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Striking a balance in any area—diet, exercise, job search—is an ongoing challenge. Stabilizing all the off-kilter parts of your life at once? Good luck with that. Chances are, if you’re in a deadline crunch at work, you’re short-changing relationships. Or if you’re gung-ho about training for that big race, the grass probably needs mowing. Experts say even small steps to restore balance pay off in unexpected ways, cross-pollinating balance in other parts of your life. Here is your five-day plan, incorporating yoga, mindfulness, “me time” and a healthy diet for a better life-work balance.
Monday: Make a “me time” promise to balance your schedule.
No matter what life change you’re trying to make, it seems time is always the enemy. That’s why one of the most important changes is carving time out of your calendar. In midlife, “We have a lot of responsibilities, and it seems our life doesn't belong to us,” says Dr. Eva Selhub, a stress expert and author of Your Health Destiny. She suggests starting by picking an hour a day (even in two 30-minute chunks). This may seem like a lot of time, but once most people make the commitment, they can find that time.
In fact, this ability to recharge is the secret weapon of people who are happier and more productive. A team of British psychologists recently put the principles of “me time” to the test. Their study found that people with more “me time” had higher levels of well-being and were more engaged employees. Nor did the “me time” have to be solitary. What matters most is that your activities be freely chosen.
“That time is only for you,” says Selhub, “to work out, meet with friends, read, meditate or journal.” Selhub, who prescribes herself two hours of “me time” each day, admits that freeing up that much time takes practice. “A lot of this is change in mindset,” she says. But the more conscious we become of the benefits,
“the more you naturally create balance.”
Tuesday: Shop smarter to balance your diet.
It doesn’t seem fair that the easiest things to eat are fast-food disasters, and the most nourishing choices can be time-consuming. (You can eat five tacos faster than you can make a green salad.) Balanced eating can only come from balanced buying, so plan a weekly shopping trip that will make healthy eating a breeze.
“Having nutritious food for snacks handy and accessible is the key to getting more nutrition into every day,” says Kim Larson, a registered dietician in Seattle and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “It’s easy to shore up a nutrient deficit by adding nutrient-rich snacks like yogurt, cottage cheese and fruit, apple and peanut butter, turkey jerky, fresh fruit, high-fiber cereals, hummus and raw veggies. I always have individual packets of nuts in my car, briefcase and purse, and I end up using them often.” She also likes convenience items like canned (or smoked) salmon, trout, sardines, oysters, shrimp, chicken and tuna to add to salads and lunches. “Just keep it simple and plan ahead,” she says.
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Wednesday: Create a happy place to balance your home.
By midweek, it can feel like work and family have infiltrated every area of your life. Selhub suggests creating a “sacred space,” even if it’s just a corner of a room. Make it comfy with pillows, and joyful, with photos of beautiful places or people you love. “It’s your happy place,” she explains, “so every time you step over the threshold, you are leaving negativity behind. It’s a place where you heal, listen to music, meditate or read. No computers or phones allowed.” (Not sure how to start? Try some of her guided meditations as you settle down in your own space.) Your sacred space is not just peaceful, it’s productive. “The ritual will help you think about creating healthy boundaries in other aspects of life, including leaving work behind.”
Thursday: Strike a pose to balance your body.
Physical balance doesn’t just protect against falling and injury, it makes us feel we’re moving through life with grace and ease. Even a little yoga makes a big difference. A recent study from the American Council on Exercise found that a yoga class three times a week for eight weeks increased how long people could stand on one leg by an average of 17 seconds. (They could also do significantly more pushups and curl-ups.)
While you can work your way up to dramatic displays of balance, including eagle, tree and (gulp) handstands in yoga class, you don’t have to. Start small, by standing on one foot behind a sturdy chair. (You can see the move here.) Try and hold it for 10 seconds on each side, working your way up to 10 or 15 reps. Once you get the hang of it, you can practice anywhere, just by lifting your foot off the floor a small amount—waiting for a bus, in line at the supermarket or doing the dishes.
Friday: Step outside to balance your spirit.
While much of what we know about dealing with stress comes from medical researchers, some of the most powerful intelligence about the impact of nature comes from research in forestry, urban planning and architecture. Urban greening research from the University of Washington shows that experiencing nature helps restore your mind when you’re tired or stressed and can improve cognitive skills, memory, mood and even performance at work. And you don’t need to be out in the wild to reap those gains. Even city parks can calm people down, as well as increase curiosity and alertness.
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Special populations, such as people with ADHD, Alzheimer’s disease, depression and breast cancer, seem to find nature especially beneficial, but all of us get something powerful from even small doses of Mother Nature.
“We know that you simply need 20 minutes of nature time a day to improve health,” says Selhub. One University of Rochester study found that 20 minutes (even if participants just imagined themselves outdoors) significantly boosted vitality levels. Make time for a walk outside, an escape to a beach or a forest, she suggests. “Keeping a small garden, even if it’s on your windowsill, will have a benefit.”