Minimalist Health Challenge

6-week Minimalist Health Challenge for diet and exercise

I’ve gone soft. Not soft emotionally, but soft in my arms. Specifically the jiggly part under my triceps. I’m sure you know which part I’m speaking of.

This softness is a disappointing development for me. Just over a year ago that part of my arm was firm and toned, along with my shoulders and the muscles in my back. Just over a year ago I could do SEVEN pull-ups in a row (which is not bad for a scrawny girl). And not cheater pull-ups, either. These were the real deal.

Alas, right now I could maybe do two pull-ups. Maybe.

The decline downward in health and fitness can be caused by a lot of reasons. Having a baby. Grief. Burnout. For me it was a change in priorities, which lead to a change in schedule. Specifically I replaced my early morning workout sessions with writing sessions. I don’t regret this decision, but one year later the lack of consistent physical activity is apparent.

In other words, I miss my biceps.

Because of this, and because spring break is just over six weeks away and my plans are to be in a sunny, warm location, I have some work to do. I want to tone up, eat better, and generally get this stiff body moving more. And I want to do it in the simplest, most minimal way possible without radically changing my routine, and without committing to an intense program.

So I’ve created a Minimalist Health Challenge for myself. Part experiment, part resolution, the rules of of this challenge are that there are no rules.

Instead, I’m asking the following questions:

Can I increase my overall health and fitness (aka be bikini-ready) in six weeks without a diet or a formal workout routine?

Can I organically fit physical activity into my day in a way that adds up to results but doesn’t require me to set aside a thirty-minute workout time? Is writing down what I eat enough to encourage me to choose healthy food?

My bet is Yes to all. Yes, I’ll tone up without actually “working out.” Yes, I’ll eat healthier. And Yes, I’ll be bikini-ready. To help, I’m doing the following two things:

  1. Keeping a food diary: Diet experts claim that there’s a lot of power in keeping a log of what we eat. I want to put that claim to the test. Without counting calories or tracking portion sizes or restricting certain foods, I’m simply going to write down everything I eat and drink and see what happens to my eating habits.
  2. Keeping a fit diary: Similar to food, I’m going to write down my physical activity for the day, plus notes about when they happen (ex. “twenty lunges while waiting for toaster in break room at work”). My theory is that we’re over-complicating fitness by compartmentalizing it into “workout sessions.” We’ll see what happens when I break down the compartments.

Like every good health challenge, I’m sharing a photo of my “before” at the start. We’ll see what kind of “after” a minimalist approach to health produces.

6-week Minimalist Health Challenge before picture

You’re invited to follow along with me on this challenge, and join in yourself. I’ll be posting regular updates, including what I’m eating and how I’m moving, on Instagram at @minimalisthealthchallenge.

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Eight simple ideas for cutting back on sugar

eight ideas to quit sugar

eight ways to quit sugar

Note: I’m doing a month of mini fresh starts, including cutting back on sugar by unsweetening things I normally sweeten. Here’s the whole list of mini fresh starts if you want to join in.

I expect them to pop up any day now–the posts on Instagram declaring new diet resolutions. Whole 30 seems to be the most popular choice in my feed; perhaps for you it’s something different. Maybe your people are going vegan or trying Paleo or eating clean.

I have nothing against diet resolutions. I’ve done Whole 30 and it was a truly great experience. But I know myself and doing a total diet overhaul is just too much right now. Can you relate to the feeling? Sometimes a big change isn’t feasible. It just takes too much energy, too much discipline, too much effort. That’s okay.

When big changes are too much, I turn to small ones. For diet, one of my go-to favorite changes is to cut back on sugar. I like to set a goal for how many “sugar free” days I can have in a week. This week it’s four days. For four days I want to pass on sweets, on added sugar, and on dessert.

The amazing thing about cutting out sugar is that your taste buds start changing almost immediately. Also…

If you cut back on sugar, you’ll start to notice the following within a week:

  • that sugar starts to taste weird–cloying and out of place
  • that sweets gradually become too sweet
  • that your craving for sugar diminishes
  • that other flavors in your food become more prominent and enjoyable
  • that store-bought foods are weirdly sweet, and homemade tastes better
  • that You. Just. Don’t. Need. It. Anymore.

Ready to give it a try? Here are eight ideas for cutting out sugar that you can start today:

1. Replace soda (including diet) with sparkling or soda water. A couple years ago I realized that carbonation was what I loved most about soda–not the sugar. So I switched from cola to drinks like Perrier and La Croix, and started asking for soda water with lime at restaurants.

2. Try removing sugar from your morning tea/coffee. I used to think that my favorite tea was perfect with just a hint of sugar to bring out the flavor. Now the taste of sugar in my tea–even a little bit–ruins it. Honestly I was amazed at how quickly this shift happened; after a couple days of feeling like my tea was bland, suddenly my preference shifted and I started liking the new unsweetened version. Now I’ll never go back.

3. Eat fruit or nuts instead of cookies, granola bars, etc. Mid-afternoon is my hour of temptation. I start to feel my energy fade and crave a boost to get me through the rest of the work day. This is when chocolate or cookies, or really any kind of carb-y sweet thing, calls to me. To fend off the temptation and satisfy my craving, I’ll turn to fruit and nuts. Apples with cashews. Oranges with peanuts. Carrots with almond butter. You get the idea.

