How to build a habit in 5 steps, according to science | CNN

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Most of us assume those superachievers who are always able to squeeze in their workout, eat healthy foods, ace their exams and pick their kids up on time must have superhuman self-control. But science points to a different answer: What we mistake for willpower is often a hallmark of habit.

People with good habits rarely need to resist the temptation to laze on the couch, order greasy takeout, procrastinate on assignments or watch one more viral video before dashing out the door. That’s because autopilot takes over, eliminating temptation from the equation. Having established good habits, little to no willpower is required to choose wisely.

Sounds great, right? The only catch is that building good habits takes effort and insight. Thankfully, science offers both guidance on how to begin and strategies to lighten your lift. Here are a few research-backed steps sourced from my book, “How to Change,” that can set you on the path from where you are to where you want to be.

The way you define the goal you hope to turn into a habit does matter. Goals such as “meditate regularly” are too abstract, research has shown. You’ll benefit from being more specific about what exactly you aim to do and how often.

Don’t say “I’ll meditate regularly.” Say, “I’ll meditate for 15 minutes each day.”

Having a bite-size objective makes it less daunting to get started and easier to see your progress.

Now that you have established a specific goal, it’s time to think about what will cue you to follow through. Scientists have proven that you’ll make more progress toward your goal if you decide not just what you’ll do, but when you’ll be cued to do it, as well as where you’ll do it and how you’ll get there.

A plan like “I’ll study Spanish for 30 minutes, five days a week” is OK. But a detailed, cue-based plan like “Every workday after my last meeting, I’ll spend 30 minutes studying Spanish in my office” is much more likely to stick as a habit.

Making this kind of plan reduces the chances you’ll forget to follow through because the when and where in your plan will serve as cues to action that jog your memory. Even better: Put your plan on your calendar so you’ll get a digital reminder. An established, hyperspecific plan also forces you to anticipate and maneuver around obstacles and makes procrastination feel more sinful.

When we set out to build a new habit, most of us overestimate our willpower and set a course for the most efficient path to achieving our end goal. Say you hope to get fit by exercising regularly — you’ll likely look for a workout that can generate quick results such as grinding it out on a treadmill. But research has shown you’ll persist longer and ultimately achieve more if you instead focus on finding ways to make goal pursuit fun.

When it comes to exercise, this might mean going to Zumba classes with a friend or learning how to rock climb. If you’re trying to eat more fruits and vegetables, it might mean swapping doughnut breakfasts for tasty smoothies, which can combine multiple servings of fruits and veggies in one delicious drink. Because you are far more likely to stick with something you enjoy and repetition is key to habit formation, making the experience positive is critical, but it’s often overlooked.

One excellent way to make goal pursuit fun is to try what I call “temptation bundling.” Consider only letting yourself enjoy an indulgence you crave while working toward your goal. For example, only let yourself binge-watch your favorite show while at the gym or enjoy a beloved podcast while cooking healthy meals. My own research shows that temptation bundling improves follow-through; it transforms goal pursuit into a source of pleasure, not pain.

By the time we put a behavior on autopilot, a lot of us fall into fairly consistent routines, tending to exercise, study or take our medication at the same time of day and in the same place. But when you’re in the start-up phase of habit building, contrary to popular opinion, my research suggests it’s important to insert some variability deliberately into your routine.

You’ll still want to have a first best plan — maybe an 8 a.m. meditation session if you’re trying to kick-start a mindfulness habit. But you should also experiment with other ways of getting the job done. Try to mix in a noon session and maybe a 5 p.m. meditation, too.

Successful habit building relies on frequently repeating a behavior, and if your routine becomes too brittle, you’ll follow through less often. A flexible habit means you can still do what you need to even when a wrench is thrown in your first best plans — say, a traffic jam on the way to dropping the kids off at school that gets in the way of your morning meditation.

One way to be flexible that’s proven useful is by giving yourself “emergency reserves.” Emergency reserves are a limited number of get-out-of-jail-free cards for those days when you really can’t squeeze in your 10 minutes of meditation, regular jog or Spanish practice.

It’s more motivating to set a tough goal for yourself — meditating every day, for instance — than an easy one, according to research. But missing multiple subgoals along the way can be discouraging. A couple of emergency reserves each week give you the flexibility to miss a day when a real emergency arises without getting discouraged and abandoning your objective entirely.

This step is obvious but sometimes overlooked. Seek out social support. Social support isn’t just about having cheerleaders and people to hold you accountable — though both can add value, so I’d suggest telling your friends and family about your goals.

We’re strongly influenced by the behaviors of the people around us, evidence shows. Want to start running regularly? You’re probably better off joining an established running club than asking a few friends who aren’t yet in the habit of jogging to get in shape with you. People in the running club have already built the habits you want. You can learn from them about what works and gain friends who will make you feel like a slouch when you slack off.

Good habits are contagious, so try to catch some by hanging out with people who are a little ahead of you on the learning curve. It’s important not to get too crazy — if you try to train with marathoners when you’re just hoping to work up to a 5K, I’ve found it can be discouraging.

But in general, research by myself and others shows that finding people to socialize with and emulating those who have already accomplished what you want to accomplish can make a world of difference. As an added bonus, when you pursue your goals in tandem with people you like, that makes it more fun!

One last thing to keep in mind is that habits can take some time to form. They don’t click overnight. Despite claims that there’s a “magic number” of days it takes to form a habit, my collaborators and I have disproven this myth in our recent research. We all form habits at our own speed, but for simpler and frequently repeated behaviors such as hand sanitizing, we can expect speedier habit formation than for more complex behaviors such as hitting the gym, which, on average, can take months rather than weeks to put on autopilot.

