How to design your own wellness project

Two years ago today, I decided to give resolutions the boot and take on a different type of health odyssey.

The failure rate for the annual promises we make ourselves is high (92 percent!), with the biggest drop-off date hitting just around the one month mark. The reason why is simple: we make too many resolutions, we make them too vague or ambitious, and we try to do all of the above all at once.

For me, these lofty goals made me feel like a failure year-round—not just on February 1st when things started to slip, but every time I went to the doctor. Like my own personal resolution school marm, she would look at my bloodwork and rattle off another laundry list of lifestyle labor that made me feel like I was destined to spend my days dry brushing, trampoline hopping, and bone broth simmering with very little time leftover for actual living.

I'd nod my head, make my promises, all the while deep in my gut some feisty little force would be saying: "Bitch, you crazy."

Enter: The Wellness Project.

You can read more about my plan and perspective shift here, but the skinny is: instead of trying to do all of the above all at once, I decided to slowly make over my life one small change, one month at a time.

Every month had a different theme and goal. At the end of it, I could reflect on when and why that feisty little naysayer whispered in my ear to stop. And I could decide what health benefits were worth telling my inner hedonist to take a chill pill.

By the end of the year, habits had carried over without my having to resolve to do them. I could viscerally understand their impacts, and I didn't have to fully give up my life as I knew it in order to achieve them.

The book about my experience will be out in May (!!!), but in the meantime, there's a lot to be learned from this simple model.

Especially if you've been struggling with your health for a while, or just feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of healthy practices being shoved down your throat this time of year,
I encourage you to take on your own wellness project.

First, write down your pain points: the symptoms you've been struggling with, or the lifestyle areas you most want to get under control. Do some research and make a second list of best practices. From here, you can narrow it down to 12 monthly short-term health challenges.

Try to cover as many wellness areas as possible, knowing that everything in our mind, body and spirit is irrevocably connected. If your big goal is to clear up your skin, chances are you'll need to do more than just switch your products to naturals, clean your makeup brushes, and take your mascara off at night. These are of course important baby steps, and you could create a year's worth of them in the beauty department. But chances are the root cause has to do with your diet and your sleep, or the way that you hydrate and manage stress.

The goal is to get to know yourself better: what changes make a profound difference and which might not be worth the time, money, or energy you spend on them.

At the end of your project, my hope is that you'll have figured out a better way forward. Because we cannot commit to good health habits until we figure out what habits are good for us in the first place.

Here are five golden rules to keep in mind as you embark on your new health journey:

1. Build your wellness brain trust. This doesn't necessarily have to be made up of practitioners who you pay by the hour. Your team could include a few expert voices from afar, and even some friendly non-expert faces who might serve as accountability buddies and sounding boards—Charlie is one of mine, and Acu Heidi is another. Seek out expert advice, but filter their knowledge through your own experience.

2. Make your biggest intention to pay attention. The proof is in the pudding, and often times your poop. Keep track of your body, whether through a journal, chart, app, or calendar. And don't just record numbers and symptoms: also check in with your spirit.

3. Find power in the present. Research has shown that immediate rewards are often more compelling than long-term gains. Recognize the positive outcomes that are tangible in the present. They will help you commit to habits in the future.

4. Give yourself permission to fail. Change is hard work, and sometimes it takes periods of extremity to get to a place of balance. But just because something worked for someone else doesn't mean it's going to work for you. Ask exactly what is making you uncomfortable, and give yourself the leeway to pull the plug.

5. Remember perfection is a myth. Awareness is the first and most important step toward healthy hedonism. Forgiveness is the second. We're all just doing the best we can.

Here is a long list of sample challenges to get you started, and some suggestions for baby steps. Click the links to see how I tackled certain challenges during my own project:

