33 Ways To Be Your Best Self In 2021
Illustrations by Mr Luis Mendo
We don’t need to go into details, so let’s just say that 2020 didn’t really go to plan. Which is why, in 2021, we’re forgetting the past, taking the bull by the horns and making the best of it. We asked some wellbeing experts for a few tips that might enable us to refocus our minds, enable our bodies and energise our routines to allow us to enjoy life to its fullest. With the right attitude, approach and tools, 2021 is there for the taking.
If you spent the best part of 2020 doing next to nothing, taking a time-out may feel like the last thing you want, but Dr Cortland Dahl, chief contemplative officer at Healthy Minds Innovation, suggests otherwise. “Meditation is just training for the mind and brain, in the same way that exercise is training for the body,” he says. “The Healthy Minds Program app teaches you how the mind can be trained to be more focused, calm and resilient through meditation training. Meditate each day for five or 10 minutes.”
“While men and women both suffer from mental health challenges, men are less likely to have received mental health treatment in the past year and have a higher suicide rate than women,” says Dr Dahl. “Many are either caught up in the stigma of seeking help or lack the understanding of the signs of an issue.”
“Approach this new year differently from any before,” says Mr Craig Mahoney, professor of performance psychology at the University of the West of Scotland. And take nothing for granted. “Lower your expectations. Be grateful for what you have and take time to really appreciate your life.”
One fifth of UK adults revealed that poor sleep caused their mental health issues during lockdown. Dr Chris Dickson, executive chairman of Cambridge Sleep Sciences and author of the study, suggests removing the temptation to scroll before bed. “Move your phone charger to a different wall socket in your bedroom, away from the bedside table,” he says.
Wake to water
Drink 500ml of cold water every morning. You’ll rehydrate your body, but, according to research from the University of Medicine in Berlin, you’ll boost your metabolism by 24 per cent for the next 90 minutes.
Switch to cold
“Turn the shower to cold at the end of your morning shower,” suggests Mr Mark Whittle, performance coach and podcast host for fl1ght.co.uk. “A 30-second shot of cold will increase wakefulness and strengthen your immune system,” he says.
Set realistic exercise goals
Many people decide to get into shape only once they’ve hit a weight on the scales that shocks them. “The trouble with a weight loss or a physique goal is that people abort their attempt because results never come quick enough,” says Mr Joe Warner, creator of the New Body Plan. “A far better approach is to focus exercise efforts on a performance goal, such as a 10k run.”
Count your blessings
“Note down three things you’re grateful for each morning,” says Mr Whittle. “Try to come up with a different three each day. If you do this for 30 days plus, it will change your life.”
Eat a rainbow
“To optimise micronutrient intake, ie, vitamins and minerals, in your diet, have a diversity of colour in your food,” says Professor Greg Whyte, sports scientist and director of performance at CHHP. “Much of this colour comes from fruit and vegetables. More colour means you'll get closer to your five a day.”
Do cardio early…
A morning bout of moderate-intensity exercise improves cognitive performance and decision-making through the day. Early exercise is shown to provoke the production of proteins that fuel information-transmitting brain neurons, according to the University of Western Australia.
…But strength train later
Weight training in the late afternoon or early evening produces significantly greater strength gains (muscles have warmed up, so tear and reform better) than working out in the morning, according to studies published in the Indian Journal Of Physiotherapy And Occupational Therapy.
“Compare your daily actions only to what is most important to you and watch as your self-confidence grows,” says Mr Danny Greeves, author of Six Steps To Self-Confidence. Too often we play the comparison game out of context. “We do this by taking a specific area we perceive we are lacking in and compare it with the specific area we perceive the other person is strongest in. We use this one context to make a whole life comparison. The result helps no one.”
Let thoughts become things
“Psychologists will often advise that thoughts become things and it is through this process that we help to create our own reality,” says psychologist Dr Charlotte Hilton. For example, when craving a particular model of new car, suddenly that’s all you see on the road. “The same is true of constructing our own reality around our health, wellbeing and resilience. Visualise desirable outcomes to construct your own reality.”
A 10-minute yoga or Pilates session each day has been shown to boost connectivity in areas of the brain responsible for memory, research from the University of Tsukuba in Japan has shown.
Have a plan B
“We often drop new habits when we miss a day or two, but missing a few steps is not failure. It’s life.” That’s Dr Cortland Dahl’s reassuring approach to New Year resolutions. “Instead of viewing any deviation from your plan as a sign that meditation isn’t for you, shift to a back-up plan. If you forget to meditate in the morning, do a brief meditation for a minute or two before you go to bed.”