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Fall asleep faster with mental tricks that calm your racing mind | CNN

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You’re exhausted, your body yawning for sleep. Yet once your head hits the pillow, your mind is flooded with worry, making sleep elusive, at times impossible.

Don’t fret, experts say: There are relaxation techniques you can use to calm that racing mind.

“Think of these relaxation exercises as tools in your tool kit for better sleep,” said sleep specialist Rebecca Robbins, an instructor in the division of sleep medicine for Harvard Medical School.

“Practice them, and you’ll get better and better at falling asleep, which is the holy grail, right? No one wants to spend time tossing and turning at night.”

Deep breathing is a science-backed method of calming the body and mind that can be done easily before you get into bed and when you wake during the middle of the night.

Changing the rhythm of your breath slows your heart rate, reduces blood pressure and stimulates the body’s parasympathetic “rest and digest” system, which can take worry and anxiety offline.

“Consciously focusing on the breath can help you separate yourself from the darting thoughts that fly through your brain,” Robbins said.

There are a number of deep breathing techniques you can try. Diaphragmatic breathing, also known as belly breathing, focuses on relaxing the diaphragm, the main muscle of respiration. Start by taking a deep breath through your nose to a slow count of six, making sure that you can feel your stomach rise with your hand as it fills with air. Count to six again as you let the breath slowly escape.

“Strive for effortless inhales that are soft and soundless while treating your exhales like gentle, extended sighs of relief,” suggested CNN contributor Dana Santas, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and mind-body coach.

Stay in the moment, Santas said, by focusing on the sounds and sensations of your breath: “Direct all of your senses to follow the path of air in through your nose, down your throat, into your lungs and out again. If your mind wanders, bring it back to your breath, happening in the here and now.”

Meditation is a centuries-old method of calming the body and the mind. Studies show it can help perfectionists stop judging themselves and can assist in the treatment of smoking, pain, addictive disorders and depression, among others.

Using direct measures of brain function and structure, one study found it only took 30 minutes a day of meditation practice over the course of two weeks to produce a measurable change in the brain.

“When these kinds of mental exercises are taught to people, it actually changes the function and the structure of their brain,” neuroscientist Richard Davidson, professor of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the founder and director of the Center for Healthy Minds, told CNN in an earlier interview.

There are many resources on the internet to help someone begin to meditate. Davidson and his colleagues have created a free, science-based app designed to help people practice meditation and mindfulness.

Visualization is another sleep aid. Picture a calm and peaceful spot in your mind’s eye and fill it with specific objects, colors and sounds. Researchers have found that people who visualize in detail were able to push unwelcome thoughts more successfully from their minds.

If you have trouble populating the scene, the researchers suggest asking yourself questions about smell, touch and light, such as “Can I feel the sun on my skin? What do I smell in the air?”

You can also visualize your body relaxing, experts say. While breathing deeply and slowly, imagine your breath is a wind coursing through the body, easing stress and relaxing tension as it moves through each part of the body and then escapes.

“I like to think of the breath as a light in your mind’s eye that grows when you inhale and gets smaller as you exhale,” Robbins said. “Those tangible strategies where you visualize something and match that to a breath are really powerful.”

Most of us aren’t even aware of how much tension we carry in our muscles until it shows up in backaches and headaches.

Progressive muscle relaxation is a way of relaxing those muscles, thus making it easier to fall asleep, experts say. You tense and release muscle groups in the body in a certain order, starting at the head and working your way down to the toes and feet.

Each section of the body is tightly tensed and held for 10 seconds as you breathe in. Strive to squeeze each muscle hard, but not to the point of cramping or pain. Then, as you breathe out, relax the muscle suddenly and all at once. University of Michigan Health recommends you do the exercises in a systematic order that you can find here.

There’s an added benefit to the exercise, experts say: There’s no room in your brain for anxious thoughts.

Here’s a way to stop your mind from repetitively listing all the things you need to do (or haven’t done), but it only works if you do it before you hit the sack.

“Don’t worry in bed. Schedule a ‘worry time’ – a period of time outside of the bedroom, outside of sleep, to worry about the things that naturally creep in your mind at night,” said sleep specialist Dr. Raj Dasgupta, an assistant professor of clinical medicine at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California.

“Write down a list of things you need to do tomorrow,” suggested Dr. Vsevolod Polotsky, a professor of medicine and director of sleep research at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

“You can even email it to yourself. It gives you satisfaction and the realization that it is night and there’s nothing you can do with your list, but you can attend to it tomorrow,” Polotsky said.

All these mental tricks and relaxation tips serve a purpose beyond that night’s sleep, experts say.

“They are extremely beneficial from a classical conditioning standpoint,” Robbins said. “If your body knows what comes after the end of these activities is sleep, then you start to condition yourself, and after a bit of time, your body will more easily slip into a state of relaxation, which increases your chances of sleep.”

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Reset your body and mind with 10 ‘spring-cleaning’ tips | CNN

Editor’s Note: Dana Santas, known as the “Mobility Maker,” is a certified strength and conditioning specialist and mind-body coach in professional sports, and is the author of “Practical Solutions for Back Pain Relief.


With the weather warming up, you might feel inspired to clean out your closets, wash your windows and give your house a deep scrub and reorganization. Not only is a clean environment good for your physical health, but research has shown that the good feelings you get from having a clean, uncluttered home reduce stress levels and ward off depression.

Imagine how great you would feel if you took that same spring-cleaning approach to your body — your living, breathing home.

Of course, you should already be subscribing to annual checkups with your primary care physician and eye doctor, and you may even see your dentist biannually. But what about taking a closer look at how you fuel and move your body — and making healthy changes to clean up those areas?

