Along with a glass of bubbly and a little confetti, welcoming another year often includes thinking about parts of your life you would like to improve. Building a better relationship with yourself can lead to the next 12 months being your best ever.
"It's common for African-Americans to lose sight of the importance of caring for self," says Garth Graham, M.D., former deputy assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services where he led the Office of Minority Health.
Despite being able to look after multiple generations at once, Graham says many Black women don't show themselves the care and compassion needed to promote physical, emotional and spiritual health.
And that has to change.
"You need to take a step back and focus on the most important relationship and person in your life: you," says Graham.
Not doing so can take a toll on your well-being. "A poor relationship with yourself can lead to difficulties managing stress, ignoring small symptoms that become large health problems or developing unhealthy habits that increase the risk of heart disease, diabetes, stroke and otehr dangers to your life," Graham says.
Like any good relationship, a healthy bond with your mind, body and spirit takes time. This six-month plan will take you on a journey that ends with a better you--just in time for ESSENCE Festival (and beach season) in July.
Prepare For Your Breakthrough
No matter how big or small an improvement you hope to have, give yourself room to contemplate how that change will look, says medical sociologist Judy Lubin,Ph.D., Howard University adjunct profes- sor and author of The Heart of Living Well: Six Principles for a Life of Health, Beauty, and Balance (Heart and Style). “Before trying to implement a new workout or nutrition routine, identify exactly what that means to you,” she says. Eating healthy may be as simple as ensuring you’re consum- ing fiber at every meal. Working out could be as intense as spending no less than two hours a day, every day, at the gym.
"It's tempting to jump into resolutions like ‘I’m gonna hit the gym’ or ‘I’m revamping my eating habits,’" says celebrity fitness expert and trainer, Shaun T. But setting big, sweeping goals can often set you up for failure.
Before buying a gym membership or promising to finally use those new running shoes, aim for a smaller goal to review your calendar in the next 48 hours and determine where you can fit in moments of movement. Promise yourself you’ll access a fitness app (or use the one you downloaded last year) that tracks activity. Or head to the store to pick up five fruits or veggies you don’t usually keep in your kitchen. “Go through your closet and see what clothes you’re comfortable working out in,” says Shaun T.
Then build a movement plan. “Saying ‘I’m going to start going to the gym’ is not a plan,” he says. “You need to hone in on the specifics of what you’re going to do once you’re there.”
Is your image of physical activity taking a walk around your neighborhood, swimming laps at the gym or hopping on a treadmill at home? Is it 30 minutes on the stationary bike or of resistance training?
Spot Moments You Can Move
Every has time for some physical activity. Pick one or two ordinary tasks like making lunch or brushing your teeth that can be made over into moments of move- ment. Challenge yourself to 60-second tests to see how many of each you can do in that time. Then test yourself every month and chart how many more reps you can do in one minute:
1. Start by standing with your feet hip width apart. Then lower your hips as if you were sitting in a chair until they are almost parallel with the ground.
2. Finish in the starting position and repeat.
1. Start by standing on one leg and hop from side to side, switching legs as if you were hopping over a puddle or speed skating.
2. Swing your arms side to side and lower your torso down to reach the opposite arm toward the opposite standing leg.
1. Start in a push-up plank position with your hands directly under your shoulders. Your body should be in a straight line from your head to your ankles.
2. Lower down toward the ground and push back up.
3. Return to starting position and repeat.
Step Away From The Scale
The number on your scale is not the be-all and end-all, says Sharman Reed, M.D., an ob-gyn at Kaiser Permanente in Aurora, Colorado. It doesn’t have to be the tool you use to gauge your health. “For many women, the scale is often a punishing stick instead of a measuring stick,” Reed says. “They beat themselves up when they think of the scale and that negativity rarely fuels healthful change.”
Instead of getting weak in the knees when you check your weight this New Year’s Day, Reed says look for other ways to assess your health: “That might be your blood pressure or A1C levels.” Or try on a pair of jeans or a dress hanging in your closet and snap a selfie while wearing the clothing. Just make sure to stash the outfit in a safe place. You’re going to need it again on April Fool’s Day!
Revise Your Calendar
Starting on January 1, block off time every day to experience your breakthrough. Whether you propose to exercise, meditate or tweet with @Essence_Debates during your lunch break, get in the habit and mind-set that this is your time.
