Health-Minded Habits That Aren't Diet Or Exercise

When we look for ways to be healthy, we're often pointed to healthy food or exercise to improve our mood. Although trends in diet and exercise might leave us confused, there are various health-minded habits we can adopt without necessarily having to give up carbs or jump on a treadmill. Living a healthy life includes well-being, which involves feeling good and having a sense of purpose.

A 2008 report from the New Economics Foundation identified five ways to improve well-being. Although one of those paths is physical activity, there are other habits we can take on to improve our lives. The report recognizes that well-being and illness aren't two extremes on the same dimension. Instead, well-being can exist despite illness, which might explain why some people who are physically sick can maintain a positive outlook on life. Well-being rests on how you respond to the world despite what you cannot control. 

Make healthy relationships your goal

The New Economics Foundation report notes that people who have a social network of more than four people are less likely to develop mental health issues. Therefore, having healthy social relationships contributes to our overall health. Although close ties with family and a few friends are important, we should also be open to larger social networks that connect us to the community around us.

A 2010 review in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior pointed out that quality social ties and a diverse network of social connections can benefit health. Our social relationships influence our behavior, so it's important to connect with those who support you in your healthy efforts.

Because positive relationships help us achieve health goals, it's important to create life goals related to our quality of life rather than professional or material success. We tend to suffer when our goals are tied to professional or work achievements. According to a 2022 study in Current Opinion in Psychology, we tend to have a lower sense of well-being when we believe money or material possessions will bring us joy. When we build our goals around our social connections instead, we may end up feeling more connected to others, according to the New Economics Foundation.

Notice what's around you

We can easily get kicked around by the demands of others, which may cause us to lose our sense of agency over our lives. This can dampen our sense of well-being. When we remind ourselves to notice what's around us, we're training our minds to live in the present moment. This present-moment awareness separates us from the pull of others and reconnects us with what we value.

We can notice what's around us at any time, but if you're not used to the practice, here's one from the Greater Good Science Center. For 20 minutes each day, take a short walk. The goal here isn't to exercise or raise your heart rate. Instead, you'll use your senses — all five of them — to notice something positive. This might include the changing notes of the birdsong, the breeze on your skin, or the smell of flowers. After you savor one thing, move on to another. For variety, change your route each day.

Learn something new

Learning new things throughout life can improve your sense of self-worth, making you more social and more active. Staying curious can also help lift some people out of depression. When we set a goal to learn something new, we tend to be more satisfied with life. To make the experience positive, be sure to connect your learning experiences with your values (per New Economics Foundation). In other words, learn because you want to, not because you have to.

This doesn't necessarily mean that you have to enroll in college classes. A 2014 study from Cambridge University found that even informal learning, such as art groups, increases well-being in older adults. This is where you can use technology for good. For example, you can learn a new language using various apps on your phone.

A 2013 study in Psychology of Music found that well-being improved when older adults learned to play a new musical instrument. Some musicians offer free lessons on video apps to give back to the world.

Be generous with others

Our generosity can also benefit our health. According to Geisinger Health, giving to others can lower blood pressure, reduce stress and depression, and help us live longer. How does this happen? We're motivated by rewards, and our reward system is activated when we help or give to others. A 2018 report from the Greater Good Science Center indicated that our brain circuits and hormones make us biologically hard-wired for generosity for our survival.

Being generous also helps us redirect our minds. When we're helping others, we distract ourselves from the inner critic that sometimes keeps us from feeling good (per PsychAlive).

According to a 2017 study in Nature Communications, participants who pledged to spend money on others activated a part of their brain that induced both generosity and happiness. But having a giving spirit doesn't necessarily mean you have to spend money. You could also volunteer at organizations or give emotional support to those in need. Therefore, you can still have a giving attitude even if you don't give anything material.

Find some quiet time alone

The New Economics Foundation didn't include silence in its report, but it is another habit that can make you healthy. When we're trying to concentrate on a particular task and others are speaking, we tend to get more stressed out than if the environment is quiet, according to a 2020 study in Indoor Air.

Every day, you might be bombarded with various sounds from your smartphone, your family, or your commute. A 2013 study in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that those who lived in quiet areas had a higher health-related quality of life than those who lived in noisy areas.

Although you might not be able to move, spending some time in quiet solitude can still provide some benefits. According to the Cleveland Clinic, silence helps dampen the stress response and kicks in the ability to relax. You can also use this time in silence for self-reflection and recharging your energy.

You can make a daily practice of silence by turning off music for a few moments in the car, eating breakfast without the distraction of your phone, or practicing breathwork in silence.