Tis the season of putting others first. While that’s a lovely and selfless thing to do, it also means that you, by default, are coming in second (or third, or fourth) on your list of priorities. And when you backburner the things that contribute to your own health and happiness… well, your health and happiness can suffer.
In the spirit of ensuring merry and bright holidays for everyone—yourself included—we invite you to join our 12-Day Self-Care Challenge. The goal is to commit to practicing self-care each day for 12 straight days, right in the midst of the hectic holiday season. If this sounds like a huge undertaking, we promise it’s not. In fact, devoting just a few minutes to you each day can go a long way toward easing stress, supporting your immune system, and maintaining good health. Consider it a gift of vitality to yourself.
To make this gift-giving super easy, we’ve designed the simple schedule of daily self-care practices you see below, complete with motivating facts and tips for weaving the practices into your busy schedule. Here at Vital Plan, we’ll be doing the 12-Day Self-Care Challenge from December 13-24. Keep this email handy and follow along with us on Facebook, or begin whenever you’re ready, and repeat as needed throughout the year.
Ready? Let the self-care begin!
Day 1: Laugh a little (or a lot)
It doesn’t take a slew of scientists to convince us that laughing makes us feel better—but for the record, they could easily make the case.
University of Maryland researchers, for instance, have linked laughing with reduced risk of heart attack, possibly due to its ability to lower stress and inflammation. And scientists at Loma Linda University found that 20 minutes of watching funny videos lowered study participants’ levels of the stress hormone cortisol significantly more than sitting quietly without talking, reading, or staring at their cell phone.
To help you get the giggles flowing, check out these funny favorites recommended by different members of the Vital Plan team:
- Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris (Carin Gorrell, Editorial Director)
- My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell (Jim Noonan, Operations Director)
- Vacationland by John Hodgman (Meghan Arnold, Social Media Manager)
- Bossypants by Tina Fey (Emily Grimes, Manager of Community Engagement)
- Far Side Comics (Tim Yarborough, Director of Wellness)
- Attack of the Cute (Meghan Arnold)
- Reddit/Aww (Amy Chan, Project Manager)
- Awkward Family Photos (Carin Gorrell)
- Jim Gaffigan standup (Mark Casey, Creative Director)
- Michael Jr. standup (Cari Overturf, Graphic Designer)
- Modern Family (Jon Hudson, Marketing Director)
- Laughing babies (Emily Grimes)
Day 2: Get moving
Today’s self-care practice is not intended as a guilt trip to get you to the gym. Instead, we simply want to inspire you to do something active that you enjoy, because the personal rewards are truly great.
First, a quick hit-list of just some of the science-backed benefits of physical activity, in case you see anything here you might be looking for. Exercise helps:
- Lift mood in the moment
- Alleviate long-term depression
- Ease and prevent anxiety
- Improve resilience to stress
- Regulate sleep
- Reduce risk of heart disease, diabetes, and certain cancers
- Strengthen muscles and bones
- Control weight
- Increase longevity
And now, some ideas for adding movement to your day without completely throwing off your schedule. If you have time for your favorite yoga class or to jog that trail you love, by all means, go for it! If not, how about:
- Squat breaks. While brushing your teeth, during commercial breaks, as you monitor the stovetop, etc.
- Dancing. Hit the club if that’s your thing, shake your groove thing while you get ready for work, or have an impromptu dance party with your kiddos.
- Cleaning house. Yep, that counts, and it has to get done before the in-laws arrive anyway, right?
- Walking meetings. Your boss or coworkers might appreciate a little movement and time outside the office, too.
- Shopping. Pacing the aisles at the supermarket, department store, bookstore, etc. is an easy way to sneak in extra steps, plus you might find something new for dinner or that perfect holiday gift.
Day 3: Eat mindfully
So much about eating is emotional: we suppress our feelings with food, detest ourselves for overeating, lift our spirits with sweets—the list goes on. Rather than letting food manipulate your mind, Tim recommends trying a mindful eating practice that brings all of your senses to the table, so you can truly enjoy the experience of nourishing your body and empowering it to do all the things you ask of it, day in and day out.
Start by putting half as much food as you would normally eat on your plate, and plan to take two times longer than usual to eat it. Then, get all of your senses involved. Admire the colors and presentation of the food on your plate. Smell the various scents and try to identify all the ingredients and seasonings. Listen to the sounds of sizzling, cutlery against the plate, voices at the table. Feel the various textures and temperatures in your mouth. And finally, chew slowly and savor all the flavors of every bite.
