Self-care is often misunderstood. It may be thought of as indulgent, suggesting images of bubble baths, shopping sprees or special treats. But true self-care, science shows, is essential. It can have a lasting and beneficial impact on our mental state.
So how do we find truly beneficial practices? Look to science. Here, we outline 25 easy self-care strategies geared toward helping you feel well, too. There is value in the benefit they bring, but most don’t cost a thing.
1. Bust a move
Hop up and groove to your favorite song whenever the mood strikes. Dancing sock-footed and carefree in the middle of the living room offers a great way to “reset” your mood for the better — and burn some calories in the process. Plus, your gray matter will thank you: Research suggests dancing can improve neuroplasticity and even reverse signs of aging in the brain. We’re partial to “Nothing’s Going to Stop Us Now” by Starship, but if you need inspiration, head over to our musician-curated Spotify playlist page.
2. Sink into that beach read (Or pick up Ulysses by James Joyce)
Go ahead and escape from your stressful to-do list by diving into that juicy mystery, syrupy romance or thought-provoking novel while telling yourself it’s time well spent. Recent research suggests the more you read, the better your language skills are likely to be. This is especially true when fiction is read. Another study in the United Kingdom found that just six minutes of reading can reduce stress. Need more reasons to pick up a book? Participating in intellectual activities, like reading, has been linked to lower risk of dementia in later life, and reading for at least 30 minutes each day may lead to a longer life expectancy, as one 2016 study suggests.
3. Schedule those health care appointments
Overdue for a vision or hearing screen? Behind on scheduling your latest mammogram or colonoscopy? You’re not alone. Nearly one third of Americans ages 50 to 80 delayed or couldn’t make in-person health care appointments due to the pandemic, according to a recent National Poll on Healthy Aging conducted by the University of Michigan Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation. Now that many offices accept in-person visits, it’s time to get back up to date on all your preventative health care appointments.
4. Get into beekeeping or learn how to brew beer
Research has shown that finding a new hobby can bolster mental health and emotional well-being by helping your brain focus on something immediate and tangible — rather than the nagging worries in your head. Anhedonia, the inability to feel pleasure in activities, is a common symptom of depression and can sometimes hinder our push to start something. You might have been asked by your doctor or therapist if you’re partaking in any hobbies. In fact, “social prescribing” is a treatment method primarily done in the United Kingdom, where patients with mild to moderate depression are encouraged to consider taking up a hobby for mental health benefits. And with good reason: Hobbies affect our brain’s reward system. So even if you’re not feeling up to it, pick up that paintbrush, learn a few new chords on your guitar or enroll in the neighborhood kickball league. Your brain will thank you.
5. Treat yourself to an electric toothbrush
You’ve got to brush at least twice daily, so why not make it enjoyable by splurging on an electric toothbrush? Decades of studies have consistently shown electric toothbrushes to be better at fighting both gingivitis and plaque when compared to regular, manual toothbrushes. Not only will your teeth feel cleaner, many higher-end electric models have timers to make sure you’re brushing for the recommended two minutes and sensors to ensure you don’t overbrush. Researchers have repeatedly found links between oral health and overall health. One 2019 study found that brushing teeth frequently is linked with lower risks of atrial fibrillation and heart failure, , while another suggested gum disease may play a role in the development of Alzheimer’s disease. Take at least four minutes a day to keep your smile looking beautiful. Your whole body will thank you.
6. Head outdoors for a bath
OK, not that kind of bath — this is a new take on an old idea. Make time to get outside each day, be it in your backyard, a nearby park or the closest forest. Numerous studies have outlined the positive physical and mental health benefits of so-called “forest bathing,” based on the Japanese practice of Shinrin-yoku. Even taking just 20 minutes out of your day can improve mood, reduce levels of cortisol (the so-called “stress hormone”) in the body, lower blood pressure and potentially improve immune function.
“When we go into the woods, we give our nervous systems a bit of a break because we’re able to find more stillness and quiet. Science tells us that when we breathe in compounds from plants including phytoncides and terpenes, that supports our immune system,” says Jessica Bane Robert, an administrator at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, who teaches a college class on “Mindful Choices.” Outside, it’s easier to slow down, lose yourself in your surroundings and “become much more self-aware,” says Robert, who also operates Barred Owl Retreat in Leicester, Massachusetts, where outdoor exploration is encouraged.
