How to cultivate a happy body

Year of Happy two linesWelcome to week 2 of The Year of Happy‘s month on the body. The Year of Happy is a free online course in the science of happiness. Not signed up yet? Enter your email here and you’ll get a weekly dose of readings and videos to further your happiness education. 

There’s plenty of diet and exercise advice out there, but our goal here is a bit different. We want to discover which habits are not just healthy in the long term, but happy in the short term. Which foods can I eat to boost my mood and energy today? How many days a week or minutes per day do I need to work out to start feeling more positive? You’ll find those answers and more below.

Foods for mood, energy, and focus

Everyone eats. Unlike starting a gratitude practice or doing acts of kindness, eating happy food requires changing an existing habit instead of just adding a new one. If you don’t want or need a complete overhaul, a simple way to improve is to start substituting a few new foods into your daily diet.

In The Happiness Diet: A Nutritional Prescription for a Sharp Brain, Balanced Mood, and Lean, Energized Body, authors Tyler Graham and Drew Ramsey provide suggestions on the top five foods for mood, energy, and focus

For boosting mood:

  1. Wild salmon and shrimp. Fish and the omega-3s they contain are vital for warding off depression. In an international study, populations who ate the most fish also had the lowest depression, bipolar disorder, postpartum depression, and seasonal affective disorder. Patients who are depressive or suicidal tend to have lower levels of omega-3s, and young boys with low omega-3s are prone to temper tantrums and trouble falling asleep.
  2. Cherry tomatoes and watermelon. Both contain inflammation-fighting lycopene, and those tiny cherry tomatoes are also packed with folate, magnesium, iron, tryptophan, vitamin B6, niacin, vitamin K, chromium, vitamin C, and potassium.
  3. Chile peppers. Can you stand the heat? Chile peppers contain inflammation-fighting capsaicin and vitamins C, B2, B1, and E. And they come with a bonus: our brains release endorphins when we eat spicy foods.
  4. Beets. Although they might stain our teeth, beets can improve our memory and reflexes, make our brain work faster, and ward off depression. They also act as natural detoxifiers and inflammation reducers.
  5. Garlic. Garlic will ensure that vampires don’t suck our blood, and it’ll also keep our blood vessels healthy by improving blood flow, decreasing blood pressure, and reversing heart disease.

For boosting energy:

  1. Mesclun salad. Mesclun, the name for a mix of greens, gives us a dose of folate, calcium, and antioxidants.
  2. Coffee and chocolate. I’m sure you don’t need science to tell you that coffee boosts energy and pleasure, but that’s not all: some studies show that coffee reduces our risk of diabetes and heart disease. One study of more than 1,400 people found that those who drank three to five cups a day were 65% less likely to have dementia 20 years later. Drinking up to four cups is a scientifically validated way to improve our attention, problem solving, and memory. Chocolate, which also has caffeine, can boost our mood, improve our thinking, and protect against dementia. How about a cafe mocha, hold the sugar?
  3. Walnuts. These brainy-looking nuts are full of magnesium, copper, iron, manganese, zinc, calcium, omega-3s, vitamin E, folate, B vitamins, and fiber.
  4. Red beans. Red beans aren’t too popular in America, but you’ll often find them in Chinese and Japanese sweets. They have the highest antioxidant capacity of more than 100 popular plant foods, and they contain a mix of protein, fiber, magnesium, folate, and iron.
  5. Blue or red-skinned small potatoes. The nutrients found in potatoes can protect against depression, brain aging, and heart disease, while lowering blood pressure as well. Why small potatoes? Many of the nutrients are found in the skin, so you get a higher bang for your buck. You’ll find similar benefits in the potato’s root vegetable cousins: sweet potatoes, turnips, carrots, ginger, radishes, and jicama.