• Go on a vice detox: no alcohol, added sugar or caffeine. Mini: no drinking during the week, no packaged food, no caffeine after noon.
• Switch your beauty products to naturals. Mini: one product every month for the whole year.
• Do an elimination diet. Mini: start keeping a food journal to see patterns in what foods don't agree with you.
• Go vegan before six (or eat majority of your meals plant-based). Mini: go meat-free on Monday.
• Set aside one weekend afternoon a week to batch cook. Mini: Cook 2 make-ahead dishes a week that you can brown bag to work.
• Drink half your body weight in ounces of water a day. Mini: keep a reusable water bottle on your desk and try to refill it at least once a day.
• Ban the beverage aisle: don't spend money on drinks besides water. Mini: quit drinking soda and other sugary bevs.
Move for 30 minutes every day. Mini: go to one exercise class a week and/or try one new workout a month.
• Get outside for 20 minutes every day. Mini: leave the office and take a lap around the block at lunchtime, or choose the less lazy commute (walk or bike to work).
Don't sit for more than 45 minutes at a time (great to do in tandem with a hydration habit!). Mini: start and end your workday with 5 minutes of stretching.
• Go to bed for 8 hours every night. Mini: develop a bedtime ritual and stop looking at screens 30 minutes before shutting out the lights.
• Start charting your menstrual cycle. Mini: make the first few days of your moontime about relaxation and self-care.
• Eat one fermented food with every meal. Mini: start making your own kombucha or kraut.
• Keep a poop log. Mini: buy a squatty potty or two small stools and see how it effects your stool!
• Write daily morning pages. Mini: write down 3 things you're grateful for every morning or night.
Meditate for 20 minutes a day. Mini: close your eyes and take 5 minutes of silence a day.

There are so many more ideas I could throw your way, but this should give you a powerful cross-section of all the areas of your wellness you can tackle from month to month.

Having an autoimmune disease means my health is always a moving target, and being a human being (and one with an equal eye on hedonism), my good habits are constantly in flux. Now that my project is over, I'm back to the resolution game. But when I make them now, I do so with Charlie.

We choose two manageable ones each (i.e. only eat red meat once per week, versus give up all red meat), and write two joint ones that we can make good on in our shared time (i.e. participate in one charitable action a month). Last year, I stopped watching TV while I ate lunch and started eating more meals in than out, and this year I plan on adding an exercise piece (just 10 minutes) to my morning routine and doing a small gratitude practice at night—two habits that fell off the priority list post-project.

I'd love to be a sounding board for whatever new leaf you're planning on turning over this year. And if you're hopping on the wellness project band wagon, let me know what's on deck! The comments section here can be your accountability buddy for each new goal. I can't wait to hear what's in store!!

The post How to design your own wellness project: A guide was first shown on Feed Me Phoebe.

Related: Eating healthy is easier than you think

9 simple tricks to eat healthier from nutritional therapist Amelia Freer
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9 simple tricks to eat healthier from nutritional therapist Amelia Freer

1. Start Gradually

Amelia suggests a slow approach to cleaning up your diet. "Sam has been a client of mine, so he has had the personalized approach that I work with, but I took him through all of the steps of the book," Amelia shared. "Chapter one is very clear, it says just give up one thing. Just start gradually. We all know what our one thing is within our diet ... Maybe we feel overwhelmed and try to be perfect, so instead of trying to do everything at once, just [choose] one thing and [start] gradually with that."

Photo Credit: Amelia Freer

2. Cut Down on Sugars

As Amelia points out, studies consistently show that excess sugar is detrimental to all areas of our health. "Very gradually, very subtly, over the last 20 or 30 years, our diets have become higher and higher and higher in hidden sugars, and that really comes from the low-fat, fat-free dieting generation," Amelia shares. "Instead of looking at the sugars that we’re eating, we’ve been focusing on the fats that we’re eating, and science is really starting to show that that’s been a little bit misguided."

However, Amanda recognizes that this doesn't mean all fats are good for you or that everyone should be on a high fat diet. "[It's about] becoming aware of where the hidden sugars are, and just understanding that sugar has many, many different disguises," she suggests. "There [are] artificial sugars, there [are] natural sugars, like fructose for example, found in fruits, and then there [are] the sugars that all carbohydrates get converted into. I think nowadays our diets have just become incredibly high [in] carbohydrates, high [in] natural sugars and high [in] artificial sugars. So we just need to be reducing all of them in all categories."

Photo Credit: Alamy

3. Eat Healthy Fats

While you should cut down on excess sugar in your diet, Amelia recommends eating more healthy fats. "When I refer to good fats it’s really just fats that are found naturally in foods," she shares. This includes oily fish, nuts, seeds, avocados and coconuts. "The fats that we really want to be avoiding are factory-made, processed fats. We know that they’re not actually beneficial for our health," Amelia shares.

Photo Credit: Getty

4. Be Conscious About What You're Eating

Amelia recognized that the foods affecting her consisted of cow's dairy and sugar, so those are the foods she consistently avoids. Doing so has had the biggest impact on her health. So she recommends that people really get in touch with the foods that they're eating, and recognizing where it comes from. Ask yourself: Does this resemble anything like its original source? 

"That really goes back to cooking your food from scratch," Amelia shares. "So the more and more that I can encourage people to make their food from scratch, I think generally they’ll be eating healthier foods, and that will be the starting point...I think it has to be a bit of a gradual journey. It certainly was for me."

