ABC News Chief Medical Correspondent and author of The Self Care Solution, Dr. Jennifer Ashton, implemented a new change to her own routine every month for a year in 2019.
She explains that she was coming out of the worst year of her life, and she wanted to turn some attention on herself. It used to be all about "self-help," which implies that something is wrong with you, whereas self-care is about recognizing that you're fine, but these are things you can do that provide benefits to your life. She came up with small changes she could implement one month at a time, all of which were cheap, took just a couple minutes and could be done anywhere, in three different categories — nutrition (what we eat or drink), fitness and behavior — that all kind of build on each other.
"I really felt like I had to walk the walk as a doctor," Jennifer says. Establishing a self-care routine doesn't have to be elaborate or time-consuming.
HYDRATION CHALLENGE: DRINK ENOUGH WATER EVERY DAY
Dr. Jen always recommended to her patients that they drink more water, but as a busy working professional, she wasn't practicing what she preached. She set a goal to drink 2.7 liters of water (91 ounces) a day for the month of June (the general recommendation for women). She found that drinking more water helped with energy levels, kept her appetite down and made her skin glow.
Even a mild case of dehydration can age your skin, cause headaches, nausea, bad breath, fatigue, weight gain, confusion, seizures, and in Dr. Jen's case, kidney stones, she says. "And it can interfere with our heart and our brains," she adds. Our bodies are made up of 60 percent water, but our brains are 73 percent water. "When you don't drink enough water, your brain can begin to physically shrink, contracting slightly from your skull, which causes a headache that can range from mild to full on migraine," she explains.
For your heart, "one recent study showed that people who were dehydrated were at greater risk of strokes and heart attacks," she says.
And when it comes to your skin, staying hydrated boosts the water content of cells in both the deep and superficial layers of your skin, which increases elasticity and works to prevent and even reverse fine lines.
One way to check whether you're dehydrated is to pinch the skin on the back of your hand. It should bounce right back, but if it stays tented, you're probably dehydrated.
And if preventing headaches and wrinkles isn't enough to convince you, Jennifer says that drinking plenty of water is also good for our waistlines. The hypothalamus in your brain controls appetite but also controls thirst, "so when you're dehydrated, that area of your brain goes into overload, sending signals that may cause you to want to reach for a bagel when you really need water. And, mild dehydration may slow the body's ability to burn calories," explains Dr. Jen.
MOVEMENT CHALLENGE: DO PUSH-UPS + PLANKS EVERY DAY
Next up, Jennifer chose to focus on movement and fitness. She decided to take a few minutes every morning, usually when her shower was warming up, starting with 20 push-ups and a 45 second plank at the beginning of the month and ending with 46 push-ups and a 4 minute, 5 second plank at the end of the month! She found that she could see increased definition and progress in her strength with just a few minutes of these exercises every day.
"This [movement challenge] is designed so you don't need to spend a penny, you can do it anywhere, it takes seconds or minutes and you can start from any level," Jennifer explains.
Push-ups and planks work nearly every muscle in your body, from the tip of your toes to the muscles in your neck. They obviously tone your arms and chest, but also hard-to-strengthen muscles in your back, hips and abs. Planks also provide a full body workout, engaging a wide range of muscles in your arms, chest, legs, hips, lower back and abs. In comparison, crunches and sit-ups primarily work only your abs.
"A lot of women are intimidated, but anyone can do a push-up — no matter age, body type or current strength," says Dr. Jen. "If the idea of getting down on your hands and knees is painful, start with a push-up against a counter or wall, angling your body and keeping your palms firmly flat while you bend your elbows and bring your chest as close to the counter or wall as possible. You can also try a table-top push-up — start on your hands and knees with your back flat, then bend your elbows until your nose nearly touches the floor, using your arms and chest to push yourself up. Or try a standard push-up, with your knees on the floor and feet slightly suspended above ground," she recommends.
"I would do a combination [of these push-ups]," she says, "and whatever you did yesterday you try to do that amount [and] maybe one more. The key is just maintenance," she says. Whatever your time, just keep it up.
Watch Jennifer demonstrate all of these exercises (in heels, no less!) in the video above.
NUTRITION CHALLENGE: EAT LESS RED MEAT AND MORE PLANTS
This challenge was all about eating less red meat and more plants. Dr. Jen cut back on red meat and incorporated more veggies into every meal. "Red meat isn't unhealthy in moderation, and does have some benefits — it's high in protein, rich in heme iron (which the body absorbs better than the iron in plants), and is a good source of healthy fat. However, eating too much of it has been linked to health problems like certain cancers and heart disease. And, it takes longer to digest than almost all other foods, which can lead to bloating, gas and constipation," she explains.
90% of Americans don't eat the recommended 1 ½ cups of fruit and 2-3 cups of veggies a day — which as you can see in the video above, is really not that much.
"Consuming more plants has been shown to increase just about every physical function, including metabolism, digestion, cognitive function and skin health, and in their whole form, they may be as potent as prescription drugs, working on a cellular level to reduce the systemic inflammation responsible for many health issues. Plants are also powerful antidepressants — whole veggies, fruits, nuts and beans are packed with antioxidants that go straight to the brain, helping to repair cellular damage and reduce inflammation, both of which have a profound effect on mood," says Dr. Jen.
To do this successfully, she advises focusing on adding, not eliminating: "Instead of thinking about the meat you can't have, think about all the delicious stuff you can have, like sweet potatoes, quinoa, black beans, cashews, seaweed salad, roasted corn, watermelon, nectarines… the list is literally endless. And, find alternatives that provide the same protein and satisfaction as meat." She found that a snack of smoked salmon rolled up with cream cheese was just as satisfying and high in protein as short ribs (one of her faves) with more healthy fats and nutrients.