As a mind-body coach in professional sports, I work with coaches, medical staff and expert consultants every year during baseball spring training to help players prepare their bodies for the season. In addition to conducting annual physicals, we do nutritional and movement assessments to create appropriate action plans.

You may not be a professional athlete, but your body is still the vehicle used to navigate your life, and the quality of its ability to move and how well you feel in it affects the overall quality of your life.

That’s why I enlisted the help of two nutrition and human movement experts to provide 10 “spring-cleaning” tips to avoid injury, move pain-free, reduce inflammation, maintain a healthy weight and generally feel better in your body.

Important note: It’s recommended to consult your doctor before starting any new exercise programs or dietary changes.

You might expect a cleanse to be tip No. 1, but think twice before you dive into one of the many popular advertised cleanses. A lot of them can “do more harm than good,” according to registered dietitian Angie Asche, owner of Eleat Sports Nutrition and author of “Fuel Your Body: How to Cook and Eat for Peak Performance.” Asche said cleanses can be dehydrating and contain herbal supplements with potentially negative side effects and contraindications with certain medications. What’s more, some of these regimens don’t deliver on their promise, according to the National Institutes of Health. “Most are missing key nutrients that are necessary for your body to naturally detoxify,” she explained.

Fiber, found in plant foods, is the key to safe and efficient cleansing, according to Asche. She advises eating five to nine fruits and vegetables daily for bowel regularity and weight management. “Not only do plant foods like nuts, seeds, legumes, whole grains, fruit and vegetables contain antioxidants,” Asche said, “but the more variety of plants we have in our diets, the better for the diversity of our gut biome.”

With your focus on eating more real, whole foods rich in fiber, Asche also recommends limiting ultraprocessed packaged foods such as cookies, candy, crackers, baked goods and fried foods. These foods are full of saturated fat, sodium, sugar and preservatives while being devoid of nutritional value.

How much water you drink affects all the functions of your body — including your mental performance; a body water loss of just 1% to 2% can impair cognitive function. To promote good health and weight management, Asche advises drinking at least half your body weight in ounces daily but said the amount can vary depending on a person’s activity level.

Asche said that most fluids, including tea, coffee and carbonated water, can count toward your water intake, but she points out that alcohol does not — and should be limited. “In large amounts, alcohol can overwhelm the gut, promoting intestinal inflammation and increasing harmful bacteria … (which) can lead to a wide range of health problems,” she said.

Screens that look at your ability to do functional movements, such as squatting and lunging, are a great way to proactively prevent injury, according to physical therapist Gray Cook, a cofounder of Functional Movement Systems.

“Signs of weakness, tightness and balance problems can be early indicators of arthritis and posture issues as well as increased injury risk for athletes and fall risk for the elderly,” Cook said.

You can get the assistance of a physical therapist or qualified trainer to perform a movement assessment, but a recent study showed that self-movement assessment (using an app codeveloped by Cook) is valid and reliable for identifying musculoskeletal risk factors.

Whether working with professional athletes or doing my own workouts, I ensure that I cover all primary functional movements in all planes of motion in every training session. Executing that kind of total-body workout sounds more complicated than it is. It’s simply about practicing and strengthening your ability to perform your body’s basic movement functions: squatting, hinging, pushing, pulling, rotating and stabilizing your core.

And, just like the multidirectional movement of everyday life, it helps to exercise in all three planes of motion: sagittal (forward/backward), frontal (side to side) and transverse (rotating). You can easily practice these movements with a body-weight workout or yoga flow.

It's important to practice and strengthen your ability to perform the body's basic movement functions.

The key to exercise’s effectiveness is consistency. With as little as 11 minutes of exercise per day, you can enjoy numerous health benefits — including increasing your life span. Walking outside is a great way to get in those 11 minutes daily, and because of the alternating and reciprocal nature of gait, it offers the opportunity to tune into your body and self-assess by noticing if there are any imbalances.

Breathing plays a vital role in how you think, feel and move. In addition to reducing your heart rate, blood pressure and stress response, learning how to breathe better will improve your diaphragm function and rib mobility, which can improve posture and reduce back pain. Practice taking breathing breaks a few minutes throughout your day.

Sleep is essential for overall health. Adults need at least seven hours of sleep nightly, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If you’re not getting that minimum amount of shut-eye, it’s time to clean up your sleep routine and start prioritizing rest.

Just like the physical and mental benefits of traditional spring-cleaning within your home, these 10 tips will refresh and revitalize your body and mind in noticeably positive ways.

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Chronic stress can affect your health. One activity can help | CNN

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These days, many people find it hard to unplug. Inflation, global warming and gun violence are on the rise. Bullies proliferate on social media. The 24/7 news cycle constantly blares distressing news, and people often face difficult personal or professional situations.

About half of Americans said they experienced stress within the past day, according to a Gallup Poll survey from last October, a finding that was consistent for most of 2022. Personal finances and current and political events were major sources of stress for one-third or more of adults, a survey from CNN in partnership with the Kaiser Family Foundation found in October.

Stress isn’t inherently bad, said Richard Scrivener, a personal trainer and product development manager at London’s Trainfitness, an education technology company. Stressing your muscles through weight training, for example, leads to beneficial changes. In addition, short-term stress in healthy people typically isn’t a hazard. “But if stress is continuous, especially in older or unhealthy individuals, the long-term effects of the response to stress may lead to significant health issues,” Scrivener said.

Stress occurs when you face a new, unpredictable or threatening situation, and you don’t know whether you can manage it successfully, said clinical psychologist Dr. Karmel Choi, an assistant professor in the Center for Precision Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

When you’re physically or emotionally stressed, your body snaps into fight-or-flight mode. Cortisol rushes through your system, signaling your body to release glucose. Glucose, in turn, provides energy to your muscles so you are better prepared to fight off a threat or run away. During this cortisol rush, your heart rate may rise, your breathing may become rapid, and you may feel dizzy or nauseated.