4. For homemade baked goods, try brown rice syrup instead of maple syrup. Available at health food stores (and even some big commercial chains), brown rice syrup is lightly sweet but contains no fructose or sucrose. It’s a great alternative in recipes that call for sugar, syrup, or honey.

5. Replace commercial nut butter with natural nut butter. Health food stores almost always sell a variety of natural nut butters, including almond, peanut, and cashew. Avoid the “honey roasted” versions, and check the ingredients. The kind you’re looking for lists just the nut and perhaps an added oil and salt. If you can’t find a sugar-free option, or if you’re looking for a zero waste choice, buy the nuts you like in bulk and blend them into butter at home using your food processor.

6. Make homemade salad dressing instead of using commercial versions. I don’t know what it is with salad dressing but the commercial versions almost always have sugar. It’s weird to think that we’re all putting sugar on our veggies, right? For unsweetened versions, make your own dressings at home. Pinterest has tons of recipes, or try this really fun salad dressing dice set to play with combinations.

7. Choose home-baked bread instead of store-bought bread. Confession: I love baking bread. I keep a sourdough starter healthy and hungry in my pantry so that I can whip up sourdough loaves on the weekends. However, I realize that not everyone loves baking bread as much as I do. If this is you, there are some commercial brands that don’t have sugar–just check the label. Generally sourdoughs are a safe bet, and whole grain breads are not (they almost always have sugar). Tortillas are also a good sugar-free alternative. Like with most things, once you get used to unsweetened bread, the sweet versions start tasting weird.

8. Try these almond butter cups. If you’re really craving a rich desert, make these. As listed, the recipe is really low on sugar but high on satisfaction. And if you’re really wanting to keep it sugar-free, you can modify it the way I do by replacing the honey with brown rice syrup and the chocolate chips with unsweetened cocoa powder. Also, I like these better with peanut butter but that’s just me.

What do you think? Would these ideas work for you? Also, what other small diet changes are you making this month? Tag me on Instagram to share your plans, or leave a comment here.

Also, two resources for quitting sugar that I’ve found to be helpful and inspiring:

  1. I Quit Sugar website
  2. Year of No Sugar memoir

Related: a month of mini fresh starts

Related: a dude-approved (healthy) hot lunch formula

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Seven ways to make bedtime more luxurious

make bedtime more luxurious

Note: I’m doing a month of mini fresh starts, including making bedtime more luxurious. Here’s the whole list of mini fresh starts if you want to join in.

When I was living in the dorms as a college freshman, I went to bed at 11PM. My friends were just putting in their pizza order outside my door and I was like, “Well, goodnight y’all. See you tomorrow.”

Related, I’ve seen the ball in Times Square drop at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve maybe once. Why? Because I’ve been sound asleep every other year.

And just like a seventy-year-old (or four-year-old–take your pick), I now go to bed around 9:30PM. Seriously. Even on Fridays.

In other words, this lady loves her sleep, thank you.

Because I love sleep, and because I’m damn good at this whole “sleep hygiene” thing everyone is buzzing about (who knew this was a skill to be good at?), I thought I’d share some ideas for making bedtime even more luxurious and enjoyable. The kind of luxurious that you look forward to. The kind that soothes your racing thoughts into quiet oblivion.

If you try these bedtime ideas, you will:

  • look forward to going to bed rather than procrastinate and stay up too late
  • have an easier time slowing down your racing thoughts at the end of the day
  • fall asleep quicker
  • sleep better
  • and wake up feeling refreshed

Here’s what you do:

Seven ideas for making bedtime more luxurious

  1. Turn the heat down an hour or so before bedtime: a cool room helps you sleep and makes your bed feel extra comfy and inviting. If you’re worried about getting cold, keep a blanket or pair of socks at the foot of the bed in case you need them.
  2. Get the bed nice and toasty: prep a hot water bottle about thirty minutes before bedtime and stash it between your sheets at the foot of the bed so that it’ll be nice and warm for your feet by the time you crawl in. (Note: if you’re a hot sleeper like I am, skip this step or else you’ll be baking in your sheets.)
  3. Upgrade your sheets: I used to have these economical cheap cotton sheets that pilled after washing and felt terribly scratchy. Don’t do this to yourself. Splurge on a nice pair of sheets–high thread count cotton or linen. You’ll thank yourself, trust me.
  4. Make your sheets smell amazing: essential oil linen spray is easy to DIY (see Pinterest for ideas), and there’s nothing better than a lovely-smelling pillow to lay your head on. For heavier-duty, not-so-natural-but-absolutely-wonderful scents, try Tyler Candle’s Glamorous Wash detergent. You’re welcome.
  5. Invest in pajamas that you love: You alone get to decide what’s comfortable for sleeping. Slinky negligee? Giant cotton tshirt? Your birthday suit? Find out what you like, and then find it in the best fabric possible (ex. silk. The answer is silk.).
  6. Lather up with lotion: fend off dry, itchy winter skin by applying your favorite lotion to heels, hands, face, and lips before bed.
  7. Indulge in your favorite fiction book: put a final cap on your day by retreating into a favorite fiction book, thus leaving your racing, real-life thoughts behind.

I’m curious: does sleeping come easy to you or not so much?

Related: a month of mini fresh starts

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