How To Create Healthy Habits a Step at a Time

Try these positive daily strategies, make a commitment to self-care and achieve optimal wellness.


by NEA Member Benefits

Teaching requires extraordinary mental and physical strength, so making a daily commitment to your health is key.

“Self-care in terms of nutrition, fitness and mental resiliency is crucial to your performance level,” says Amy Hendel, PA, founder of and author of The “4 Habits of Healthy Families.”

Manifesting good habits takes time, but it’s worth the effort. “Depending on the difficulty of the habit being created, and the support system on board to make the change, it can take anywhere from four to 10 weeks to make lasting changes,” says Caroline Miller, MAPP, Positive Psychology Expert and author of “Creating Your Best Life.” The good news: The more consistency you bring to the change early in the process, the more likely your new habits will stick.

Here we highlight five critical self-care areas—and positive daily strategies to ensure lasting change.

1. Sleep

Nearly two-thirds of Americans report their sleep needs aren’t being met during a typical week. Yet experts agree getting sufficient shuteye is as important to health and well-being as diet, exercise and stress relief. In fact, a growing body of research links poor sleep habits with an increased risk for heart disease, diabetes, obesity and impaired immunity. Another reason to sleep more: Getting “more than ‘rest and recharge,’ sleep actually allows your brain to imprint and store information you’re exposed to during the day,” says Hendel.

Sleep goal: Get 7-9 hours of sleep each night.

Baby step: Establish good sleep hygiene by waking and going to bed at the same time each day—even on weekends. Learn how to solve the four most annoying sleep problems.

2. Eat

Your body and mind need a steady supply of fuel (i.e., glucose) to function at its best. How you manage your diet dictates whether you stay energized throughout a challenging workday, or face insurmountable slumps when you need energy.  “Studies show when you start the day with the right proportion of protein, fats and complex carbohydrates, your blood sugar rises steadily, making it easier to be alert and awake,” says Miller. “The body works best in 90-minute spurts of intensity and rest, so have a few small snacks to help you through any mid-morning and early afternoon dips (think bananas, trail mix and fiber-rich snacks).”

Nutrition goal: Eat a power breakfast everyday. Studies show eating breakfast improves memory, problem-solving ability and mood.

Baby step: Munch on trail mix before hunger pangs strike. “Nuts and seeds plus a fruit or veggie, or a hard-boiled egg helps boost energy levels without the typical blood sugar slump that comes after consuming the standard processed carbohydrate snack,” says Hendel.

3. Move

Experts claim exercise is medicine for both body and mind. Studies show physical activity improves circulation, boosts energy and reduces stress. Plus, research suggests that exercise, particularly interval training, is an optimal way to enhance mood and build endurance—both of which help educators excel at the head of the class. A bonus: The benefits of a workout last for hours, even without a 90-minute stint at the gym.

Activity goal: Exercise for at least 30 minutes, 5-7 days each week.

Baby step: Take every opportunity to move. Park at the end of the parking lot. Take the stairs. Wash your car (instead of hitting the car wash). Do lunges while you brush your teeth.

4. Breathe

Stress is America’s epidemic, and it’s one of the greatest risk factors for chronic disease—and busy educators are especially vulnerable. While our bodies are remarkably capable of bouncing back from short bouts of stress, chronic stress launches a negative chain reaction that leads to poor habits. Meditation can help break the cycle. Research shows that daily meditation not only reduces stress, lowers blood pressure and promotes well-being, it also creates a surge in mood-stabilizing chemicals and feel-good hormones like serotonin.

Stress management goal: Meditate for 10 minutes daily. According to a University of Pennsylvania research study, daily meditation improves the ability to prioritize and manage tasks and goals, re-focus attention and stay alert to the environment.

Baby step: When you’re feeling stressed, take three deep breaths. Even one deep centered breath can lower blood pressure, ease muscle tension and release stress.

5. Dream

Visualizing a desired outcome—whether knocking a baseball out of the park or navigating the buffet without overdoing it—is a great tool on the pathway to success. According to research in positivity, changing the output of your body requires rewriting the software in your mind. This intimate connection between mind and body explains why people who see the glass half full tend to be healthier than their glass-empty counterparts. “Simply generating positive emotions is the equivalent of hitting a ‘reset button’ when it comes to stress,” says Miller. Dubbed the “undoing effect,” creating emotions of pleasure, joy and contentment can undo the cardiovascular stresses initiated in the body. A bonus: Positive emotions are contagious. Not only will you undo the impact of stress on your body, you’ll also create an energetic environment that advances student learning.

Positive thinking goal: Actively reframe your thoughts to support your desire for happiness and success. Not only are you more likely to accomplish these goals, but your stress levels will decline, too.

Baby step: Every morning, visualize yourself accomplishing a small goal, such as meditating when you get stressed.