without packaging. For the pantry, that means staples with the least amount of sodium, saturated fat, and sugar. Buy whole grains whenever possible. Opt for brown rice instead of white, whole wheat or corn tortillas instead of flour.  

  • Shop smarter. Use a grocery list, eat before you go, read the labels, and buy in bulk.

  • Eat home-cooked meals. Thanks to the pandemic, many of us are doing this already. You’ll consume fewer calories and increase your intake of healthy foods.  


Meditative and relaxation exercises depend on the slowing of breathing. In a systematic review published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, researchers examined the pathophysiologic benefits of slowed breathing, defined as 10 or fewer breaths per minute.

“We found evidence of increased psychophysiological flexibility linking parasympathetic activity, CNS activities related to emotional control and psychological well-being in healthy subjects during slow breathing techniques,” they wrote.

Of note, these physiologic changes were linked to parasympathetic changes in heart rate variability and brain-wave changes demonstrated by EEG. 

Try these tips for deep breathing:

  • Take six deep breaths. This is a good place to start. Even the busiest of physicians can make time for this.

  • Experiment with different techniques. From diaphragmatic (belly) breathing to Lion’s breath and everything in between, you’re sure to find a technique that works for you.

  • Start small. Try 5 minutes and increase your time as you begin to get the hang of it.

  • Do your breathing exercises in your car. Sure, it’s great if you have time to get comfortable at home to do your breathing exercises, but you can do some deep breathing just about anywhere.  If you’re in traffic, just make sure you don’t get too relaxed.

Spend time in nature

An emerging corpus of research indicates that increased exposure to natural environments, such as parks, woodlands, and beaches, is linked to better health and well-being in those living in high-income, urbanized societies. Living in verdant surroundings is linked to a lower risk of heart disease, diabetes, obesity, asthma exacerbations, mental distress, and more.

In a large study published in Scientific Reports, participants were more likely to report good health or enhanced well-being when in contact with nature for 120 or more minutes per week, with a peak at between 200 and 300 minutes per week. After 300 minutes per week, no further gain was exhibited. 

The authors wrote, “The pattern was consistent across key groups including older adults and those with long-term health issues. It did not matter how 120 mins of contact a week was achieved eg, one long vs several shorter visits/week).”

Try these tips to connect with nature:

  • Find a greenspace and go for a walk. Any park, forest, or favorite trail will do. 

  • Check out these fun ideas for ways to spend more time in nature. Whether it’s watching the sunrise, camping someplace new, feeling the sand between your toes, having a snowball fight, or reading a book under a tree, you’re bound to find something to do outdoors.

  • Use all your senses. Be present while you’re out there. Don’t forget to notice things like birds flying by, animal tracks, a mushroom pushing up through the soil, the sound of rustling leaves, or the smell of flowers.

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