7. Learn a new way to breathe
You’ve been breathing your whole life, so you probably think you’re an expert. Think again. Author James Nestor argues most of us are breathing incorrectly in his 2020 best seller Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art. The ideal way to oxygenate our bodies, he writes, is to “breathe in for about five to six seconds, then exhale for about five to six seconds. Don’t get stressed if you are a second or two short or long. Just relax your breathing, and thus relax your mind and body.” The goal here is light, deep, and slow breathing, roughly five to six breaths per minute, rather than the typical 10 to 20 breaths per minute most people take. Known as resonance breathing, the practice syncs your breathing and heart rate, often leading to a reduced blood pressure, mental clarity, and a sense of calm. Many apps are available to guide your breathing. You can download a timed breathing app like iBreathe, The Breathing App or MyLife Meditation: Mindfulness to get started.
8. Find new sources for gratitude
The last time you bought a cup of coffee, you likely thanked the barista, but did you reach out to the coffee bean farmer to say thanks as well? In writing Thanks A Thousand, journalist and author A.J. Jacobs went on a “gratitude journey” to thank every person who had a role in producing his morning coffee. “My gratitude project had a deep impact on me and really helped change my worldview,” Jacobs says. “It helped me realize the hundreds of things that go right every day instead of focusing on the three or four that go wrong.” Adopting this mindset can pay big dividends, both physically and mentally. When people prioritize gratitude, they feel more hopeful, less depressed, and even more generous. If you’re good at feeling grateful, you’ll also likely notice reduced stress, better sleep quality, and stronger relationships. Thankful thinking may even help reduce pain and inflammation and lower blood pressure.
9. Dine without the wine
One 2018 study showed that a majority of participants in Dry January — who gave up drinking for one month — reported lasting benefits even months later, including lower overall alcohol consumption, noticeable weight loss, and a boost in energy. But why wait until January? You can give up booze any month of the year. Need inspiration? Browse online recipes for alcohol-free mocktails, find encouragement in the growing genre of Quit Lit, or look for alcohol-free meetups in your area.
10. Take a social media break
If you’re finding your attention span isn’t what it used to be or that you frequently check on a new post to see how many likes you’ve gotten, you might benefit from a social media break. Chrissie Hodges, a Colorado-based mental health advocate and author of Pure OCD: The Invisible Side of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, sensed she was developing an unhealthy relationship with social media during the pandemic. “I was losing my ability to connect with the people who were right in front of me,” says Hodges. To address it, she now abstains from Facebook and Instagram between the hours of 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. so she can be more focused and present in her day-to-day life. If you feel intimidated by an all-day limit, start small — perhaps put the phone away an hour before bedtime or during meals. “If checking your phone is your routine every hour or every few minutes, just think about reducing that and seeing what it feels like,” Hodges suggests.
11. Say ‘no’ more often
Give yourself the freedom and space to say “no” to social demands that don’t inspire or fulfill you. Are you feeling pressured to attend after-hour socials with colleagues when you’d really prefer some quiet reading time at home? Allow yourself to politely decline, and feel good about prioritizing alone time. By declining opportunities that aren’t a fit, you’re making space in your life to say “yes” to those that are. “One of the most important parts of self-care is personalizing it to what makes you feel your best. It takes some trial and error, but honoring myself and saying ‘no’ to the things that don’t light me up is a critical part of the journey,” says Sydney Nordquist, a work-from-home mom of two who lives in Michigan and blogs about self-care at sydnord.com and on Instagram @syd.nord.
12. Live like a ‘super-ager’
Super-agers are defined by science as individuals over age 80 whose memory performance is as good as a typical 50- or 60-year-old. But how do they do it? Start by keeping your brain challenged and learning at every age, suggests Emily Rogalski, a professor and neuroscientist at Northwestern University who specializes in super-aging research. “Learning novel, new things is more important, likely, than the specific type of activity itself,” Rogalski says, pointing to research that showed relatively equivalent cognitive benefit when people either learned to knit or learned to do photography. “The brain likes to be challenged,” she says.
