How to Start Eating Healthy and Exercising
A beginner's guide to exercise and eating healthy. Part of the Ultimate Guide series brought to you by Optimal Living Daily podcast.
Everyone knows that they should be eating healthy food and getting enough exercise. With packed schedules and an endless list of things to do, it’s easy for your health to take a backseat to your other commitments. This guide aims to share practical tips for beginners who would like to start living a healthier lifestyle.
Dr. Neal Malik hosts the Optimal Health Daily podcast. He narrates blog posts from health and fitness authorities like Healthline, Ben Greenfield, Chalene Johnson, and many more. Additionally, he answers listeners' questions every Friday on the show.
You can click the table of contents below to skip to a certain section or scroll to read the entire guide. Each section contains links to podcast episodes where you can hear more about the topic.
- Why is Eating and Being Healthy So Hard?
- I Have No Time to Exercise — What Can I Do?
- How Much Sitting is Too Much?
- How Do I Start to Eat Healthy?
- How Do I Start Exercising Regularly?
- What if I’m a Busy Parent?
- What are Some Exercise Apps for Beginners?
- What is Mindful Eating and Why is it Important?
- How Do I Stick to a Healthy Lifestyle?
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1. Why is Being and Eating Healthy So Hard?
If you've been steadily neglecting your health over the years, getting back into a healthy lifestyle is not going to be accomplished overnight.
Think about any bad habits that you have. Are they difficult to kick? Of course they are!
It's because building good habits take time. Human beings are creatures of comfort, so any change to your habits or routines are likely to be met with some resistance initially at least.
Eating healthy can be daunting too when you’re first getting started with it.
After all, most of us grow up associating food with pleasure, not nutrition. Vegetables and other healthy food are often associated with a “bland” taste too. That’s how you might feel when you first taste whole wheat bread after a steady diet of white bread!
It can be tempting to try out the latest dieting fads and trends, particularly when there are impressive before and after weight loss pictures. By the way, experts recommend you to be skeptical of ads that promise quick and easy weight loss, despite what the photos may portray.
Fitness coach and author Nia Shanks recommends “the diet that has no name.” It's a non-sensational but sensible approach to eating, without the need for you to obsess over every single calorie or ingredient. Part of this diet includes making vegetables and fruits a priority in your diet, and that what matters most are the actions you commit to consistently.
Here are a few episodes to hear more about a sensible diet and how to build good habits:
- OHD 796: The Diet That Has No Name (and Why It May be the Best Thing Ever), by Nia Shanks
- OLD 711: Habits Determine Health, by Becca Shern
- OLD 1323: How To Use Newton’s Third Law To Make Habits Last Longer, by Anthony Ongaro
2. I Have No Time to Exercise — What Can I Do?
Have you said these things to yourself when it comes to improving your health and fitness?
“I don’t have enough time.”
“I’m a parent now and my schedule is too busy.”
“Healthy food tastes soooo boring!”
“I’ll get started tomorrow.” (and you say the same thing when tomorrow comes)
“I can never find a diet or exercise routine to stick to.”
Matt McLeod is a professional natural bodybuilder. As a fitness coach, he says that he often hears people who say “no” to something before they even try to get started.
Limiting self-beliefs are often the number one thing stopping most people from achieving their health and fitness goals.
Habits get harder to change as you get older. So why not make a positive change to your lifestyle today? If you have 10 minutes in a day to start exercising, make the most of those 10 minutes. You can gradually work your way up to a 10-minute high intensity workout that you do several times a day, if you can't dedicate a full 30 minutes every day towards exercise.
These episodes share tips and advice on how to find more time:
- OHD 798: The 1 Thing Holding You Back From Your Dream Body, by Matt McLeod
- OHD 470: Q&A – How Much Time Do I Really Need to Spend Working Out Every Week? by Dr. Neal Malilk
- OHD 509: 3 Bafflingly Paradoxical Time Hacks – Extreme Time Management & Productivity, by Mark Joyner via Ben Greenfield
3. How Much Sitting is Too Much?
Modern day life has lots of technological conveniences at our fingertips. It’s hard to imagine going a day or two without using our phones, computers, or other mobile devices at all.
The bad part about all this convenience is that our lifestyle is generally a lot less physically active than those of our ancestors.
There is a difference between a sedentary lifestyle (which is characterized by too much sitting), and a lifestyle where you have take part in some light exercise (but lack moderate-to-vigorous physical activity that has a bigger impact on your health and fitness).
Sitting at a computer screen for a big portion of the day is not ideal for your health.