If meditation still doesn’t grab you, try calling it “niksen”. This more exotic Dutch term for a cross between procrastination and idleness is, trend-wise, the hygge for 2021. According to The New York Times, the idea of niksen is to “take conscious, considered time and energy to do activities such as gazing out of a window or sitting motionless”.
Meet a mate
Accompany exercise with intermittent fasting, suggests Dr Michael Mosley, physician and broadcaster. “Fasting for two days a week – eating only 800 calories per day – can reduce insulin levels, increase growth hormone, enhance epinephrine signalling and trigger a boost in metabolism,” he says.
“Write down the things that are stressing you out,” advises clinical psychologist Mr Nick Wignall. “Then toss the paper in the bin and get on with your evening. Do this for two weeks around the same time each day. You’ll train the brain to worry only at a specific place and time, less overall and anxiety levels will drop.”
Join the resistance
“I saw a recent study on 1,000 firefighters that showed those who could do 40 press-ups in their thirties were half as likely to get heart disease in their fifties as those who could manage only 10,” says Dr Mosley. “Unless we do resistance exercises, we begin to lose muscle at a rate of about five per cent per decade from the age of 30 onwards.”
Consuming simple sugars during a workout will help you absorb muscle growth-promoting nutrients immediately afterwards, research from Exeter University shows. Graze on Jelly Babies between bench sets – and share them around.
“If you’re continuing to work at home it’s important to create a sense of the difference between work time and home time,” says Dr Luke James, medical director of Bupa Global and UK Insurance. “Let your colleagues know when you’re contactable and when you’re not. Try not to send or respond to emails after hours.”
Create confidence cards
“Make a list of the things you know help you to feel more like you,” says Mr Greeves. “Position several of these strategically around your home to prompt you to do these during your regular day-to-day life.”
Talk yourself up
“Practise a little self-compassion,” says Mr Wignall. “After a mistake or setback, try talking to yourself the way you would talk to a good friend who had made a mistake – honestly, but with empathy and support, instead of judgment and criticism.”
Update your contacts
A survey by MAC Clinical Research investigating depression in men reported that almost half said it would take thoughts of suicide or self-harm to compel them to seek medical help. Add Samaritans (116 123) or Rethink Mental Illness (0300 5000 927) to your phone contacts.
Make dinner from scratch
“Pre-prepared foods contain high levels of processed sugar, which is linked to poor metabolic health, insulin insensitivity and adult-onset diabetes,” says Professor Whyte.
Feed your brain
If you take just one supplement, make it the brain’s favourite dish, tyrosine. This amino acid boosts the production of norepinephrine and dopamine, which sharpen alertness, energise activity and minimise stress, according to the Institute for Psychological Research at Leiden University in the Netherlands. Good natural sources include pumpkin seeds and lean chicken.
Eat to sleep
Eat fibre-rich foods, such as wholewheat pasta, nuts or skin-on potatoes, later in the day. Fibre promotes production of the sleep hormone melatonin, which induces deeper sleep sooner, research from Columbia University shows.
Mix your drinks
Identify signs of self-medication. “People who develop an alcohol dependency tend to stick to certain drinks,” says Dr James. “This restricting pattern may be coupled with an increased tolerance. You find you have to drink more to get your desired effect.”
Within 24 hours of your last alcoholic drink, your blood sugar has normalised. Within a week, your skin begins to look dewier and more youthful as hydration is restored. Skin conditions such as dandruff, eczema and rosacea may also improve. By two weeks, your stomach lining has returned to normal and you will notice improvements in your short-term memory, according to One Year No Beer, an organisation that supports alcohol-free living.
Leave out the lie-in
“Routine is vital when it comes to getting good sleep,” says Dr Dickson. “Be strict with yourself and make sure you’re going to bed and waking up at the same time each day, within a 15-minute window, including at the weekends.”
“Following the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-1919, there was a very positive resurgence in life and the economy,” says Professor Mahoney. “The Roaring Twenties was one of the most successful and positive periods of growth. Stay positive there will be a resurgence from this 2020 pandemic. New industries will arise, entrepreneurial individuals will create new companies.”
“Hopefully, you experience the benefits of these tips almost immediately,” says Dr Hilton. “But, like most new ventures, it’s not just starting the journey, but continuing that can be difficult. Stay curious. What will you learn, re-learn or experience today that contributes to enhanced wellbeing and resilience? Hold the vision that you have created and trust the process.”