If you truly needed to fight or flee a predator, your cortisol levels would drop back down once the conflict was over. When you’re chronically stressed, however, those levels stay elevated.

Remaining in that heightened state is no good since high levels of cortisol can exacerbate health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and chronic gastrointestinal problems, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Stress can also cause or contribute to anxiety, irritability, poor sleep, substance abuse, chronic distrust or worry, and more.

Luckily, there are many ways to combat stress. Keep a daily routine, get plenty of sleep, eat healthy foods, and limit your time following the news or engaging in social media, recommends the World Health Organization. It also helps to stay connected with others and to employ calming practices such as meditation and deep breathing. One of the most successful tools, though, is physical activity.

“Exercise is remarkably effective for managing psychological stress,” Choi said. “Exercise doesn’t remove what’s causing the stress, but it can boost mood, reduce tension and improve sleep — all of which are impacted by stress — and ultimately this can support people to approach their challenges in a more balanced way.”

Numerous studies back up the positive effect of exercise on stress. Physical activity, and especially exercise, significantly reduced the symptoms of anxiety in a study published in Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology, for example. Similarly, a Frontiers in Psychology study of university students found that regularly engaging in low- to moderate-intensity aerobic exercises for six weeks helped alleviate their depressive symptoms and perceived stress.

The reason exercise is so effective in squashing stress is fairly simple. Exercise causes your body to produce more endorphins, which are neurotransmitters that boost your mood. Movement also combats elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol while improving blood flow.

Aerobic workouts, such as running, dancing and boxing, produce lots of mood-boosting endorphins that relieve stress. But gentler exercise such as walking works, too.

Jessica Honig, a clinical social worker in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, said exercise empowers her clients because they realize that, through movement, they hold the key to reset and lessen their stress. “It’s also one of the best ways to pause — to break up or revive energy from a spiraling, unproductive mindset,” she said.

What types of exercise are best? While studies show aerobic exercise, such as swimming, running, dancing and boxing, may be the most efficient at getting mood-boosting endorphins rushing through your body, gentler forms of physical activity work, too. Think yoga, strength training and walking. In addition, sometimes less is more.

“What we’re seeing from the data,” Choi said, “is you actually need to move less than the recommended guidelines to see positive effects on mood.”

Since stress loads may change weekly or even daily, Scrivener said it can be helpful to alter your exercise based on your mood. Feeling a cheery 8 on a scale of 1 to 10? Then go for a run. Barely hitting a 3? Opt for something gentle. “This could be a 15-minute stretch followed by a light cycle for 15 minutes, or a 30-minute swim followed by a sauna session,” he said.

Since social engagement is a powerful protective factor for positive mental health, Choi encourages exercising with others. Studies also have shown being out in nature boosts your mood, so exercising outside with friends may provide even more benefits.

Combine exercise and social activity by scheduling regular workouts with a neighbor or joining a class.

Scientists continue to study the link between stress and physical activity. A small study published recently found that combining mindfulness and physical activity can improve sleep and help regulate emotions more than either alone, Choi said. She also warned that people need to be careful not to go overboard on exercise or rely on it exclusively for coping with challenges. Doing so can backfire and create more stress.

It’s also important to remember that humans are geared to release stress physically, no matter their age, said Honig, the social worker. “We see in children the permission to throw their body into pillows to release intense emotions,” she said. “We do not outgrow a need to physically release stress. We merely lose the outlets and social normalization of it.”

Melanie Radzicki McManus is a freelance writer who specializes in hiking, travel and fitness.

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Go ahead and sigh. It’s good for you | CNN

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Sighs — those long, exhales of breath often accompanied with a bit of a whimper — have long been seen as a sigh of melancholy, frustration or even despair, leading us to ask the sighing person, “What’s wrong?”

A recent study turns that notion on its head. Instead of seeing sighs as sadness or exasperation, recognize them for what they accomplish — stress relief, said Dr. David Spiegel, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and director of the Center on Stress and Health at Stanford University School of Medicine.

“People think taking a deep breath is the way to ease stress,” he said. “But it turns out that exhaling slowly is a better way to calm yourself.”

You breathe without thinking, but what’s the best way to inhale and exhale while you’re thinking about it — especially if the goal is better health?

To find out, Spiegel and his team conducted a study, published earlier this year in Cell Reports Medicine, comparing three different types of deep breathing with mindfulness meditation. The goal was to see whether a breathing technique might be as effective as meditation in reducing stress.

Researchers sorted 114 people into four groups and asked them to practice mindful meditation or one breathing exercise — box breathing, cyclic hyperventilation or cyclic sighing — for five minutes a day for 28 days.

Box breathing requires a person to breathe in, hold, breathe out, and pause equally (like the sides of a box) to the count of four. In cyclic hyperventilation, a person breathes in deeply and out quickly — the inhalations are much longer than the exhalations.

In cyclic sighing, a person inhales through the nose until the lungs are halfway full, then pauses briefly. The lungs are then filled completely with another breath, and then the breath is slowly exhaled out the mouth.

“You want the exhalation to be like twice as long as the inhalation,” said Spiegel, who is also the medical director of Stanford’s Center for Integrative Medicine.

The team then assessed mood, anxiety levels and sleep behavior after each breathing or meditation session, as well as respiratory and heart rate variability.

Sleep was not affected, the study found. All forms of breathing and meditation increased positive mood and improved anxiety. However, breathing was more effective than meditation, with cyclic sighing making the most difference, the study found.