When your plate is clean, sit for a moment and ask yourself: How do I feel? Do I want more? You may find you’re already full; if not, take seconds and continue to eat mindfully, paying close attention to signs of satiation to avoid overeating. This allows your system to digest food optimally, so you feel content and satisfied post-meal instead of overstuffed and regretful.
Day 4: Meditate
Americans are beginning to catch on to the restorative powers of meditation—18 million adults in the U.S. are practicing it, according to the National Center of Complementary and Integrative Health. And for good reason: Various studies have found that meditating can help reduce anxiety, depression, and stress, and improve physical symptoms like pain.
Perhaps the best thing about meditation is that anyone can do it—no special skills or equipment required. If you’re new to meditation, try this short, guided one from Tim Yarborough, Vital Plan’s Director of Wellness. You and your mind deserve this nourishing practice.
Day 5: Use essential oils
If you haven’t yet dabbled in the beautiful-smelling world of essential oils, today is a great time to start. “Scents are very connected to memory,” explains Belinda. “Our brain forms associations between experiences and smells—say, baking chocolate chip cookies with Grandma, or waking up to a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice—and so when we smell cookies or citrus, it triggers our memory and the feelings associated with it.”
But before you reach for that bottle of vanilla-almond body spray, know that there’s good reason to opt for essential oils, instead. “Essential oils are extracts that come directly from plants, so they’re pure and more powerful than typical perfumes or body sprays that are mixed with other ingredients and watered down,” says Macri.
She suggests dabbing just a drop or two on your wrist or neck, or behind your ears, for close proximity to your nose. Here, Belinda’s recommended scents, depending on your needs:
If you’re feeling: Sluggish, lethargic, foggy, congested
Try: Eucalyptus, camphor, juniper, clove, marjoram, orange, peppermint
Best time of day: Morning
If you’re feeling: Agitated, tense, angry, heated
Try: Sandalwood, mint, rose, jasmine, lavender
Best time of day: Mid-day
If you’re feeling: Scattered, overwhelmed, stressed
Try: Basil, geranium, close, vanilla, patchouli
Best time of day: Evening
Day 6: Waste time
Ever found yourself organizing the kitchen junk drawer, working on the wedding album you’ve been putting off for 10 years—doing anything but tackling what’s next on your to-do list? This may be your brain’s way of telling you it needs a break. Let it have one.
Consider too the fact that procrastination might actually have some benefits. John Perry, a Stanford University philosopher and author of The Art of Procrastination, has noted that procrastinators usually aren’t wasting time when they’re postponing other tasks: They’re often getting things done, it might just be to the detriment of more pressing obligations. And some research suggests putting off big projects can help encourage new ways of thinking and boost creativity.
All of this is to say, don’t beat yourself up for “wasting” 15 minutes organizing your medicine cabinet. In fact, consider blocking out some waste-time on your daily calendar to give your overworked mind a mental reprieve. Just be sure to put a cap on it so you don’t find yourself in a deadline pickle later.
Day 7: Get a good night’s sleep
Of all the things that you can do to enhance your well-being, getting ample sleep just might be the most enjoyable and require the least amount of work. And yet, more than a third of us fall short of the recommended seven to eight hours per night, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
If that’s you, and you’re thinking, “So what, I’m a little tired the next day—no big deal.” Well actually, yes big deal. Regularly falling short on sleep is linked with numerous health concerns, including:
- Cardiovascular disease and hypertension
- Impaired immune function
In other words, sleep is not a luxury—it’s an absolutely necessary self-care habit. So tonight, plan to be in bed eight hours before you need to get up the next morning, and factor in 15-30 minutes pre-bed for the soothing practice below from Tim to help quiet the mind and bring on sleep.
Declare these 15-30 minutes “quiet time,” and let everyone who needs to know—your partner, kids, roommate, etc.—that once it begins, there will be no talking until morning (no offense!). You don’t have to sit still in utter silence the entire time; instead, ease into it. Brush your teeth, wash your face, pull out your clothes for the morning, and then take 3-5 minutes to sit completely silent and still before climbing into bed.
“Our thoughts are connected to the action of speaking,” explains Tim. “Give your thoughts a voice, and they gain momentum and start to control you. But commit to not speaking, and it allows your thoughts to settle down and start to dissipate, and your mind to regain control. And that in turn helps you sleep better, because there won’t be a bunch of overactive thoughts alerting the brain that there’s something more important to do than rest.”
Day 8: Cultivate self-compassion
Ever notice how compassion for others comes naturally, and yet when we need to grant ourselves a little kindness and attention it just feels… egocentric?
It’s time to shift that way of thinking. Because as the research is bearing out, self-compassion is our key to resilience: It helps us learn from our mistakes and move forward with inner strength and enthusiasm. It also fights stress, and makes us happier in general—which means we’re nicer and more compassionate to those around us. When you look at it that way, it becomes pretty clear that self-compassion is actually the opposite of self-centered.