Photo Credit: Amelia Freer

5. Cut Down on Snacking

"If you remove the snacking, it’s amazing how much you just cut down on what you’re eating overall," Amelia suggests. She says that this can be a gradual journey. So maybe you start off by reducing the amount you're eating hour by hour, and have a snack every three hours. She recommends a healthy snack like a piece of fruit, with maybe five or six nuts.

"It’s a little bit of healthy carbohydrate and a little bit of protein. That’s the ideal...But again, it’s about making sure that the sugar content, even the fruit content, is low. Something that I would occasionally have would be a slice of chicken leftover from the night before with some cherry tomatoes," she shares.

While Amelia says that the general rule would be a little bit of protein and a little bit of healthy carbohydrate when it comes to snacking, your ultimate goal should be to wean yourself off of snacks. "We can train our bodies if we’re eating the right things," she says.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock

6. Cut Down on Caffeine

Think you can't live without your morning cup of joe? You can, and according to Amelia, it may be a good idea to cut back. However, there are studies that show the benefits of natural caffeine, so the way you approach it should be what works for you personally. Amelia points out that if you know you get addicted to caffeine or that it doesn't agree with you, you may want to consider it as your "one thing" to give up when starting the process of transforming your diet.

"I personally love a good quality cup of black coffee in the morning, but I only have one, and I make sure that I get the best quality coffee I can have...I think it’s an individualized approach because there are benefits to caffeine. I just think [it's okay] as long as people aren’t using it as a prop [or] as a supplement all day long to avoid stresses, or avoid emotions, and they [aren't] using it in an unhealthy way."

If you know you're the kind of person who can consume caffeine without becoming addicted, you should feel fine having a cup of coffee or tea. But if you do, you should keep it clean, Amelia says. "Good coffee shouldn’t need to be sweetened, and it shouldn’t need to have anything added to it like milk. Keeping it clean is having it black," she shares.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock

7. Incorporate Exercise

We know that exercise is good for us when it comes to everything from our mental health to our energy and our joints as we age. However, Amelia reminds us that over-exercising isn't the way to transform your lifestyle, which is why she always starts her clients with focusing on their diet.

"I don’t believe that you can out train a bad diet," she shares. "I think so many people tend to over-exercise, thinking that it then gives them the green light to eat as much as they want. So I’ll always start with clients [by] saying, 'Look, exercise is going to become very important in your life. It’s essential if you want to be well and healthy, but we’ve got to clean up your diet first.'"

Amelia also points out that if you're going to exercise, you should enjoy it. There's no point in exercising if you're hurting yourself. "It’s about finding something that you enjoy, because you’re more likely to make it a habit if you enjoy it. For example, I can’t stand being in a gym. I’ve tried and I’ve tried and I’ve hated it. For me, I need to be outdoors, I need to make it social, I need to make it fun and I need to make it short so I can fit it into my life.

"Everyone is so different and it has to be a personalized approach. I never want to seem like I’m giving ‘everyone needs to do this, my way or the highway’ advice, because I think that that’s really disempowering and it’s the opposite of what I’m trying to achieve with my book."

Photo Credit: Alamy

8. Start Cooking from Scratch

Part of transforming your diet is learning to make food that's clean. In Amelia's book, she shares recipes that can help you get started. "I absolutely love my chicken nuggets with the mango salsa," she shares. "I created that recipe because my niece and nephew love junk food. Chicken nuggets [are] their favorite, and I thought 'I’ve got to nail this. I’ve got to create a meal that they will actually eat without thinking that it’s healthy.'"

Amelia also loves her beef curry. "I always cook it when I have friends around for dinner. It’s just for me [the] ultimate comfort food, and it feels like you’re having something satisfying and filling, and it almost feels naughty instead of having a takeaway. "

Photo Credit: Amelia Freer

9. The biggest takeaway from her book

If you take one thing from Amelia's book, she'd want it to be that you start to connect more with the food you're eating and become more conscious about it. Instead of having a coffee just because you're bored or having a bagel because it's offered in a meeting, think to yourself, 'Do I need this?' 'Do I want this?' 'How is it making me feel?'

"That’s the sort of umbrella for every single chapter of the book," Amelia says. "It brings people back to those moments, whether it be cooking from scratch or just deciding to start with a healthy breakfast."

Amelia gets emails from readers thanking her for helping them to clean up their diet slowly and gradually and not making it complicated or seem terrifying. For her, receiving these notes is "just a dream come true, because that’s exactly what I set out to start with when writing the book."

Photo Credit: Amelia Freer


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