“Don’t sway from the commitment of having time to honor yourself every day,” says Lubin. If the clock says it’s time for a walk or stress break, don’t negotiate the moment away.
There will always be an emergency call, an e-mail or a request. But it’s important to recognize that the time you allocate for yourself is not the moment to deal with those interruptions.”
No matter if you're noshing with the girls or a hot date, Shaun T. says you should never be afraid to change the menu. “Ask for a burger without the bun, dressing on the side or grilled veggies instead of mashed potatoes."
Get on a healthy path by looking back at a point when your life felt balanced and ful- filled. “Taking inventory of where your life once was, where it is now, and where you want it to be will identify habits and skills you forgot you have that will get back on track,” says Mercer University professor, psychologist Chanequa Walker-Barnes, Ph.D., a theologian and author of Too Heavy a Yoke: Black Women and the Burden of Strength (Cascade).
And take stock of your relationships, too.
“Identify the people who help and encourage you to process more self-care and promote you being your best self,” says Walker-Barnes. Then schedule more time with them. People who acknowledge how much you do, that you’re doing too much, or offer to give you a break are the ones who will help you achieve a breakthrough. But that doesn’t mean you have to cut others off. You just need to be aware of the relationships where you are overextended so they don’t consume all your energy.
Eat Without Labels
Reading food labels lets you spot sugars, calories and other ingredients in your foodstuff. But this month, challenge yourself to a week of label-free eating and bite into fruits, veggies, fish and lean meats that don’t need labels beyond those that say “flash frozen,” “organic” or “fresh.” Season them with equally good-for-you herbs and spices instead of cheesy and buttery cream sauces or spreads.
Try A New Class
There's no room for a "no pain, no gain" mind-set on this journey.
To keep from dreading what you do, experiment with different forms of fitness including several types of classes. “Try yoga, Zumba, Pilates and water aerobics classes to prevent from getting bored with exercising, and discover all sorts of ways to have fun while moving,” says Shaun T.
Take Off Your White Coat
On Thursday night's Shondaland takeover, Olivia Pope and Annalise Keating are fearless depictions of strong Black women. They shoulder a lion’s share of the world’s problems, keeping several plates spinning at once while maintaining a cool demeanor. But trying to weather emotional, physical or mental storms without showing vulnerability or asking for help predisposes women to a host of health problems, says Walker-Barnes.
“Too many Black women buy into the myth that they need to be superhuman strong every day, that they need to be all things to everyone at all times,” she says. “That hyper focus on the needs of others has us repressing our emotions and not paying attention to ourselves.”
No one is saying you should tune out of TGIT. Instead, pay attention to how society is setting each of us up to be a strong Black woman who takes on all the issues of those around her. “Believing we’re supposed to fix every problem for everyone has consequences for our spirituality. It encourages us to make idols of ourselves and then we don’t trust in the higher power we believe in,” says Walker-Barnes.
The next time you’re tempted to channel your inner fixer, step back and offer a shoulder to cry on, but resist the urge to take on all the struggles of others.
Instagram and Periscope feeds with people who project positive mind and body messages like @ForresterFit, @PositiveBlack1, @happyblackwomen and @Kenid_J. Or subscribe to positive YouTube channels like MotivatingtheMasses, which was created by Lisa Nichols, author of Abundance Now (Dey Street).
Reset Family Food Traditions
Your genes are responsible for a lot more than your height or color of your eyes. Family history plays a big role in how you eat, says Graham. “Fried, creamy and rich foods have been passed down for generations,” he says. “They impact your health, and you can choose differently.”
To honor your family’s past while keeping an eye on the implications of family recipes on your future, Graham suggests treating Grandma’s dinner that’s loaded with butter and fried foods like a Thanksgiving you celebrate a few times a year instead of a staple every Sunday.
Stream Your Favorite Show
There’s no reason to feel guilty about wanting to squeeze time into your day to chill in front of the tube. Not only can time spent catching up on black-ish or Empire be a great way to blow off a little steam, but it’s also the perfect opportunity to squeeze in a few minutes of movement, too. “The goal is 30 minutes a day,” says Graham. But that doesn’t mean you always have to sweat it out on the elliptical.