Now, how to put self-compassion into practice today? Tim recommends setting aside 10 minutes to mentally highlight your successes, both small and large. Do this later in the day—for instance, as you’re wrapping things up at work, or before you get ready for bed—because that’s when we start to catalog our so-called failures, what we didn’t accomplish from our to-do list.
“I start by visualizing my day, from the moment I woke up, and I acknowledge the various positive things I did—I made coffee for my wife; I checked four things off my to-do list that have been on my list all week, etc.,” says Tim. “I usually don’t even get through the entire day before I realize, wow, I actually did get a lot done today. That changes my entire train of thought from self-critical to self-appreciative.”
Day 9: Go outside
Baby, it’s cold outside! But if you can bundle up and get out there for a walk today, even a short one, you stand to benefit from all of this:
- Better focus
- Improved mood
- Lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol
- Lower blood pressure and heart rate
- Greater parasympathetic nerve activity (aka, less feelings of stress)
- Increased activity of natural killer cells (or, enhanced immune function)
- Reduced oxidative stress (which contributes to aging)
Truly stuck inside? Gaze out a window overlooking a nature scene, preferably one with a forest view. One study found that in workplaces with windows looking out to a forest, the workers were less stressed and happier in their jobs than those with no forest view.
Day 10: Listen to music
Need a good excuse to crank the holiday tunes to 11? Listening to music has impressive and science-backed health benefits, including:
- Lower levels of cortisol and blood pressure
- Reduced feelings of stress and anxiety
- Improved support for acute and chronic aches and pains
- Improved immune function, and possibly even reduced risk of disease
- Better memory and focus
If you’re Jingle Belled out, we’ve got your back. Load up this eclectic and soothing playlist in your Spotify library, consisting of favorites from the team at Vital Plan. We purposefully restricted our picks to quieter tunes, since research suggests calmer music begets a calmer mind:
- “The Sound of Sunshine Going Down” by Michael Franti and Spearhead (Emily Grimes)
- “Just Breathe” by Pearl Jam (Jon Hudson)
- “Slow Slow Tune” by My Morning Jacket (Amy Chan)
- “You Take My Troubles Away” by Rachael Yamagata (Braden Rawls, CEO)
- “Fields of Gold” by Eva Cassidy (Meghan Arnold)
- “You Can Get It If You Really Want” by Jimmy Cliff (Tim Yarborough)
- “The Number 4” by Khruangbin (Mark Casey)
- “California” by Yellowcard (Cari Overturf)
- “Everything is Free” by Gillian Welch (Carin Gorrell)
Day 11: Treat yourself to a massage
Okay, before you start ticking off the reasons you can’t possibly schedule an hour-long spa treatment today (no time, no money, no appointments available until January), remember that you’re in the middle of 12 days of self-care. So while we’ve got nothing against a good Swedish massage, what we’re suggesting you do instead is abhyanga, an Ayurvedic practice of self-massage.
Often done with oils before showering, abhyanga can also be performed without oils and from any comfortable seat. Ayurveda practitioners believe it helps protect the skin, calm and tone muscles, and center the mind.
Ready to begin? Take a seat, remove your shoes and socks, and then follow along with this simple abhyanga how-to video from Vital Plan Health Coach and yoga teacher, Belinda Macri:
Day 12: Connect with your community
Having ample social support is pretty well accepted as one of the best ways to enhance your mental and physical health. Given the holidays are a highly social season, there’s a good chance you’ve already got time scheduled with a loved one today—if so, awesome! Self-care act for the day, done.
If not, fear not: A quick phone call or video chat are modern-day remedies for limited time and long distances. Take a moment right now to stop reading and text or email a friend or family member who always makes you smile to set a time to chat. And keep it simple and low-stress—schedule 10 minutes when you’re both commuting, or while the little ones are playing in the tub and you can keep a close watch while you gab.
On the flip side, there’s the problem of being overbooked, or feeling obligated to spend time with people who are less rejuvenating, more energy sucking (think: that Negative-Nelly aunt, or your good friend’s overbearing boyfriend). Avoid these gatherings or interactions if you can—the more you can infuse your day with positive social interactions and avoid toxic ones, the better.
Congratulations! You’ve completed the 12-Day Self-Care Challenge. We hope you feel fantastic—and inspired to continue these self-care practices into the new year and beyond.
Want to pass along the benefits? Invite friends to the challenge on Facebook (#12DaysOfSelfCare) and share your favorite tips. Wishing you and yours happy, healthy holidays!