Even if we have the best of intentions, the goals we set to get healthy (after this last slice of pizza, of course) sometimes fall by the wayside. It can be hard to stay motivated, or even properly informed, since the recommendations for what to eat and how long to exercise can be confusing and conflicting. (Fat, for example, was off the menu for years under official guidance that eating fat makes you fat, and now that advice is getting kicked to the curb.) As a result, truly healthy behaviors can have a hard time cutting through the noise. Despite everything we know about the health benefits of exercise, a recent study found that 43% of employed adults do not exercise often.
Yet getting healthier is still a worthy goal, and many experts in the fields of exercise, health and nutrition have clear ideas about how to get there. Here are some low-stress, bare-minimum ways to become a healthier person, even for those of us who love to eat and hit snooze.
How to eat
Eating healthy shouldn't be a nutrient numbers game. And no: you don't have to go vegan or adopt a Paleo diet. Just make sure your plate contains more than two different colors, says Simin Nikbin Meydani, director of the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University. "If it's not, it's boring, and you won't meet your nutrient requirements," she says. "If it's green and red and brown, you can."
After coloring your plate, make sure to consume it—and enjoy it—with someone else. "Sharing a meal with friends and family impacts our health and how we age and fare as we get older," Meydani says.
Some countries, like Brazil, follow just that advice. Their government recommends eating whole foods, avoiding processed ones and dining with other people.
How to exercise
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that American adults do two hours and 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity each week, plus some muscle-strengthening on the side.
Many people don't do any of that. A 2015 study published in the The BMJ argued that older adults, especially, find it hard to meet that government advice. “Getting inactive people to do a little bit of physical activity, even if they don’t meet the recommendations, might provide greater population health gains,” wrote study author Philipe de Souto Barreto, a researcher at University Hospital of Toulouse, in the paper.
Yet new evidence suggests they don't need to. Barreto points out that a study of more than 250,000 older adults found that getting less than an hour of moderate physical activity each week was linked to a 15% drop in death, which means that people do benefit from even a small amount of exercise. Studies have also shown significant health benefits from simple exercises like walking.
Some researchers are seeing how low people can go when it comes to time spent working out. Enter the one-minute workout, where you work out as hard as possible for 60 seconds, with some warm-up and cool-down exercises thrown in, too. Even though the time spent exercising is minimal, it's meant to be hard, and is shown to improve health and fitness. "There might be time-efficient ways to get fit," says Martin Gibala, chair of kinesiology at McMaster University in Canada. "The notion of meeting people in the middle is positive—but there's no free lunch."
Stressing out over meeting government numbers—whether for nutrient values of the number of exercise minutes—may not be worth the headache. Getting some exercise every week and eating colorful meals with friends can be an enjoyable way to live a healthier life. Doing something, it seems, is what's important.