“Cyclic sighing is a pretty rapid way to calm yourself,” Spiegel said. “Many people can do it about three times in a row and see immediate relief from anxious feelings and stress.”

While interesting, the study was small, and doesn’t take away from all the work in progress on the benefits of any form of breath work or meditation, said stress management expert Dr. Cynthia Ackrill, former editor for Contentment Magazine, produced by the American Institute of Stress.

“We know that bringing your attention to any form of breath work starts the process of awareness that feeds mindfulness and its benefits,” she said in an email. “As long as we are all experimenting with mind-body connections with open minds and finding something that calms us, yay!”

Deliberately taking a slow, deep breath, holding it, and then letting it out slowly activates the parasympathetic nervous system, responsible for controlling how the body rests and digests, Spiegel said. Heart rate slows, blood pressure drops, digestion is improved and the mind begins to wind down and relax.

Contrast that to a sharp inhale of breath, which you might take when you’re afraid or in danger. That triggers the sympathetic nervous system, responsible for getting us ready to fight or flee.

“The brake works more healthfully than the accelerator here,” Spiegel said. “By slowing your heart when you do this cyclic sighing you’re immediately soothing yourself in a rather rapid way.”

“We believe breathing is a pathway into mind-body control,” he added. “It’s part of the autonomic system like digestion and your heartbeat, but unlike those body functions, you can easily regulate breathing.”

This isn’t the first study on the topic. Researchers have been busy trying out different methods to see which calms the body the quickest, longest, or most deeply, and which gives the most health benefits.

Many breathing methods are borrowed from ancient yoga, martial arts and meditation practices. For example, the 4-7-8 method, in which you breathe in while counting to four counts, hold the breath for seven counts and exhale while counting to eight, is based on pranayama, an ancient form of breath regulation practiced in Hinduism and Buddhism.

There are all sorts of variations: The 4-4 method, in which you breathe in and out for a count of four; the 6-6 method, in which you breathe in and out to the count of six; alternate nostril breathing and many more.

Diaphragmatic breathing, also known as belly breathing, has been practiced for millennia by practitioners of tai chi and yoga. It requires the breath to be inhaled so deeply that it fills the abdomen — you can tell if you’re doing it right by watching your stomach rise and fall.

A 2020 meta-analysis found diaphragmatic breathing is especially beneficial for patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and might be helpful in reducing stress and anxiety and treating constipation, eating disorders, high blood pressure and migraines.

You don’t have to sigh or breathe loudly to get the benefits of any forms of breathing, Ackrill said.

“These don’t need to be audible sighs, you can just change the rate quietly,” she said. “And you just might get the people around you to slow down their breathing as well.”

So go ahead. Take a deep breath and let it out in a huge, long, slow sigh. And if anyone does ask what’s wrong, you can smile and say, “Absolutely nothing! I’m just releasing my stress.”

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11 minutes of daily exercise could have a positive impact on your health, large study shows | CNN

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When you can’t fit your entire workout into a busy day, do you think there’s no point in doing anything at all? You should rethink that mindset. Just 11 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous intensity aerobic activity per day could lower your risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease or premature death, a large new study has found.

Aerobic activities include walking, dancing, running, jogging, cycling and swimming. You can gauge the intensity level of an activity by your heart rate and how hard you’re breathing as you move. Generally, being able to talk but not sing during an activity would make it moderate intensity. Vigorous intensity is marked by the inability to carry on a conversation.

Higher levels of physical activity have been associated with lower rates of premature death and chronic disease, according to past research. But how the risk levels for these outcomes are affected by the amount of exercise someone gets has been more difficult to determine. To explore this impact, scientists largely from the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom looked at data from 196 studies, amounting to more than 30 million adult participants who were followed for 10 years on average. The results of this latest study were published Tuesday in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

The study mainly focused on participants who had done the minimum recommended amount of 150 minutes of exercise per week, or 22 minutes per day. Compared with inactive participants, adults who had done 150 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous aerobic physical activity per week had a 31% lower risk of dying from any cause, a 29% lower risk of dying from cardiovascular disease and a 15% lower risk of dying from cancer.

The same amount of exercise was linked with a 27% lower risk of developing cardiovascular disease and 12% lower risk when it came to cancer.

“This is a compelling systematic review of existing research,” said CNN Medical Analyst Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and public health professor at George Washington University, who wasn’t involved in the research. “We already knew that there was a strong correlation between increased physical activity and reduced risk for cardiovascular disease, cancer and premature death. This research confirms it, and furthermore states that a smaller amount than the 150 minutes of recommended exercise a week can help.”

Even people who got just half the minimum recommended amount of physical activity benefited. Accumulating 75 minutes of moderate-intensity activity per week — about 11 minutes of activity per day — was associated with a 23% lower risk of early death. Getting active for 75 minutes on a weekly basis was also enough to reduce the risk of developing cardiovascular disease by 17% and cancer by 7%.

Beyond 150 minutes per week, any additional benefits were smaller.

“If you are someone who finds the idea of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity a week a bit daunting, then our findings should be good news,” said study author Dr. Soren Brage, group leader of the Physical Activity Epidemiology group in the Medical Research Council Epidemiology Unit at the University of Cambridge, in a news release. “This is also a good starting position — if you find that 75 minutes a week is manageable, then you could try stepping it up gradually to the full recommended amount.”

The authors’ findings affirm the World Health Organization’s position that doing some physical activity is better than doing none, even if you don’t get the recommended amounts of exercise.

“One in 10 premature deaths could have been prevented if everyone achieved even half the recommended level of physical activity,” the authors wrote in the study. Additionally, “10.9% and 5.2% of all incident cases of CVD (cardiovascular disease) and cancer would have been prevented.”