For boosting focus:

  1. Free-range eggs, grass-fed beef, and milk. Nature’s perfect protein, eggs are bursting with B vitamins, iodine, magnesium, zinc, iron, vitamin D, and omega-3s. And contrary to popular worries, a study of 115,000 people found that eating up to seven cholesterol-laden eggs per week didn’t raise the risk of heart disease, stroke, or death. Healthy dairy can help build brain cells, ward off depression, keep our weight and blood pressure down, improve our cholesterol, and reduce our risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.
  2. Brussels sprouts. If we can overcome our childhood aversion, Brussels sprouts will protect our brain and help prevent cancer. (I recommend sautéed with butter and garlic.)
  3. Grapefruit and lemon. The flavanoids in citrus actually reduce inflammation, get rid of toxins in the brain, repair damaged neurons, and help make new neural connections. Grapefruit in particular contains a flavonoid called naringenin that lowers bad cholesterol.
  4. Berries. Berries like raspberries, blueberries, grapes, and cranberries contain phytochemicals that help get rid of toxins in the brain.   
  5. Anchovies. These tiny fish give us a dose of omega-3s, vitamin D, and coenzyme Q10.

How much should I exercise?

Let’s settle this debate once and for all!

Well, not quite. But here are some facts to take into account:

  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends 2 hours 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week, plus muscle-strengthening exercises (like lifting weights, doing bodyweight exercises, yoga, or heavy gardening) two days per week. If you go for high-intensity, you only need to do 1 hour and 15 minutes.
  • Reviewing many studies on exercise, researchers have found that even a 10-minute workout can increase positive emotion. The highest boost came from 30-35 minutes of exercise, and more than 75 minutes actually decreased positive emotions. Don’t push yourself too hard!
  • Other research shows that moderate-intensity activity for two days a week increases happiness and reduces stress. Those effects kept increasing up to six days a week. (Who wants to workout on Sundays, anyway?)

If you’re looking for a specific plan to follow, John J. Ratey (author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain) recommends working out for at least 45 minutes for six days a week, including:

  • Two days a week: High-intensity cardio (e.g., sprints, kickboxing) plus weight training (3 sets of 10-15 reps each).
  • Four days a week: Moderate-intensity cardio (e.g., jogging, biking, rowing)

He also recommends sprinkling in some balance and flexibility exercises twice a week for 30 minutes – practices like yoga, Pilates, martial arts, dance, or tai chi. That’s a tall order, but it should at least give you an idea of the mix of activities you want to be doing: cardio, strength training, and balance.

Once you’ve settled on a plan, how do you make exercise a habit? Happiness researcher and self-proclaimed couch potato Gretchen Rubin offers her advice below:

Read “12 Tips for Getting Regular Exercise – and the Benefits for Happiness and Fitness”

Practices for body awareness

Remember how I said that we tend to forget about our bodies? We can start to build mind-body connection by cultivating body awareness, which has many benefits. With increased attention to our physical selves, we can learn to take better care of body parts that hurt, relax them when we’re tense, and feel our emotions below the neck.

If you’d like to feel more integrated, try one of these three practices to get in touch with your body:

  • Body scan: Start at your head or your feet and scan through your body, being aware of how each part feels – from your nose and chin to your fingers and ankles. For a simple body scan meditation, try Calm.com (2-10 minutes) or one from UCLA’s Mindfulness Awareness Research Center (3 minutes). 
  • Progressive muscle relaxation: Tense one muscle for 10 seconds and then relax it for 20, noticing all the sensations you feel. Then repeat for each of your major muscle groups, including the foot, lower leg, whole leg, hand, arm, butt, stomach, chest, neck and shoulders, mouth, eyes, and forehead. If you’d like a guided version, try this one here (15 minutes).
  • Yoga: Forget about competing with your Lululemon-clad classmates and find connection to your body through flowing Ashtanga yoga, hot Bikram yoga, chanting Kundalini yoga, high-flying acro yoga, or gentle restorative yoga.

The promise of better health when we’re 80 years old sometimes isn’t enough of a motivator to get us eating the right foods and doing enough exercise today. But the promise of more smiles, energy, and productivity tomorrow? It might just work – give it a try yourself.

Sources and further reading:

Go back to Week 1: What does a happy body look like? 

Move on to Week 3: The benefits of a happy body

See the whole Year of Happy curriculum

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