Raid Your Closet
It’s time to pull out those jeans or the dress you slipped into on New Year’s Day. Standing in front of a mirror, compare how you look in them on April 1 with the selfie you snapped three months ago. “Take time to note your assets and give yourself a compliment,” says Shaun T.
Speaking of compliments, your hard work is starting to show in the way you wear your clothes, and your confident attitude and walk. And when someone shows appreciation for your glow, energy or attitude, don’t negotiate away the good vibes.
“So often a woman who is told she looks great won’t accept that truth. Instead of saying ‘thank you,’ she will dismiss it with, ‘I still have ten pounds to lose,’ ” Shaun T adds. “If you don’t think you’re the bomb, no one else will. So celebrate every victory and soak up every single word.”
Hold Yourself Accountable
To stay on track, every Sunday this month, jot down a few notes or send yourself an e-mail or text about your health and wellness intentions for the week. On Saturdays, revisit that list to see what you accomplished and where you might have fallen a little short.
Since accountability is easier with a friend, start a Facebook group (you can make it private) of pals who want to set—and share— similar weekly goals. Also consider investing in a Fitbit or similar tracker to have challenges with your circle to keep you motivated and moving.
Make Over Your Morning
Swap that a.m. coffee and bagel for an energy-boosting smoothie, says Jessica Swift, a registered dietitian and professional chef based in Washington, D.C. “You can rev up your metabolism and feel great heading out the door by blending these ingredients [below] to make a quick green smoothie.”
As temperatures rise, don’t let your body dry out. “Many women experience what feels like hunger pangs when they’re actually thirsty,” says Swift. Before snacking, drink 8 to 12 ounces of water and wait 15 to 20 minutes. “If you’re still hungry, grab a handful of almonds or grapes.”
Gather Up The Girls
At the start of your next book club, wine group or ladies’ brunch, hand out small pieces of paper and ask everyone to jot down one thing they like about themselves without signing a name. Toss the papers in a hat, bag or cup and take turns passing around and reading aloud one of the positive statements. “It’s great to start a group gathering or meeting on a positive note. And sharing good attributes and qualities is a wonderful way to do that,” says psychologist Elizabeth Muenks, Ph.D.
Dare To Bear Your Arms
Get your own chiseled arms similar to First Lady Michelle Obama’s by sitting on one of the bottom steps in your home and extending your legs out in front of you. Put your hands, palms down, on the edge of the step you’re on and slide your butt off the step, support- ing your weight with your arms. Slowly dip down and then bring your butt back up to the height of the step without sitting back down. Work up to doing four sets of ten, Shaun T recommends.
Learn A New Language
You wouldn’t let a friend verbally beat herself up. So why not show yourself the same love? That voice in your head shouldn’t be fluent in derogatory self-talk. Ditch the harsh terms and words you use to describe or berate yourself and replace them with constructive affirmations and lingo. “Negative self-talk informs how you feel about your- self. So if that language is negative, your body image will be, too,” says Chantea D. Williams, Ph.D., a psychotherapist in Atlanta.
Break Up With Your Fork
As soon as you take a bite, put down your fork, suggests Swift. That promotes mindful eating by slowing down the pace of food in your mouth. “When you keep your fork in your hand, it’s easier to shovel food,” she says. “Having to pick it up for every bite snaps you into awareness of another mouthful.” As a bonus, it allows for more quality conversation during dinner, too.
Ask For Feedback
It's almost time to pack your bags and head to New Orleans. But before you do, ask your friends, family or significant other to offer feedback on your journey. “We’re often our own worst critics,” says Muenks, a professor at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “So it’s hard to spot all the positive changes and strides you’ve made since 2016 started.” But an objective view from others gives you plenty to celebrate and feel good about to carry you through this month and well beyond.
Walk Backward Through Your Day
Before you go to bed, reflect on three things you felt confident about or proud of. “Unloading your mind at the end of the day promotes good sleep and motivates you to achieve the same, or better, results tomorrow,” says Rebecca Grant, M.D., a physician at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.
Switch up getting your steps in on a treadmill or around the office and use the GPS on your phone to map a fun mile walk or run in your neighborhood or nearby park. “The fresh air, sunshine and change of scenery will motivate you,” Shaun T says. Just don’t forget to wear SPF to keep your skin healthy and looking great, too.
This feature was originally published in the January 2016 issue of ESSENCE.