To counter sitting down all day, experts advise people to stand for about 15 minutes per work hour spent seated at a desk. A University of Waterloo professor recommends moving early and often before pain sets in from staying in one position for too long.
Desk yoga is another way to combat a routine where you’re required to be in front of a computer screen a lot of the time. You could also try a standing desk or set up your computer and mouse so that they are properly aligned. Steve Kamb of Nerd Fitness says to squat throughout the day to reengage muscles in your lower body which go unused when you're seated at a desk.
For more specific tips on ergonomic chairs and inexpensive solutions to improve your work space, check out these episodes:
- Tips for Sitting at a Computer All Day (blog post by Dr. Neal)
- OHD 414: How to Survive Sitting All Day, by Steve Kamb of Nerd Fitness
- OHD 522: 6 Tips to Use a Standing Desk Correctly, by Joe Leech with Healthline
4. How Do I Start Eating Healthy?
You can start eating healthy by:
- Reducing your food portions if you’re consuming too many calories per day
- Adding more fruits and vegetables into your diet — instead of a bowl of pasta for dinner, work towards having half a bowl of pasta and half a bowl of vegetables
- Reducing your intake of empty calories that come from items like junk food and soda
- Cooking at home more often so that you know what ingredients you are using
You can also start to eat healthier food by choosing to eat clean. Clean eating refers to selecting whole foods and avoiding processed food like refined sugar.
Are you aware of The Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen?
Each year, the Environmental Working Group produces a list of twelve produce items which contain the greatest amounts of pesticide residues. This list is known as “the dirty dozen,” while the clean fifteen lists foods which contain the smallest amounts of pesticide components.
As a beginner to eating healthy, another approach is to consider limiting your sugar intake. A reduction in sugar intake should bring about an improvement in your overall energy level. You may notice that you have less sugar cravings, are more productive at work, or get a better quality sleep. According to Samantha Coogan, director of a nutrition program at UNLV, protein and fiber keep you feeling fuller as compared to sugar, and won’t give you “ups and downs” when it comes to fluctuating blood sugar levels upon consuming a lot of sugar.
You can also choose to purchase organic, non-GMO foods whenever possible.
Organic means that the food was produced without the usage of conventional pesticides. The non-GMO label means that the food has not been genetically modified.
Genetically modified food and its potential dangers have not been studied long enough. Many countries have a ban on GMO food. For example, cows in the US are often fed the recombinant bovine growth hormone in order to increase their milk production. This growth hormone is banned in Canada, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and the European Union.
Articles and episodes referred to in this section on eating healthy include:
- How Do I Get Rid of Belly Fat? (by Dr. Neal, with explanations of ideal food portions)
- Healthy and Easy Low Carb Breakfast Ideas, by Dr. Neal
- OHD 187: 4 Cooking Tips That Will End Your Recipe Guessing, by Chef Todd Mohr
- OHD 797: Is Sweetness Your Weakness? A Dietician’s Guide to Giving Up Sugar, by Keyonna Summers of UNLV
- OHD 789: How Do I Choose the Foods I Eat, by Laure Carter (on organic and non-GMO food)
5. How Do I Start Exercising Regularly?
You don’t need to have a gym membership to start exercising. An interesting fact is that gym memberships spike every year between December to January because of New Year’s resolutions — even though most don’t follow through on that resolution.
You don’t need to wait till the new year to make a resolution to live a healthier lifestyle. What’s important is to get started now — AND to start slowly to prevent injury while your body gets used to exercise.
So if you’ve NEVER done a push-up in your whole life, don’t get discouraged or intimated by YouTube videos where a top fitness trainer does thirty plus army push-ups without pausing to take a breath. You’d want to start with beginner articles (such as Daily Burn's “how to do push-ups for beginners“) or videos such as the following:
Don’t laugh at yourself or put yourself down if all you can manage at first are one to three push-ups a day. You want to ease your body into it so that the changes won’t come as a shock to your physical system.
Think of other ways that you can easily incorporate some exercise into your daily routine. It’s the small changes that add up and make a big difference in the long term.
Choosing to take the stairs instead of the elevator will work your heart. Wearing a pedometer or using a fitness app to track the number of steps you take per day gives you a better idea of the level of physical activity you’re getting. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends you to take 15,000 steps every week (which is slightly over 2,000 daily steps) to meet minimum guidelines for aerobic activity.
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Doing sit-ups, push-ups, and other simple stretching activities are easy to do when watching TV. Try it the next time you find yourself seated in front of a television screen!
