I grew up in the nighties and early noughts when the message from the media and celebrities was clear: if you were slim, you could be successful. It was a culture of extreme diets and excessive exercise. Normative gender stereotypes were rife, women did cardio, men lifted heavy weights. The ideal female body types were slim to very slim, while men should be lean with muscle definition. I lived in a household with a mother who had been put on a diet at the age of six. Weight Watchers was religion in our household—we lived by points not commandments. My father, on the other hand, swung like a pendulum between complete abstinence from “bad” foods to bingeing on supersize bags of chips and chocolate, while promising out loud to whoever listened that tomorrow he would “be good”.
I spent my teens and early twenties obsessively weighing myself, constantly on a hamster wheel of chasing the hottest new diet fad. I tried them all, from Gwyneth Paltrow's go-to macrobiotic diet to The Zone, favored by Jennifer Aniston. I tried too many more to list here. But the message most of them had in common was that you should eat sub-1200 calories and that carbohydrates were the devil (unless they resembled a salad leaf). So, it goes without saying that I am highly influenced by trends. I lifted weights and counted macros when fitness influencers became a thing, I bought a Nutribullet and Vitamix when the world was juicing, and I intermittent fasted with the best of them. I’ve counted calories, fat percentages, and weight on the scales. I can, hand on heart, say I don’t think a single day has gone by that I don’t think about my weight or size. If only I had grown up in a society that placed more focus on the mind than the body. How different things might look today if generations had been told by glossy magazines and reality TV shows that their success would be measured wholly on skill or intellect, rather than looks.
Nowadays, we live in a much more accepting world when it comes to body shape. It’s not perfect, by any means, but the body positivity movement has given us celebrities with a variety of body types to look up to—Ashley Graham, Lizzo, Iskra Lawrence, and Paloma Elsesser, to name a few. The trouble is, even if I put on weight, I definitely don’t look like any of them when I stand in front of the mirror. I have a waist that is disproportionately thick, average-sized boobs, and relatively thin legs. And that's the crux of it—what I have come to realize is that no matter how much I try, I’ll always look like me. It’s so incredibly obvious, but life would be so much simpler if we all embraced how we looked. Of course, I’m not anti-self-improvement (I've had Botox, lasers, and frozen my belly fat). I'm not anti-plastic surgery (for those brave enough, cool!), but making changes from a place of acceptance is far better than from a place of frantic desperation to change or "be better."
I turned 35 this year, and my priority has switched from chasing a certain body type that’s du jour, to chasing health. It’s clichéd, sure, but the saying "health is wealth" rings true. These days, I try to eat intuitively—if I have a cinnamon roll for breakfast, then I balance it with a nutritious salad (that includes good fats, protein, and carbs) for lunch. Nothing is off-limits, I don’t count calories or label foods "good" or "bad"—I just know that some foods are more nutritionally dense than others, and I try to exercise mindfully. That means I don't kill myself with cardio or chasing a PB during weights session. Instead, I do mindful exercise like reformer Pilates or walking and cycling—exercises that I enjoy and can do in healthy moderation.
Now look, I’m by no means perfect. I put on weight during lockdown, when I exercised at the start then quickly switched my workouts for wine. I went from a US size 6 to 8. But I’m not panicking as I would have done in my teens, because I don’t hate what I see in the mirror anymore (thanks, in part, to the body positivity movement). I'd be lying if I said I didn't want to lose the added weight, but it's not for aesthetic reasons anymore—it's simply because I don’t feel as healthy as I did earlier this year. I get puffed out on my bike and I’m not as strong on the reformer at Pilates as I was pre-Covid. But if lockdown has taught me anything, it’s that life is precious. I no longer want to obsess about a number on the scale or the tag in my clothing. No one but me cares if my belly isn’t rock hard and if they do, well, they’re not worth it. What I do want to focus on is being as healthy as can be and making it a lasting lifestyle, not a passing fad. That's not to say I'll never go on a diet again; I'm hardwired to try new trends. Plus, I'm a journalist who likes to test the things I write about—but now, if a diet is unhealthy (and I can usually tell right off the bat), then I'll swerve it.
So, with all that in mind, I called on 18 health experts to reveal the tips we can all do today to feel healthier and happier, regardless of weight or clothes size.
Eat a Nutrient-Rich Diet
Instead of eating to lose weight, why not eat for glowing skin? "Our skin is our body’s largest organ," says Dr. Kemi Fabusiwa, founder of Joyful Skin. "What occurs on the surface of our skin is often a reflection of what is happening inside our bodies. When we are healthy on the inside, our skin is better able to carry out its role as a protective barrier to the outside world."
She notes that it's important to make sure your diet contains all the essential nutrients. "Essential vitamins, carotenoids, and plant extracts all have important antioxidant properties that are essential for your skin [and health]," she explains. "Vitamin C and E are important skin-boosting antioxidants that reduce free-radicals and boost the skin’s collagen supply. Carotenoids (which are derived from vitamin A) help to protect your skin from UV-radiation and plant extracts like green tea, also have powerful antioxidant properties that decrease premature aging."
