Improve Your Health with Small Steps

  • Improving your health can seem like an impossible task, especially for time-strapped lawyers
  • You can make big changes by doing small, easy things to improve diet, exercise, and sleep
  • Try adding a few simple behaviors—an extra fruit or vegetable at lunch, taking the stairs, creating a nightly pre-sleep routine—every few weeks

We are inundated with advertisements, doctors on talk shows, news reports—and for some of us, our own doctor’s nagging—about improving our health.

Most of us are aware that we eat the wrong things, don’t exercise enough, and sleep too little. In addition, the often-mishandled stress inherent in a busy lawyer’s life can exacerbate most health issues.

The point is: We know we need to make changes, but those changes seem like a lot of work and pressure. How is anyone supposed to suddenly start sleeping eight hours, drinking enough water, exercising for an hour five days a week, and eating nine servings of vegetables per day? So many changes at once can feel like an overwhelming requirement, triggering procrastination and avoidance. Fortunately, you can improve your health by making small changes that don’t require a complete, instantaneous overhaul of your life.

How You Eat

First, realize that you must eat regularly to fuel your body, no matter how busy you are. Shoot for several small meals or three meals and a couple of healthy snacks per day. Skipping meals will only result in overeating later, and can cause loss of focus, sluggishness, and headaches throughout the day. If you’ve been skipping breakfast or waiting until you’re famished to eat lunch, start by adding a small, easy meal—like an apple and piece of whole wheat toast—in the mornings and making it a priority to respond to hunger when it hits in the afternoon.

What bothers people most about trying to eat better is the idea that one must completely change their eating habits and shun dozens of foods they enjoy. This is, of course, a recipe for failure. Instead of thinking about what you can’t have, add things you can have. Add a few more servings of fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, and seeds to your day and make it a point to try healthy, plant-based things you’ve never had or haven’t given a try in years. Once you’ve added more good stuff to the mix, it won’t be a big deal to cut down on meat and starches a bit—those high-fiber foods will keep you feeling full and satisfied. Replace a portion of your soda consumption with water and occasionally choose fruit and/or a small piece of heart-healthy dark chocolate instead of candy or a huge piece of cake when you’re craving something sweet, and your diet will be magically improved without leaving you feeling deprived.

How You Move

Health experts recommend 30 minutes of moderate exercise per day, as well as strength training at least twice a week—and that’s the minimum recommendation. This daunting chunk of time we’re supposed to dedicate to maintaining fitness is an excellent reason to ignore exercise altogether…except it doesn’t have to be. You can incorporate small bursts of movement into your day and it all counts and adds up. Add as many of these simple things to your routine as possible, and you’ll be on your way to a healthier you:

  • Take the stairs instead of the elevator.
  • Get off a subway stop early or park your car farther away from your office.
  • Walk to your colleagues’ office to speak with them instead of sending an email.
  • Take a brisk walk at the end of your lunch break.
  • Walk and talk when you can, whether you’re speaking with someone in person or on the phone.
  • Stretch for a few minutes every day.
  • Stand rather than sit for a portion of your day.
  • Do ab and glute contractions while sitting at your desk.
  • Do a few sets of lunges, squats, and/or desk dips in your office whenever you get the chance.
  • Start your day with five minutes of yoga poses.
  • Do calf raises while brushing your teeth in the morning or reading documents in your office.
  • While watching television, use commercials as a time to do sit-ups and push-ups. If you have free weights, throw in some bicep curls and overhead presses.

Start slowly by adding just a few things every week, and they’ll soon become part of your normal routine.

Can you think of any exercises to add to the list above? Why not make it the first thing you incorporate into your usual daily activities?

How You Sleep

Yes, we know how busy the average lawyer is—closings that run until the wee hours, calls with overseas clients that have to happen when the sun is barely up, stress that has you too wired to sleep even when you’re lucky enough to leave the office at a decent hour—so we understand that you often have no control over how much sleep you get. But sleep hygiene can still be maintained when you make the effort to do so when a full night’s sleep is a possibility, and there are strategies you can employ to make the most of shorter sleep sessions.

First, some facts about sleep: Adults need seven to nine hours of sleep. Sure, we all know those people who appear to function just fine while regularly getting five hours of sleep per night—you might even be that person—but they are fooling themselves, to put it bluntly. Getting enough quality sleep affects your productivity, creativity, heart health, immune system, weight, energy level—pretty much everything. If you are used to performing on too little sleep, you have likely forgotten what being truly well-rested feels like; if you’re doing this well now, imagine how much more effective you would be if you slept more?

To achieve optimal sleep quality:

  • Stick to a regular schedule. Go to bed and wake up at the same time every night—even on the weekends.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Keep caffeine consumption to a minimum, and don’t eat large meals or drink a lot of fluids right before bedtime.
  • Develop a sleep routine to physically and mentally prepare yourself for rest.
  • Your bedroom should be dark, quiet, cool, and used only for sleeping and sex.
  • Make stress management a priority.

Those things all sound great, but how is a busy lawyer supposed to follow any of these rules? Obviously, you won’t be able to do everything perfectly, seven days a week. The point is to try, and to take sleep seriously. You may not be able to go to bed at the same time every night, but you should shoot for doing so as many nights as possible. You may not be able to forego caffeine altogether, but you can certainly limit it to one cup most days and two cups on the days you’re dragging. Be regimented about your sleep routine, even if you’re going to bed three hours later than you did last night. If your most common pre-sleep actions involve getting into comfy pajamas and picking tomorrow’s outfit while listening to low, soothing music before crawling into bed, do that every night, no matter how late it is. Now, you cannot make up sleep on the weekends, and sleeping late can throw your entire sleep schedule off. However, sleeping a bit extra every now and then to help make up for an occasional sleep deficit can be helpful as long as you don’t make a habit of it.

A note on stress and sleep: Going over a long list of worries, grievances, and unfinished projects in your head every night is a sure-fire way to ruin your chances of getting quality sleep. Your sleep routine may need to include 10 minutes of meditation or writing down your thoughts on paper to get them off your mind. Do whatever you need to do to deal with stress and clear your head so you can relax enough to fall asleep quickly—and be sure to do it regularly.

What's Next

Over the next month, choose a few easy things you can incorporate into your life to improve your health. Keep doing them until they simply become part of your routine and you no longer have to think about them. Add more habits every month.