You can also try going for a 5-minute walk, or walk or lightly jog in place at home. That’s a great way to start and build upon over time.
For more resources:
- OHD 314: 4 Simple Steps to Start the Exercise Habit by Leo Babauta
- OHD 533: Exercise Sucks. Here’s What To Do About It, by Steve Kamb
- Beginner Exercise Routines (blog post with video recommendations)
6. What if I’m a Busy Parent?
If you’re a parent, there are still a number of ways to add exercise into your routine.
Ten minutes of cardio exercise increases your blood circulation, increases your heart rate, and burns off calories. Strengthening exercises like bicep curls or lunges can also be done while watching TV or when chatting on the phone.
Apps that remind you to do a 10-minute stretching or cardio routine could help you stay on schedule (see section below for recommended apps). If you’re into activities like yoga, having a dedicated space in your home can help you to stay committed to your yoga practice for health and wellness.
Incorporating an active lifestyle with your kids is another way to get some exercise into your busy schedule. Walking, hiking, and riding a bicycle around the neighborhood are fun activities. Visiting a nature park, birdwatching, and connecting with nature has the additional layer of building an environmental consciousness in your kids and family. Furthermore, reports have shown that getting kids in nature has numerous health benefits. These include a healthier body, reduction in ADHD symptoms, reduction in stress levels, and instils a value for the community and other close relationships.
For more ideas on how to make an active lifestyle part of parenting, visit:
- OHD 459: How to Build an Active, Outdoor Lifestyle With Your Kids, by Dan Schmidt
- OHD 479: When You’re A Parent, Get Creative About Exercise, by Julie Morgenstern
- Connecting Kids and Nature, by National Wildlife Federation
7. What are Some Exercise Apps for Beginners?
Installing an app is an effective way to set up a daily reminder to get some exercise done.
Free exercise apps for beginners include:
- Johnson & Johnson – Official 7 Minute Workout: This app has been downloaded more than 3 million times. It's designed to be a simple, quick, and science-based approach towards daily exercise.
- My Fitness Pal: Helps you keep track of calories and log exercise progress.
- HIIT Workouts and Timer by 7M: Features 4 minutes of high intensity intervals to get your heart rate up.
Maybe I Will has a list of other beginner fitness apps you could try if you want to browse around further.
8. What is Mindful Eating and Why is it Important?
To stick to a healthy lifestyle, you need to be mindful of your environment and choices.
You may start to find yourself enjoying social gatherings less if healthy food is not a priority on the menu. Or you could find yourself overeating because of the unhealthy but savory food that’s being offered.
A big tip is to eat what you want at home before going to an event or gathering where you know healthy food isn’t going to be served. When you’re less hungry at the event, you’ll be less likely to reach out for something you may regret eating once it’s being digested by your body.
Drink lots of water to stay hydrated, and as Becca Sherns mentions in Episode 729, be thoughtful of the foods you eat by focusing on nourishment, not restriction. You don’t need to completely give up cookies and ice-cream when going on a healthier diet. Eat less of them, or indulge in them on your “day off” per week.
Other ways to slowly explore mindful eating include:
- Asking yourself if you’re making the healthiest choice before you cook or eat something.
- Eating and chewing slowly.
- Eating quietly and without distractions such as your phone.
Listen to the following episodes for more on mindful eating:
- OHD 482: Mindful Eating 101 – A Beginner’s Guide by Adda Bjarnadottir with Healthline
- OHD 729: Minimal Wellness Dietary Principles – Part 1: Whole Foods by Becca Shern
- OHD 768: 12 Tips For Beating the Social Overeating Habit by Leo Babauta
9. How Do I Stick to a Healthy Lifestyle?
As Dr. Neal says in an article on how to lose belly fat, you shouldn’t lose heart when making a change to your lifestyle.
With time, commitment and persistence, you’ll start seeing results and reaping the benefits of a healthier life.
We don't need health information. We need health inspiration.
– Dr. David Sabgir
Remember that healthy living and eating healthy should be something to feel happy and inspired about. It's not about depriving yourself of tasty food you love or committing to harsh exercise routines if those aren't part of your long-term goals!
These episodes contain more gems of wisdom as to how to stay inspired as you commit to healthier habits:
- OHD 99: How to Stick to Your Diet, by Nia Shanks
- OHD 410: How to Make Good Habits That Stick, by Dr. Neal
- OHD 760: 10 Reasons Why We Don’t Stick to Things – Part 1 by Leo Babauta
You can also check out our list of Ten Beginner Exercise Routines, and some health and fitness quotes from OHD episodes.