"Cutting out alcohol is another great way to protect the skin," she continues. "Alcohol dehydrates the skin, its diuretic properties cause us to lose excess water rapidly, contributing to a drier, more brittle complexion. The high sugar content can also lead to inflammation in the dermis of the skin."
"Go for a walk in natural daylight as soon as you wake up!" says nutritional and functional medicine expert Toral Shah, MSc and founder of the @theurbankitchen. "Natural daylight is important for regulating our internal body clock and circadian rhythms, which closely modulate our metabolism, sleep, and hormones. Daylight decreases our melatonin levels (our sleep hormone) and increases insulin sensitivity when we eat food."
"In the evening, melatonin levels increase and insulin sensitively decreases, which reduces our metabolism and prepares our body for rest and repair," she continues. "In these times of lockdown, where we have been inside for more time and using screens more to connect with friends and family and for work, we are more exposed to blue light which can disrupt our melatonin levels and disrupt our sleep. When our sleep is disrupted, this can impact our hunger hormone (ghrelin) to increase the next day, which may increase appetite."
Check-In With Yourself
"Often when I’m feeling off I ask myself: have I eaten, am I tired, do I need water and where am I in my cycle?" says energy healer Millana Snow. "If all those things check off, I realize that I have a suppressed emotion that I need to move through, which I do with deep breathwork to lean into and release any tears, sadness, or fear. I write in my journal and free write, asking myself, 'What is coming up for me?' And then I let the answers, thoughts, and emotions flow!"
Shake It Off
When Snow is breathing deep, she adds movement, too. "Wometimes I will literally shake it off until it comes up and out (dance or shake like a wet dog)," she says.
Lyanne (Tig) Hodson, co-founder of Strongher, does the same. "In the morning, I love to shake and let out an audible breathing—ridding yourself of the grogginess of the morning, removing anything that doesn’t serve you, while also putting a pep in your step for the day," she says. "I actually created the concept for Strongher; it's called breakthrough and it removes the rules of fitness and inhibitions felt in typical fitness culture, and it allows you to feel! You start your day letting go of yesterday or any sort of self-doubt."
Find an Accountability Buddy
"The best way to get back into fitness after having a long break off is to have someone else to hold you accountable to ensure you take the steps needed to get back into your routine," says Tashi Skervin (@tashi_skervinclarke), runner, personal trainer, and founder of @tscmethod. "It could be as simple as writing down your goals and setting a goal date. How about telling your friends about your goals? You never know, they might have the same goals in mind and you could work together to achieve them. Another great way to be held accountable is by participating in live exercise classes. The instructor can offer you both motivation and encouragement in real-time, and hiring a personal trainer means your goals will become a lot more focused, and offer weekly check-ins to help you to remain motivated."
Ask Yourself: What Do I Value?
"Do you value being health conscious right now? If not, that is okay, because sometimes when we are in a place of threat and survival (scarcity mindset), we are not ready to engage in changes and we are seeking comfort and safety," explains Dr. Tina Mistry (@brownpsychologist). "If you are now ready to change and feel safe, [think about it you have ever] previously taken care of yourself. How did you think and feel when you were doing that—i.e. I am strong/feel relaxed/feel good. Visualize in your mind how you looked, thought, and felt when making conscious healthier choices. When we engage in the memory/fantasy, we can engage in the emotion and the physical sense of positivity. We are then more likely to see and engage in the more conscious choices by making our minds and bodies remember.
"Do not be afraid to check in with yourself (or an accountability partner) regularly—be the observer of your emotions and thoughts," she continues. "Often, we are blindly eating and engaging in comfort behaviors. Again if we do this, we need to compassionately ask ourselves whether this behavior is aligned with our values and whether it is what we need at that moment. The more we criticize and punish ourselves, the worse we feel, which then leads to downward spirals of comfort-seeking."
Skip the Scales
“Something I always try and tell members of Do The Unthinkable is to stay away from the scales," says Steve Ahern, personal trainer and the face of Musclefood’s Do the Unthinkable health and fitness program. "The scales have a wicked way of dictating how you dress, how you interact with others, and how you feel about yourself.
“Also, ask yourself this question—would you prefer to see the number on the scales drop, but feel terrible in yourself, or feel amazing and not see the number on the scales you want to see? It should always be the latter.”
Change Just One Meal
If you're trying to eat healthier, you don’t have to do it all at once, says nutritionist Le'Nise Brothers (@eatlovemove). "Focus on making changes to one meal, perhaps breakfast," says Brothers. "Could you take more time with breakfast and swap your morning bowl of cereal for a morning smoothie with lots of greens? Or make an omelet with two to three different types of vegetables? A great breakfast full of green, fiber, protein, and good fat will keep you fuller for longer and reduce the number of snack breaks, i.e. trips to the kitchen to graze."
