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There are exercises you can do to improve your mindset and your optimism, the belief that things will go well for you in a given situation. This is important because optimism is associated with health benefits such as:
- less risk of death from heart attack;
- lower risk of depression following events such as the death or illness of someone close; and
- better personal relationships.
Military training for contingency planning can help you identify what can or did go wrong as part of your important risk-assessment skills. However, when you transfer these strategies to noncombat life you may find focusing on potential problems hurts more than it helps. Balancing optimism and contingency planning can be difficult, but the good news is that you can learn optimism too. Here are some strategies to get you started.
Make at least half of your grain choices whole grains. Unlike refined grains, whole grains contain all parts of the grain and are good sources of fiber and other nutrients that are essential for good health. Try these tips so you can enjoy more whole grains in every meal and snack:
- Breakfast: Start with a hearty breakfast that features whole-grain cereals such as steel-cut oats or shredded wheat. Have to eat breakfast on the run? Try switching to whole-wheat toast or whole-grain bagels instead of plain bagels.
- Lunch: Sandwiches using whole-grain breads or rolls are full of flavor and fiber. Swap out white-flour tortillas with whole-grain corn tortillas.
- Dinner: Sides can really shine when you replace white rice with exotic black, brown, or red rice, quinoa, or bulgur. Add wild rice or whole-grain barley to soups, stews, and casseroles. In the mood for noodles? Try whole-wheat pastas for added texture.
- Snacks: Snacks can feature whole grains too. Air-popped popcorn, whole-grain crackers, and granola bars are tasty and healthy options to keep you going throughout the day.
Can’t tell if some of your grain products are whole? Look at the ingredients list and make sure the first ingredient says “whole wheat” or “whole grain.” HPRC also has a grains table that points out nutritious grains (with and without gluten). And keep in mind that words such as “100% wheat” and “multigrain” don’t necessarily mean whole grain. For more information, visit the Whole Grains Council.
There’s no hard-and-fast rule when it comes to how to breathe when you’re running, but there are a couple points to consider. During light to moderate exercise, people tend to inhale through the nose and exhale through the mouth. Breathing through your nose helps minimize the number of allergens that get into your airway, warm the air before it gets to your lungs (which can be helpful in cold temperatures), and increase the concentration of oxygen in your blood. However, as exercise intensity increases, most people switch to breathing through the mouth because they can inhale more air per breath with less resistance.
Running experts suggest practicing diaphragmatic breathing (“belly breathing”) rather than shallower chest breathing (where you raise your chest and shoulders when you inhale). In the former, your diaphragm (an important muscle in the breathing process) is pushed downward when you inhale, creating space in your chest cavity. You should feel your belly expand as you inhale. It promotes greater expansion of your rib cage and lungs, giving you a fuller, deeper breath. It takes a little practice to learn how to breathe like this while you’re running, but if you lie on your back and breathe, practice yoga, or even play a wind instrument, you’ll know what it feels and looks like.
Finally, remember not to slouch when you run. Lift your torso and chest and lean forward slightly. Form also can affect how you breathe.
Exposure to a natural green environment can help reduce your stress levels and improve your health and well-being. So, feeling blue? Go green! Some of nature’s restorative benefits include improved positive mood, energy, and vitality; decreased anxiety, depressive thoughts, perceived stress, and hostility; as well as improved recovery times after surgery and less need for pain meds.
Exposure to nature can also reduce your heart rate, blood pressure, blood sugar, and stress hormones, as well as improve your sleep, immune function, and brain activity. Interestingly, people who live in neighborhoods where streets have more trees report feeling healthier, with fewer symptoms of poor health such as heart attack, stroke, obesity, and diabetes. Neighborhood greenness has also been tied to longer life expectancy.
Depending on where you live, finding a natural environment can be tricky. You can find state and national parks online or look for local parks and gardens in your area. Even walking along a neighborhood street with lots of trees, spending more time viewing nature (through a window), or having indoor plants within view can make you feel better. You may want to experience nature on your own, with a buddy, or with a group of fellow service members or veterans. For group outdoor recreational activities, check out the Sierra Club Outdoors program (or, specifically, their Military Outdoors program). So if you’re feeling stressed, down, or not your usual self, get outside and go green!
Whole foods, not dietary supplements, should be your first choice for protein. Protein supports muscle growth and repair. People often turn to protein supplements (such as whey, casein, and soy) to optimize those effects, especially after a workout. Whole food protein sources such as lean meats, fish, dairy products, legumes, nuts, and seeds are just as effective (in some cases more effective) than protein supplements. Whey protein products can be an acceptable, convenient, and efficient way to deliver protein when your needs are greater or when normal dietary sources are not available. If you are using protein supplements, be sure to choose a product that has been third-party evaluated for its quality. Read more here.