Important note: If you experience pain while exercising, stop immediately. Check with your doctor before beginning any new exercise program.

The authors didn’t have details on the specific types of physical activity the participants did. But some experts do have thoughts on how physical activity could reduce risk for chronic diseases and premature death.

“There are many potential mechanisms including the improvement and maintenance of body composition, insulin resistance and physical function because of a wide variety of favorable influences of aerobic activity,” said Haruki Momma, an associate professor of medicine and science in sports and exercise at Tohoku University in Japan. Momma wasn’t involved in the research.

Benefits could also include improvement to immune function, lung and heart health, inflammation levels, hypertension, cholesterol, and amount of body fat, said Eleanor Watts, a postdoctoral fellow in the division of cancer epidemiology and genetics at the National Cancer Institute. Watts wasn’t involved in the research.

“These translate into lower risk of getting chronic diseases,” said Peter Katzmarzyk, associate executive director for population and public health sciences at Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Katzmarzyk wasn’t involved in the research.

The fact that participants who did only half the minimum recommended amount of exercise still experienced benefits doesn’t mean people shouldn’t aim for more exercise, but rather that “perfect shouldn’t be the enemy of the good,” Wen said. “Some is better than none.”

To get up to 150 minutes of physical activity per week, find activities you enjoy, Wen said. “You are far more likely to engage in something you love doing than something you have to make yourself do.”

And when it comes to how you fit in your exercise, you can think outside the box.

“Moderate activity doesn’t have to involve what we normally think of (as) exercise, such as sports or running,” said study coauthor Leandro Garcia, a lecturer in the school of medicine, dentistry and biomedical sciences at Queen’s University Belfast, in a news release. “Sometimes, replacing some habits is all that is needed.

“For example, try to walk or cycle to your work or study place instead of using a car, or engage in active play with your kids or grand kids. Doing activities that you enjoy and that are easy to include in your weekly routine is an excellent way to become more active.”

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What’s the magic number of steps to keep weight off? Here’s what we know | CNN

Editor’s Note: Sign up for CNN’s Fitness, But Better newsletter series. Our seven-part guide up will help you ease into a healthy routine, backed by experts.


Taking 8,600 steps a day will prevent weight gain in adults, while already overweight adults can halve their odds of becoming obese by adding an additional 2,400 steps — that’s 11,000 steps a day, according to an October 2022 study.

Studies show the average person gains between 1 and 2 pounds (0.5 to 1 kilograms) each year from young adulthood through middle age, slowly leading to an unhealthy weight and even obesity over time.

“People really can reduce their risk of obesity by walking more,” said study author Dr. Evan Brittain, associate professor in the division of cardiovascular medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville.

The study also found key benefits for chronic diseases and conditions: “Diabetes, sleep apnea, hypertension, diabetes, depression, and GERD showed benefit with higher steps,” said Brittain via email.

“The relationship with hypertension and diabetes plateaued after about 8,000 to 9,000 steps but the others were linear, meaning higher steps continued to reduce risk,” he said. “I would say that the take home messages are that more steps are better.”

It’s yet another study illustrating the powerful impact that walking and other forms of exercise have on our health. In fact, if you get up and move for 21.43 minutes each day of the week, you cut your risk of dying from all causes by one-third, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Current physical activity recommendations for adults are 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise, such as brisk walking, dancing, bicycling, doubles tennis and water aerobics, and two days of muscle-strengthening activity each week.

“Physical activity is just absolutely magnificent,” Dr. Andrew Freeman, director of cardiovascular prevention and wellness at National Jewish Health in Denver, told CNN in an earlier interview.

“And when if you blend that with eating a more plant-based diet, de-stressing, sleeping enough and connecting with others — that’s your magic recipe,” Freeman said. “It’s the fountain of youth, if you will.”

Activity trackers allow researchers to get more accurate data that can be compared with health records.

The study analyzed an average of four years of activity and health data from more than 6,000 participants in the National Institutes of Health’s All of Us Research Program, dedicated to research on ways to develop individualized health care.

Participants in the study, published on October 10, 2022, in the journal Nature Medicine, wore activity trackers at least 10 hours a day and allowed researchers access to their electronic health records over multiple years.

“Our study had an average of 4 years of continuous activity monitoring. So, we were able to account for the totality of activity between when monitoring started and when a disease was diagnosed, which is a major advantage because we didn’t have to make assumptions about activity over time, unlike all prior studies,” Brittain said.

People in the study ranged in age from 41 to 67 and had body mass index levels from 24.3, which is considered in the healthy weight range, to 32.9, which is considered obese.

Researchers found that people who walked 4 miles a day — about 8,200 steps — were less likely to become obese or suffer from sleep apnea, acid reflux and major depressive disorder. Sleep apnea and acid reflux respond well to weight loss, which can reduce pressure on the throat and stomach, while exercise is a cornerstone treatment for depression.

The study also found that overweight participants (those with BMIs ranging from 25 to 29) cut their risk of becoming obese by half if they increased their steps to 11,000 steps a day. In fact, “this increase in step counts resulted in a 50% reduction in cumulative incidence of obesity at 5 years,” the study found.

Applying the data to a specific example, the authors said individuals with BMIs of 28 could lower their risk of obesity 64% by increasing steps from about 6,000 to 11,000 steps per day.

This research echoes results from a recent study in Spain in which researchers found health benefits rose with every step until about 10,000 steps, when the effects began to fade. Counting steps may be especially important for people who do unstructured, unplanned physical activity such as housework, gardening and walking dogs.