13. Be more social
In addition to keeping their minds engaged, super-agers also tend to have active social lives, whether through work, hobbies or volunteerism. “One characteristic we often see in super-agers is they do stay active socially, and they report strong social relationships with others,” Rogalski says. Studies have repeatedly shown the importance of maintaining social networks for overall physical and mental well-being as people age. So, relaunch that weekly bridge group that took a hiatus during the pandemic. Start a text chain to reconnect with friends from college. Volunteer to cuddle babies in the NICU. As you see your social groups broaden, you might notice you reach for the ibuprofen less: One 2016 study showed people with strong social ties were able to tolerate physical pain more easily.
14. Teach your mind to wander positively
Too often, when thoughts wander, they go to worries or to-do inventories in your head. But if you can teach yourself to think positively when you daydream, you might begin to actually enjoy letting your mind meander from time to time. In a 2021 study, researchers set out to discover “what makes thinking for pleasure pleasurable.” What they found might surprise you: When people were instructed to dwell on thoughts that were both pleasurable and meaningful — such as a special memory, an accomplishment or an upcoming, long-awaited vacation — they enjoyed their daydream session 50 percent more than when they were left to think about planning their day.
15. Practice kind self-affirmations
What do you think to yourself when you first look in the mirror in the morning? Is it a kind thought, or a hurtful one? If your default is to be self-depreciating and critical, try to break this cycle. Instead, focus on the things you love about yourself — not just physical things, but aspects of your personality and talents as well — as you brush your teeth each morning. Studies have shown such “self-affirmation” practices may reduce stress, decrease temptation to binge on unhealthy snacks, and boost overall physical well-being.
16. Find the glass half full
Speaking of positivity, it appears having an optimistic mindset about life in general can be a smart self-care strategy. Studies show optimists tend to sleep better, have healthier hearts and a lower risk of stroke. In general, optimistic people tend to be healthier as they age — and may even live longer than their pessimistic counterparts, recent research suggests. Not sure how to be more positive? Start by imagining your “best possible self” in future work and life scenarios. Journal for 15 minutes daily about your goals and what it would look like if your ideal future came to be true. Research shows such brainstorming is an effective tool to boost optimism, because it trains your brain to imagine positive outcomes, rather than defaulting to worst-case scenarios.
17. Become an ace at blackjack
Research has shown that cards and board-game play can be a great way to keep your mind active and engaged. A 2019 study from the University of Edinburgh found that seniors in their 70s who regularly played games like cards, chess or bingo stayed mentally sharp longer than those who didn’t. “Neuroscientists often talk about the brain being like a muscle — you need to work out with it to keep it strong and healthy,” says Alicia Walf, a neuroscientist and senior lecturer of cognitive science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., whose research includes work on cognitive behavioral therapy to prevent Alzheimer’s disease. “The exact type of game is less important than is the individual’s engagement with it. So, playing a new game that hits the ’sweet spot’ of being both fun and challenging is best,” Walf adds.
18. Clean and declutter your space
You might not immediately think of tidying as self-care. But your physical environment can have a direct and immediate effect on your mental well-being. So, a day spent decluttering can provide a real boost to your mood. “We walk into our homes, and our minds are busy with other things, so we start to ignore our physical space. But when we ignore our space, in a way, we’re actually ignoring our own self-care,” says Stacy Scott, a feng shui coach who runs Sanctuary Feng Shui in Washington, D.C. By cleaning, “you’re putting love, attention and adoration back into your home” and, by extension, back into yourself, Scott says. Start small: Clean off the pile of papers on the dining room table or discard the outdated condiments in the fridge. Don’t be surprised if the clutter-free spaces make you feel less anxious and more energized.
19. Find a signature scent
Scents can evoke powerful memories and affect our mood, just look to the growth of the billion-dollar aromatherapy industry, which includes essential oils, candles, fragrances, body care products and even car air fresheners. “Scents have a powerful ability to affect our mood because there are direct connections between the olfactory bulb and the limbic areas of the brain — such as the amygdala and hippocampus — which are associated with mood as well as emotional memories,” explains Walf, who is currently engaged in research at Rensselaer on “mindful sniffing” as a tool for stress reduction. So, go ahead: Trek to the candle aisle and choose a few with scents you associate with good feelings or fond memories. “Like other mindful practices, the biggest benefits of mindful sniffing are likely to occur when the practice happens daily, even if for minutes at a time,” Walf says.
