3 Simple Ways to Improve Your Self-Care
I come from a family of caregivers. My parents are both physicians, my sister is a veterinarian, and my brother is in medical school.
My parents set a strong example for my siblings and me by dedicating their lives to nurturing others - both people and animals (we had a lot of pets when I was growing up...which is probably something worth addressing in a future post). Not only are my mom and dad incredible at taking caring of others, but they’ve made substantial sacrifices in order to do so - regularly working long hours and frequently also on weekends.
But the ironic thing is, their own self-care has unfortunately tended to fall by the wayside.
To cite a quick example, neither of my parents gets more than 6 hours of sleep per night (with my mom astoundingly only averaging around 4 or 5). My mom has been known to call sleep “a waste of time,” and manages to fill every moment of her day and evening with things she considers to be more productive.
Now, in my parents’ defense, my family as a whole seems to be somewhat blessed when it comes to being able to function on less sleep than the majority of the population. But sleep has been shown to have a major impact on our health (aside: please read Thrive by Arianna Huffington if you haven’t already). And if my parents were to prioritize getting more sleep, I have no doubt that doing so would be beneficial to them.
So since my parents modeled things for me, you can probably wager at how awesome my self-care was while growing up. And regrettably, without other role models in my life who could properly reframe things for me, my own poor self-care habits carried on well into adulthood.
For instance, I have a tendency to work out too much and I often prioritize working out over other things that might be better for my body at times, such as sleep or just a rest day in general. I’ve been known to wake up at 4:45 AM in order to fit in a long run before having to get ready for work. And on any given day, some muscle group within my body is usually sore from previous days’ workouts.
But while this describes one of my biggest struggles on the self-care front, poor self-care can take many other forms as well. Many of us sit at desks for far too long on a daily basis and fail to provide our bodies with the movement and exercise needed to be healthy. And there are myriad other ways that poor self-care can present itself, a handful of examples being: habitually ingesting too much sugar or alcohol, regularly overeating in general, not drinking enough water, not getting enough sleep, ignoring health issues when they arise, et cetera.
If any of this sounds familiar or rings true with you on a personal level, odds are that, like me, you could stand to make some improvements on the self-care front. So, with that, here are 3 quick ways that you can start taking better care of yourself:
1. Schedule regular body check-ins
Part of the reason that I often end up over-working-out is that I have pretty shitty body awareness. I’m bad at listening to my body and assessing how it really feels. I’ve gotten remarkably good at ignoring aches and pains and just forging ahead in spite of them, to the extent that I do it completely subconsciously.
And, you know what? When I was younger, that tactic was probably fine. But now that I’m in my 30s, it’s pretty reckless. If you don’t learn how to listen to your body, you’re much more likely to overwork a muscle group and/or suffer an injury.
Sleep is also incredibly important for our bodies. It’s how we heal and repair ourselves, and our brains actually perform the work necessary to retain memories and capture information we’ve learned while we sleep. Regularly getting too little sleep has been linked to weight gain, decreased mental health and immune function, and increased risk of health issues such as heart disease and stroke.
So, take a moment to close your eyes, breathe, and consider - how do you feel today? If you feel tired, is that because you’ve gotten too little sleep or worked out recently and might need more rest? Or does your body feel tired in that sluggish way that suggests you might benefit from going for a long walk or being a bit more active?
Regardless of wherever your own self-care might be falling short, try checking in with your body periodically to see how it feels. Work to develop greater body awareness. Because you first need to be able to recognize where you might be falling short in order to implement some constructive changes.
2. Set aside an hour each week to do something just for you
We tend to be so busy these days that we rarely make time for ourselves anymore. Try to take at least one hour per week to do something just for yourself.
Maybe that means relaxing in a hammock and reading. For some, it might entail going for a run or swim or dropping into a yoga, dance, or fitness class. Maybe it translates to enjoying a beer and watching a comedy sketch. Perhaps it’s taking an epsom salt bath and listening to some music. Or maybe it’s time that you dedicate to taking a nap or meditating.
Whether this is time that you choose to spend with someone else or an opportunity to be on your own and reconnect with yourself, the point is that you should get to dictate what you want to do with this hour. So block the time out on your calendar, tell your family or partner or roommate(s) that you’ll be offline, and give yourself that space.
3. Make time for bodywork
Everyone knows that it’s healthy to exercise fairly regularly. But Americans still seem to suffer from inhibitions when it comes to investing time, energy, and money in what I will generically call “bodywork.”
The definition of this term is fairly broad, essentially encompassing any treatments, therapies, or techniques that involve touching or manipulating the body. Some examples of bodywork include massage, rolfing, physical therapy, acupuncture, reiki, yoga, t’ai chi, chiropracty, craniosacral therapy, and the list goes on.
If you’ve been experiencing recurring pain or potentially have an injury, consider scheduling an appointment with a chiropractor or a physical therapist. Maybe even try seeing a rolfer to dig deeper into your fascial tissue and smooth things out. Try dry needling if you have a knot or muscle spasm that’s stuck around relentlessly.
Just like your car needs regular servicing, your body similarly needs ongoing care and upkeep - in the form of plenty of stretching, massage, and regular mobility work - in order to heal and recover from daily activity and workouts.
Many of us tend to have weird hang-ups and feel guilt around getting massages. And truthfully, I grew up viewing them as expensive and indulgent - something that should be earned as a reward after months of hard work.
But the fact is, massages are (and should be regarded as) maintenance for your body - especially if you work out hard and/or often. They can serve to prevent injuries and increase blood flow to your muscles, helping them heal faster.
Yoga is also an activity that we typically fail to realize is “bodywork.” But as we age, our muscle fascia (the connective tissue that both attaches and separates muscles and other internal organs) tends to stiffen, and we grow less flexible. To combat this, take a vinyasa yoga class a couple times a week and see if you notice any results.
My point is, experiment. Try some new things and see which, if any, seem to have a positive impact on your body.
In summary, here’s some self-care homework that I feel we could all benefit from consistently integrating into our lives:
Use your cell phone alarm to set reminders to check-in with your body a couple of times per day in order to start gaining greater body awareness.
Schedule an hour per week of “you-time” to decompress and do something just for yourself.
Book a massage (or try out some other form of bodywork if you already get massages fairly regularly). Get a recommendation for a good local masseuse from a friend, or - fuck it - just go to your local Massage Envy. No excuses. You deserve it. Go do it.
But seriously - please make some changes to start taking better care of yourself. Your body and the people who spend time around you, love you, and need you will all thank you for it in the end.