“Notably, we detected an association between incidental steps (steps taken to go about daily life) and a lower risk of both cancer and heart disease,” study coauthor Borja del Pozo Cruz told CNN in an earlier interview. Del Pozo Cruz is an adjunct associate professor at the University of Southern Denmark in Odense and senior researcher in health sciences for the University of Cadiz in Spain.

The same research team also published a similar study in September 2022 that found walking 10,000 steps a day lowered the risk for dementia by 50%; the risk decreased by 25% with as few as 3,800 steps a day.

However, if walking occurred at a brisk pace of 112 steps a minute for 30 minutes, it maximized risk reduction, leading to a 62% reduction in dementia risk. The 30 minutes of fast-paced walking didn’t have to occur all at once either — it could be spread out over the day.

Researchers found the association between peak 30-minute steps and risk reduction to be dependent on the disease studied: There was a 62% reduction for dementia, an 80% decline for cardiovascular disease and death, and about a 20% drop in risk for cancer.

The study also found an association between step intensity and health benefits as well, “although the relationships were less consistent than with step counts,” researchers said.

A major limitation of all studies using step trackers is that people who wear them tend to be more active and healthier than the norm, the researchers said. “Yet the fact that we were able to detect robust associations between steps and incident disease in this active sample suggests even stronger associations may exist in a more sedentary population,” they said.

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How to use a single dumbbell for a total-body workout | CNN

Editor’s Note: Dana Santas, known as the “Mobility Maker,” is a certified strength and conditioning specialist and mind-body coach in professional sports, and is the author of the book “Practical Solutions for Back Pain Relief.”


When you think about working out with dumbbells, you probably picture using a set of two, one in each hand. There are many exercises you can do with two dumbbells, but as a strength and conditioning coach, I can tell you there are just as many — if not more — you can do using just one. In fact, you can effectively train your entire body using a single dumbbell in about 10 minutes.

Below, I’ve outlined five exercises you can do sequentially to strengthen your legs, hips, arms, shoulders and core. Read the detailed descriptions for each exercise to familiarize yourself with the cues and any needed modifications, then follow along with me in the video above as I take you through each exercise.

It’s important to pick a weight that’s manageable for you to do all the exercise repetitions with good form. That means avoiding moving your body in ways that compensate for muscle fatigue or weakness in the area you are trying to work, such as doing a bicep curl while swaying your back as you curl the weight up with momentum from your back muscles.

Compensations can lead to injury, so you want to avoid that! For more on picking the right weight, watch this video.

If you’re new to working out or just returning after a break, be sure to ease back into it. Check out my series on how to reboot your workout for a safe and effective path back to fitness that makes training a fun part of your lifestyle.

Important note: Before beginning any new exercise program, consult your doctor. Stop immediately if you experience pain.

Perform eight to 10 repetitions of each exercise on each side of your body unless otherwise noted for exercises that don’t alternate sides. As you do the workout, try to breathe in through your nose and either out through your mouth or nose — whatever is most comfortable for you.

Breathing in through your nose is going to provide the most oxygenation and enhance your endurance.

You can learn more about effective breathing techniques by watching this video and reading this series on breathing better.

Stand with your feet hip distance apart. Hold the dumbbell with both hands at chest level, with each hand cradling one end of the weight.

Angle your feet out slightly, opening your hips at an angle that is comfortable for you to squat.

Inhale and then hold the inhale as you squat down to a level where your hips align slightly below your knees (if that isn’t possible, see the modification below).

Exhale as you push through your feet and return to a standing position.

Try to keep your weight evenly distributed through your feet, legs and hips.

How to modify: If deep squatting is difficult, use a low chair or sturdy box as a base to squat down and gently sit on with each rep.

Hold the dumbbell in your right hand at your side while you stand on your left leg.

Inhale and then hold the inhale as you hinge from your hips to bend over halfway while extending your right leg behind you so that your chest and back leg create a long line parallel to the floor.

Keep a soft bend in both legs if the back of your leg is too tight to straighten either or both legs.

Stabilizing with your standing leg, exhale as you use your hips and core to bring your body back to an upright standing position.

Repeat on the opposite side.

How to modify: If the back of your leg is too tight to straighten either or both legs, keep a soft bend in both legs. To help with balance, you can perform these without weight while holding the side of a wall.

Take a plank position with your feet a little wider than hip distance apart to help counterbalance the weight and movement when you lift the dumbbell to make a rowing movement in one arm.

Hold the dumbbell on the floor with your right hand. Exhale as you lift the weight by bending your elbow and hugging it against your rib cage in a rowing motion.

Inhale as you straighten your arm and return the weight to the floor while still holding it in your hand.

Keep your feet a little wider than hip distance apart to help counterbalance the weight and movement when you lift the dumbbell.

Stabilize through your core to avoid arching your low back.

Repeat the reps on the right side before switching to the left side.

How to modify: Perform this exercise from a basic hands-and-knees position in which you’re on all fours.

Stand with the dumbbell in your right hand, held up at shoulder height, lightly resting in your shoulder in what’s called a “racked” position.

Place your left hand on your hip and step your left leg out laterally to the left, with your left leg bent like a half squat and your right leg straight.

Both feet continue to point straight forward as you push off your left leg and step back into a standing position.

Then press the dumbbell overhead and return it to the racked position at your shoulder.

Do all your reps on one side before switching the dumbbell to the opposite hand.

Each repetition takes two breaths: Inhale from standing, holding the inhale as you perform the lateral lunge, then exhale as you push back to standing. Inhale again in standing position and then exhale as you push the weight overhead.

Do all your reps on one side before switching the dumbbell to the opposite hand and lateral lunging on the opposite side.

How to modify: If the overhead press is too much, you can eliminate it.

Sit on the floor with your knees bent, touching together, and your feet on the floor, also touching together.