20. Laugh more
It’s difficult to feel bad when something’s just tickled your funny bone. Studies show laughing can reduce stress, boost mental health and improve sleep quality. So, make it a priority to laugh more. Find the humorous in the day-to-day. And even if you’re not feeling the funny, make yourself laugh anyway. Cue up a cute animal video on YouTube or tell a coworker a corny knock-knock joke. “Laugh three times a day to keep the bad vibes away. Simulate laughter in the beginning, middle and end of each day,” suggests Melanin Bee, a laugh yoga instructor and CEO of laughter therapy company Holistically HEALarious LLC. “Inducing laughter to produce feel-good chemicals [endorphins] is even more important on the days that are emotionally sad and difficult,” she says.
21. Turn your shower into a spa
Consider a simple step to take your requisite bathing time from blah to bliss: Hang eucalyptus in your shower stall and let natural aromatherapy work its magic. You can pick up a bundle of the famously good-smelling greenery at your local florist, or order it directly from a supplier like SelfCareShower.com.
22. Find your favorite poem
Perhaps you’ve never been a poetry fan. But maybe this is the moment in your life to give the genre another look. Particularly if you’re going through a sad or challenging life patch, poems can be a balm, says psychiatrist Norman Rosenthal, M.D., author of the recent book Poetry Rx: How Fifty Inspiring Poems Can Heal and Bring Joy to Your Life. “A poem can connect with a reader in many ways that offer comfort, relief, joy and inspiration,” Rosenthal says. “A poem can also suggest strategies for dealing with life’s difficulties.”
23. Buy a new pair of shoes
A 2018 study in the Journal of Foot and Ankle Research found that between 63 percent and 72 percent of participants were wearing shoes that did not properly fit either the width or length of their feet. Trotting about town in poorly fitting footwear can lead to a range of foot issues, from corns and calluses to bunions and hammertoes. If you’re suffering from foot, leg, knee or ankle pain, you might be wearing the wrong shoes. Treat yourself to a proper shoe fitting by a trained professional — often, dedicated running shoe stores will have one on staff. Alternatively, try a ready-made shoe insert for additional cushioning, or seek out custom orthotics through a podiatrist’s office. When your feet feel good, your whole body will feel better.
24. Take more steps
Now that you’ve got comfortable shoes, up your daily step count. A 2020 study by the American College of Cardiology suggested that a person could potentially lower their systolic blood pressure by 0.45 points for every 1,000 steps taken daily. A study in Arthritis Care & Research reported that walking 6,000 steps a day may be enough to prevent functional mobility issues in those with or at risk of osteoarthritis of the knee. Meanwhile, earlier research found a daily walking habit can significantly reduce the risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes. The point is clear: Get out and get moving. It’ll do you good. Set a goal of getting in a specific number of steps each day, whether that’s 3,000, 6,000, or 10,000. Use the pedometer on your wrist fitness tracker or your smartphone to help measure your progress, and enlist a friend to be an “accountability buddy” to keep you motivated as you walk.
25. Do a good deed
Performing certain acts of kindness can be good for your health. Research has shown time and again that acts of charity and altruism benefit the giver, both emotionally and physically. And the more direct and connected, the better, such as helping someone carry groceries or lending a hand on a project. “Don’t just think of how others can serve you, but consider how you can serve others,” says Stephen G. Post, professor and director of the Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care and Bioethics at Stony Brook University in New York and author of Why Good Things Happen to Good People: How to Live a Longer, Healthier, Happier Life by the Simple Act of Giving. “Do something that floats your boat and that uses your talents,” Post suggests. Ask if you can help restock books or read to young children at your local library. Volunteer to tutor an adult who is learning English, serve meals at a local soup kitchen, or help build houses with Habitat for Humanity. Through altruistic outreach, Post adds, “older adults [can] feel renewed purpose, regained meaning and hope.”
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