Our 12 best health tips from a year of Well+Being – The Washington Post

One year ago today, the Well+Being desk at The Washington Post published its first articles. We answered questions about vitamin D (most people get plenty from their diet and the sun) and the latest research on ketamine for mental health (early research is promising, but it doesn’t work for everyone).
In the days that followed we shared news about the power of awe, how better sleep can lead to better eating habits and the perils of sitting all day even if you exercise regularly.
We chose the name Well+Being carefully, because we know that optimal health means both staying physically well “plus” nurturing your entire being — the body, the mind and all the relationships that matter most in life (including with our pets). At Well+Being, our goal has always been to empower you, our readers, with science-based advice to help you make informed choices about your health.
To celebrate our first trip around the sun, we’ve picked some of our best advice for living well everyday.
There is nothing magical about 10,000 steps a day. So feel free to let go of that goal, writes Your Move columnist Gretchen Reynolds. New research shows that for men and women younger than 60, the greatest benefit came with step counts of between about 8,000 and 10,000 per day. For people older than 60, the threshold was a little lower. For them, the sweet spot for reduced mortality risk came at between 6,000 and 8,000 steps a day.
Try our 7 tips for step counters
Many popular packaged foods — breads, cereals, snack chips and frozen meals — have been refined, pounded, heated, melted, shaped, extruded and packed with additives, explains Anahad O’Connor, our Eating Lab columnist. This extreme processing creates foods that are so easily absorbed by the body that they’re essentially predigested. Many foods also are engineered to overcome our satiety mechanisms, which drives us to overeat and gain weight, experts say. The article includes a terrific visual explainer from Aaron Steckelberg, senior graphics reporter, showing how a kernel of corn becomes an ultraprocessed chip. While it may be tough to give up all processed foods, try to eat more whole and high-fiber foods — meats, fish, fruits and vegetables. And if you do choose food that comes in a package, check the label and try to buy those with the fewest ingredients.
Read more about how processed food is made
Here’s an antidote to an ever-stressful, busy and uncertain world. Try finding and savoring little bites of joy in your day. Our Brain Matters columnist, Richard Sima, calls them “joy” snacks. Pet a cat. Savor a cup of coffee. Take an awe walk on a beautiful day. Listen to laughter and conversations on the bus. By mindfully tuning into the pleasant, nice and sometimes routine experiences of every day, we can transform an otherwise mundane moment into something more meaningful and even joyful.
Learn more about how to be happier
One thing we’ve learned from our Ask a Doctor columnist Trisha Pasricha is that no topic is off limits with your doctor. Readers have asked a lot of questions about poop. A general rule of thumb is that anywhere from three bowel movements per day to three per week is within the range of normal. Most of the time, poop of a different color is nothing to worry about and probably a result of what you ate and how your body processed it. If stool is red, maroon or tarry black, discuss it with your doctor. It could be the result of something you ate (beets, anyone?) or a sign of a health condition.
Read more about healthy bathroom habits
Another great tip from Pasricha is to use your camera phone to snap pictures of things that seem weird, including your poop. “We love seeing pictures of stool!” says Pasricha. If you get a tick bite, take a picture of the tick. Knowing exactly what type of tick can help doctors if you develop health problems in the weeks following the bite.
Find out what to do after a tick bite
Amanda Morris, who writes about disability, noticed something important about the people she writes about: Their disability gave them new insights into setting more realistic, healthier and gentler goals. She came up with several great tips for goal setting. Focus on how you want to feel, rather than things you want to do. Don’t set goals that drain you. Find a goal that empowers or replenishes you. Choose “numberless” goals. For instance, instead of trying to exercise a certain amount of time, try to “move in a way that feels good.” And recognize your limits. It’s okay to set a goal to do less! (And you can always quit if a goal is too daunting.)
Find more tips about kinder goal setting
For better health, many people focus on the “big three” — food, fitness and sleep. But research suggests you should make friendship a health priority too, writes Teddy Amenabar. Platonic love trumps romantic love in a number of ways. People with strong friendships tend to have better mental health and studies suggest they’re in better physical health, as well. Researchers have found large social networks lower our risk of premature death more than exercise or dieting alone. A six-year study of 736 middle-aged Swedish men found having a life partner didn’t affect the risk of heart attack or fatal coronary heart disease — but having friends did.
Listen to a podcast about the health benefits of friendship
In our first On Your Mind column, therapist Lesley Alderman offered a number of helpful tips to cope with the anxiety of a topsy-turvy world and events outside our control. It starts with just taking care of yourself, taking a break from the news and getting involved in your community. But you can also be your own therapist. Ask yourself, what do I specifically feel hopeless about and why? “Being able to put into words what’s getting you down can help you feel less flooded by emotions and better able to process the information rationally,” she writes.
Learn 8 ways to feel less anxious about things beyond your control
You can get an effective aerobic and strength workout at home, or wherever you happen to be, in less time than you might take for a coffee break. The workout consists of five simple exercises: high knees, squat jumps, scissor jacks, jumping lunges and modified burpees (no push-up required). There’s one caveat: You must perform the exercises — or simplified variations of them — with sufficient enthusiasm and vigor. Our video journalist, Alexa Juliana Ard, created videos of regular and low-impact versions of each exercise.
Watch a demonstration of our speedy scientific workout
Resilience is the ability to bounce back from adversity — a career setback, a relationship breakup or any of the big and small disappointments of daily life, writes Kelyn Soong. Much of the research on resilience focuses on building the skill in childhood, but resilience can be strengthened at any age. While resilience is essentially an emotional muscle, a growing body of research shows that stressing our physical muscles through exercise is one way to increase our capacity to cope with daily stress. So if you’re feeling stressed, get moving. It will benefit your body and help you cope with life’s big and small setbacks.
Discover how exercise builds resilience
It really has been the year of the ear, with hearing aids going over the counter and new research confirming how important hearing is for brain health. In many cases, people don’t even know they have hearing loss, so the first step is to get your hearing checked, writes Lindsey Bever. Age-related hearing loss nearly doubles the risk for dementia. But new research also shows that the use of hearing aids can reduce the risk of cognitive decline by nearly 50 percent among adults who have other risk factors, such as elevated blood pressure, higher rates of diabetes or those who live alone.
Listen to what hearing loss sounds like
While it may feel like your brain peaked in childhood, even aging brains can learn new tricks. The good news, writes Caitlin Gilbert, is that our brains — unlike other parts of the body — are built to change over our lifetimes. New research dispels the belief that plasticity, the brain’s capacity to respond to change, diminishes in the adult and aging brain.
Experiences such as engagement in a community, lifestyle choices or exposure to stress can drastically affect brain development and aging. A 50-year-old who is highly social and regularly exercising, traveling or volunteering might have a “younger” brain than a 50-year-old who is largely isolated from others and rarely engages in enriching activities. And although late in life the brain does shrink in size and can begin to degenerate, older individuals also have the potential for greater wisdom built off a lifetime of experiences.
Read more about how your brain ages across the lifespan