Take a Multivitamin
"It can be extremely difficult to get all the vitamins and minerals your body needs to thrive from food alone, not to mention time-consuming and expensive," notes Ben May, founder of natural beauty supplement company, Skin Woof. "This is where supplementing your diet with certain vitamins and minerals can give your health that extra boost."
"Common deficiencies include iron deficiency and vitamin D deficiency," he continues. "If you're lacking energy, suffering from low mood, and experiencing a weakened immune system, try a multivitamin that contains these ingredients."
"Spend time focusing on how you want to feel, rather than focusing on how you currently feel—visualize a happier, healthier you and notice how you feel at this moment," suggests Lisa Olona, coach and founder of the Unstoppable Woman program. "If you do this and then exercise over the next two weeks, your brain will start to become addicted to the feeling you’re now having, and it’ll begin to do whatever it takes to re-create that feeling. This is your source of unlimited motivation."
Address Your Relationship to Your Body Image
"Achieving your weight goals will not solve the body image and self-esteem issues you may face," says Abbas Kanani, pharmacist at Chemist Click. "The average person spends around one to two hours on social media daily, where one in three influencers are fitness based. If you have a regular job, looking like an influencer (whose job it is to look a certain type of way) is often unrealistic."
"Social media presents a distorted version of reality, and many of the pictures we see are taken in certain angles, or in certain lighting, or at certain times of the day where water retention is low, giving a ripped look," she continues. "Many influencers use Photoshop and filters to enhance their body. Constantly being bombarded with these images can make you feel as if your body is not good enough. We also need to take into consideration that not everyone has the same body type... This is genetic and cannot be changed, no matter how hard you try.
The solution? Unfollow the fitness influencers that offer little or no value. "It’s nice to have goals and something to work towards, but you need to be realistic and true to yourself," she says. "You need to remember that this is your journey and no one else's."
Achieving your weight goals will not solve the body image and self-esteem issues you may face.
"Something that so many of us neglect is hydration," says Dr. Zoe Williams. "Mild dehydration can negatively affect our concentration, productivity, energy levels, and make us more likely to overeat. Keep a pint glass in the bathroom and vowing to drink one pint of water each morning—while you're in the shower or after brushing our teeth is a great way to ensure we start the day adequately hydrated."
"When we’re dehydrated, the stomach holds on to water to prevent the situation from getting worse, which in turn creates bloating," says Kathryn Danzey, health and wellbeing expert and founder of the supplement brand Rejuvenated. "Adding electrolytes to a glass of water will encourage fluid to leave the stomach and enter the body to rebalance hydration, thus reducing signs of bloating."
"Once we start to feel thirsty, our body is already dehydrated, and drinking plain water will take at least an hour to replenish levels," she notes. "Consuming electrolytes will speed up this process and energize you for the afternoon ahead."
Make Bathtime a Nightly Ritual
"Setting aside time for your evening ritual to optimize sleep has hugely beneficial outputs," says Nutrition Expert & PT Stephen Jones, CEO and Co-Founder of Nourish Fit Food. "Swap your restless scanning for news updates and Instagram stories for an Epsom salt bath. From an immunity point of view, magnesium is best absorbed through the skin, working faster to produce serotonin to soothe any anxiety and stress taken on throughout your day. To make your body even more primed for deep relaxation and promote an overall feeling of wellness, add a few drops of lavender oil to really hit that sweet spot of self-care.”
"There is some interesting science that fake smiling can actually trick your brain into releasing certain hormones including dopamine and serotonin," says Emma Selby, clinical nurse consultant at Results Wellness Lifestyle. "Dopamine increases our feelings of happiness, while serotonin release is associated with reduced stress. Even a forced smile can reduce feelings of stress and anxiety, making you feel better!"
Do Mindful Movement
"We encourage mind-body connection in elements such as posture, form, and alignment during workouts," says Melissa James, pilates instructor and head of barre at Ten Health & Fitness. "By focusing on mindful movement, and therefore noticing how much our amazing bodies are actually capable of, you'll appreciate your body for how it takes care of you, how good it can make you feel, and not just what it looks like."
"Our brain works best if it is made from the omega-3 fatty acids only found in oily fish or algae oil," says dietitian, Sophie Medlin. "Increasing these essential fats is associated with improved mood and memory and reduced risk of dementia. You can take algae oil supplements if you're vegan or you don’t like oily fish."
Be Your Own (Kind) Mentor
"Coach yourself through food choices like a supportive parent, not your high school bully. If we want to eat cake for the third time in the day, try telling yourself that you can have a bit more after a walk or after a bath or after you’ve eaten a healthy meal, just like your parents might have done," says Medlin. "If you tell yourself you’re greedy and have no self-control and are a failure like bullies do, you’re more likely to make worse choices for yourself due to low self-esteem."
Coach yourself through food choices like a supportive parent, not your high school bully
Take Time for Self-Care
"Use a Gua sha stone to do some lymphatic drainage on yourself in the evening –it will help to wake up a tired-looking face, decrease puffiness and help to naturally drain toxins from the body," says Joie Risk, Lifestyle Medicine + Wellbeing Coach and MD of Sunlighten UK.