Hold the weight on each end, at your chest, like you did in the goblet squat exercise.

Exhale and twist to the right, lowering your arms to touch the weight to the floor on the side of your body.

Inhale and return to center, then exhale and repeat to the left side.

Try to keep your knees and feet together when doing the seated twist and tap.

Try to keep your knees squeezed together throughout the entire set of exercises to help stabilize your hips and core so that you are rotating from the middle of your back — not your low back.

Because you’re alternating the movement side to side, instead of doing two sets of eight to 10 reps on each side, you’ll do one alternating set of 16 to 20 reps.

How to modify: If it’s too difficult to keep your knees together, squeeze a folded towel or yoga block between them.

If your single dumbbell is too heavy for this exercise right now, don’t use it until you get stronger; instead, interlace your fingers in a double fist that you can tap to the floor as you rotate.

Depending on your current fitness level and how these exercises feel, one round of this sequence should take you about eight to 12 minutes to complete. Never rush: Always focus on form. For best results, repeat this circuit two to three times per workout, two to three times per week.

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Experts say the ‘cycle syncing’ workout trend may not be all it’s cracked up to be | CNN

Editor’s Note: The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writers. CNN is showcasing the work of The Conversation, a collaboration between journalists and academics to provide news analysis and commentary. The content is produced solely by The Conversation.

The Conversation

If you’re someone who has to deal with a period regularly, you’re probably all too familiar with just how much your energy levels can change throughout your cycle thanks to hormonal fluctuations. Not only can this sometimes make even the simplest daily tasks challenging, it can make it even harder to stay motivated to keep fit and stick to your regular workout routine, especially when noticing a decline in your performance.

But, according to some popular information on social media, a technique called “cycle syncing” may help you avoid feeling this way.

READ MORE: From sharp butt pains to period poos: 5 lesser-known menstrual cycle symptoms

The premise of cycle syncing is relatively simple. Instead of doing the same type of workouts throughout the month, you instead tailor your workouts according to the current phase of your menstrual cycle. Some women also go a step further and tailor their diet to each phase as well. The claim is that, by doing so, it can help “balance” your hormones — which in turn may lead to a range of health benefits, including improved energy levels, fewer PMS symptoms and better health overall.

But while evidence does show that certain phases of your menstrual cycle may be optimal for different types of exercise, there’s currently no evidence showing cycle syncing has any benefits beyond making it easier to keep fit. Not to mention that actually managing to execute cycle syncing properly may be easier said than done.

The menstrual cycle can be split into four phases: menses, follicular, luteal and pre-menses. The concentration of the sex hormones estrogen and progesterone change in each phase.

During the menses phase (your period), estrogen and progesterone are at their lowest levels. But as you move into the follicular phase, estrogen begins to increase. In the luteal phase, which immediately follows, progesterone concentrations also begins to increase. Both hormones reach their peak near the end of the luteal phase, before dropping dramatically during the pre-menstrual phase (days 25-28 of the average cycle).

READ MORE: The US lacks adequate education around puberty and menstruation for young people

Research shows that thanks to these hormones, certain phases of your menstrual cycle are optimized for different types of exercise.

For instance, the luteal phase may be the perfect time for strength training thanks to the boost in both estrogen and progesterone. Research shows there are noticeable increases in strength and endurance during this phase. Energy expenditure (calories burned) and energy intake are also greater during the luteal phase, alongside a slight decrease in body mass. You may also find you feel more energetic and capable of exercise during this phase. The hormone concentrations in the luteal phase may also promote the greatest degree of muscle change.

The folicular phase also shows some increases in strength, energy expenditure and energy intake — albeit smaller.

But when progesterone and estrogen are at their lowest levels during your period (menses phase), you’re likely to see fewer changes when it comes to building muscle. There’s also a greater chance that you will feel fatigued due to low hormone levels, alongside the loss of menstrual blood. This may be a good time to consider adjusting your training, focusing on lower-intensity exercises (such as yoga) and prioritizing your recovery.

READ MORE: Exercising during pregnancy: what to consider

So based on the way hormones change during each phase of the menstrual cycle, if you’re looking to improve strength and fitness you may well want to plan your most intense workouts for the follicular and luteal phases to achieve the greatest gains.

This all seems fantastic, and you may well be wondering why more women are not following this trend. But the answer is that it may all be too good to be true.

While the responses reported do take place, actually putting this all into practice is easier said than done. First, most research on the menstrual cycle’s impact on fitness assume the cycle has a regular pattern of 28 days. But 46% of women have cycle lengths that fluctuate by around seven days — with a further 20% exhibiting fluctuations of up to 14 days. This means a regular cycle varies for each person.

READ MORE: Going home for the holidays? How to navigate conflict and deal with difficult people

The second key assumption is that the responses of progesterone and estrogen, which drive the changes in fitness are constant. But this is often not the case, as both estrogen and progesterone exhibit large variations both between cycles and each person. Some women may also lack estrogen and progesterone due to certain health conditions. These responses make it difficult to track the phases of the cycle precisely through monitoring of hormones alone — and make syncing accurately also very difficult.

So while the idea of syncing your menstrual cycle with your workouts seems logical, the outcomes each person sees are likely to vary. But if you do want to give it a try, menstrual tracking apps — alongside the use of ovulation test strips and temperature monitoring — can help give you a good idea of what stage in your menstrual cycle you’re at.

This article is part of Quarter Life, a series about issues affecting those of us in our twenties and thirties. From the challenges of beginning a career and taking care of our mental health, to the excitement of starting a family, adopting a pet or just making friends as an adult. The articles in this series explore the questions and bring answers as we navigate this turbulent period of life.

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