The condition known as “dental caries” is the most common and chronic childhood illness, but you can help your child avoid it. Bacteria that build up on your children’s teeth and produce acid can destroy enamel and dentin, leading to decay, infection, and cavities. Thankfully, there are a few simple ways to prevent this.
- If your young child uses bottles, make sure you put your child to sleep without a bottle.
- Avoid continual use of a bottle or sippy cup, especially with fluids other than water.
- Limit sugary foods and drinks, and the latter should include only 100% juice.
- Allow less than 4–6 oz. of 100% fruit juice per day.
- Start brushing your child’s teeth twice a day as soon as their teeth are visible.
- Use no more than a pea size dot of fluoride toothpaste for children 3 and up and a dab the size of a grain of rice for younger children.
- Take your child to a dentist before the age of one.
- Parents and caregivers can spread bacteria to babies and children accidentally, so take care of your own teeth! And it’s a good idea not to put food or other items into your child’s mouth after they’ve been in your mouth, especially if you have a history of cavities.
If you use these simple tips, you can strengthen your child’s teeth throughout childhood. For more information, check out the American Academy of Pediatrics article “Brushing up on oral health: never too early to start.”
Many factors affect your sleep, including stress and exercise, but your diet can also have a huge impact on the quality of your sleep, particularly in the hours before you go to bed. By improving your evening food habits you can sleep better, which can have a positive impact on your mental and physical performance, immune function, relationships, and overall health and well-being. Try these tips to be on your way to a better night’s sleep:
- Limit caffeine. Caffeine can disturb your sleep even many hours later. If you typically drink coffee or tea in the afternoon or after dinner, opt for a decaffeinated version. And be wary of hidden sources of caffeine.
- Avoid alcohol. Some people think of alcoholic beverages as a nightcap to help you sleep better. While it may help you go to sleep faster, it also reduces sleep quality by waking you up in the middle of the night.
- Eat balanced meals. Eating balanced meals daily will help you get all the nutrients you need, such as B vitamins and magnesium, to promote better sleep. A balanced plate is ½ a plate of fruits and vegetables, ¼ plate of whole grains or starchy vegetables (corn, peas, potatoes), and ¼ protein, plus a serving of healthy fat (oil, avocado). In addition, your body takes long to digest fats, so eating too much fat may keep you from falling asleep.
For more strategies on how to improve your sleep, check out HPRC’s Sleep Optimization section.
Don’t make things harder for yourself by making excuses or creating excuses in advance. When you set a goal and the stakes feel high, it can be easy to make excuses when you fail in order to avoid negative feelings such as regret, shame, or guilt. Without thinking about why you do it, you may sometimes make tasks harder than they need to be so that ready-made excuses “protect” you from feeling bad. The downside is that you miss opportunities to learn from your experiences and test your “true” skills. This is called “self-handicapping.” Learn how to set yourself up for success instead. Read more here.
Music can have a huge effect on your performance and mood during exercise. Without realizing it, most people push themselves harder or move faster during exercise when listening to fast-tempo music, which increases heart rate as well as speed, endurance, and in some cases the rate of perceived exertion. Exercisers also feel an improved sense of well-being when working out to music.
So why is it you prefer certain songs when you’re exercising? One explanation suggests that a part of your brain tries to match the movement of your body to the beat of the music. In fact, scientists have found that when you listen to music with about 125–140 beats per minute, both your heartbeat and your movements synchronize to work at the most energy-efficient, optimal level for exercise. In essence, the music works with your brain to coordinate your bodily functions and optimize your workout.
The best workout songs seem to share certain characteristics:
- 125–140 beats per minute during exercise, but slower for warm-ups, cool-downs, and some endurance-type exercises
- A motivational or upbeat message
- Familiar tunes or a preferred style of music
- A tempo that matches the rhythm of your exercise
Ask your buddies about their workout playlists too. They might have something totally different to offer—a new beat to stay fit with. So turn on, tune in, and train!
For more tips on how to optimize your workout, explore HPRC’s Physical Fitness domain.
The ultimate performance mind state is often referred to as “the Zone,” which scientists refer to as “flow.” It isn’t something you can decide to suddenly experience, but you can remove obstacles and learn mental skills that help pave the way. This experience of being completely immersed in an activity involves:
- Clear goals and immediate understanding of whether actions are helping or hurting your progress towards goals.
- Being intense and focused on the present moment.
- A merging together—in the moment—of what you do and what you are aware of.
- Not feeling self-consciousness or anxious.
- Time slowing down or speeding up.
- Your attention focused on exactly where you need it to be.
- Feeling challenged yet taking opportunities even when they’re a slight stretch.
- Feeling in control and prepared to face whatever happens next.
You can experience the Zone in many ways, whether you’re engaged in combat, playing competitive sports, or raising children. It can’t be forced, but you can set the stage for it by doing many hours of deliberate practice and by honing good mental skills.