Your day is, well, your day. Feed the kids some breakfast and get them out the door to school. Work and then work and work some more. Until you have to take your aging father to the doctor, that is. Don’t be late to get the kids from swimming practice. Once you get home it’s the dinner, homework, getting ready for bed tornado. Once the kids are in bed maybe you return to work emails, take care of other chores or simply collapse on the couch.
So, did you eat healthy meals, exercise, meditate, do something for personal enjoyment and get to sleep on time? “When was I supposed to do that?” you ask. Fair question.
It’s hard to take care of yourself when you’re busy taking care of everyone else. Whether it’s your kids, your parents, your spouse, or other family or friends, if you’re a caring person it’s easy to put others before yourself. But ultimately, that will be bad for everyone.
“I think you have to recognize that if you’re burnt out, you’re no help to anyone else,” says Eric Whittier, DO, an Internal Medicine Doctor in Denver. “If you want to be helpful to the other people in your family, you have to make sure you are at your best so you can keep them at their best.”
If your top priorities don’t include you then you’re putting yourself at risk for mental or physical burnout or simply a slow decline into poor health. In either scenario, you’re not going to be able to take care of the people you value.
When this happens, Dr. Whittier first notices a decline in his patients’ mental health, which can easily lead to negative physical health consequences.
“Not spending enough time taking care of yourself can cause increase in anxiety, stress, depression and difficulty with sleep,” says Dr. Whittier. “And then once those types of things start to occur, it just sort of snowballs and aggravates itself. I think people start to have a short temper and get easily frustrated with things that otherwise wouldn’t be bothersome. They don’t sleep as well. You can notice a change in their interest levels.”
Dwindling motivation, perpetual exhaustion and a full schedule can easily lead to unhealthy habits. Exercise and meditation simply don’t happen regularly. Bedtime gets pushed back so you can fit everything else in. Healthy meals at home turn into whatever is quick and accessible on the way home.
“It’s not uncommon to see patients in their 30s and 40s as they have kids and families they have lost out on their time for themselves,” says Dr. Whittier. “Those are the people I have to counsel about getting back to a healthy weight, getting back to a healthy diet, and may have high blood pressure and high blood sugar.”
In an ideal world, Dr. Whittier recommends consciously recognizing that your health is as important as everyone else’s before or right as the demands on your time start to rise. Whether you’re starting a family, taking care of parents or something else, healthy habits and balance start with the right mindset.
If it’s too late to start with that mindset don’t worry. You will probably have to work a little harder to break out of current habits, but starting with yourself is a choice, and one you can make at any point.
Once you start making self-care a priority in your mind, Dr. Whittier advises patients to treat healthy habits like any other important thing in your life. Set aside time for it, schedule it and don’t let something else get in the way.
“Whether that’s exercise or meditation or doing something for yourself like getting a pedicure or a massage or something like that, make that part of your routine,” says Dr. Whittier.
Dr. Whittier highlights four areas you can prioritize in terms of self-care: sleep, exercise, healthy diet and meditation or mindfulness. He offers some specific advice for each area.
We’ll level with you: The phrases “more alarms” and “weekend bedtime” are about to make an appearance and we know that doesn’t sound like a boatload of fun. But it’s for your well-being.
Dr. Whittier recommends that just like you probably set an alarm to wake up in the morning, you should set an alarm for your bedtime or to start your bedtime routine. It’s easy to get sucked into four episodes of some Netflix show and suddenly you’re falling asleep an hour later than you would like. An alarm can break through whatever is keeping you up.
No one really likes to hear their alarm on the weekends and maybe you even manage to have a social life or finish a whole movie without falling asleep on the couch on a Saturday night (gasp!). Understandable. But a consistent bed and wake time are part of good sleep hygiene, which has numerous health benefits. The closer you can keep your weekend sleep schedule to your weekday schedule, the better off you will be.
Schedule a realistic amount of exercise on your calendar each week and try your hardest to honor that. Treat it like a work meeting, a doctor’s appointment or anything else you wouldn’t skip.
If you haven’t been really active recently, ease your way back into exercise. Even starting with 10-15 minutes of walking is beneficial. Walk for more days or longer periods of time as you feel up to it.
“You don’t go from sitting on the couch to running a marathon,” says Dr. Whittier. “You have to take the small steps in between and the greatest benefit comes from consistency over time.”
Finally, set exercise goals. It can be as simple as going on a walk four days a week or as ambitious as running a race. Having concrete results to compare to your aspirations can be motivating and give more purpose to your day-to-day activities.
Whether it’s full meal-planning for the week, or just preparing a bunch of healthy snacks for the week, set aside some time on a Sunday or a couple nights a week to create healthy options you can grab quickly.
Also, don’t forget that your diet is as important as the rest of your family’s. Make the most of your time and effort by doubling a healthy family dinner so you have leftovers the next day for lunch. You deserve it.
If you always pack your kids’ lunches, maybe you shouldn’t. Buy the ingredients, but let them pack their own lunches as soon as you feel they can do it without destroying the kitchen. It gives them a task, a sense of ownership over their food choices and most importantly, you get some extra time to pack your own healthy lunch.
You don’t need to sit cross-legged on a cliff overlooking a remote beach to find peace and quiet. Any amount of meditation, mindfulness practice or just being still with your thoughts can be beneficial. Even if you only have five minutes a day.
“If you’re in the midst of a stressful day, just finding ten minutes to take a few deep breaths and reset things can really go a long way,” says Dr. Whittier. “It helps you focus better at work so you’re more efficient and then that efficiency gives you satisfaction. That can carry over and you feel like you can accomplish things at home, as well.”
Above all, you have to value your well-being the same way you do your loved ones and realize that being out of balance is not sustainable.
“It’s doing the small things in your life that allow you to keep perspective,” says Dr. Whittier. “When you feel overwhelmed by the number of things you have to do, you have to remember to take the time out of your day to do the things that make you feel better.”