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Improving health inside out

Tara Parker-Pope

CNA/THE NEW YORK TIMES – When I first started writing about health more than 20 years ago, my columns mostly focussed on the physical body: A healthy diet, exercise and screening for disease were regular topics.

But over the years, the health lessons that have stayed with me haven’t been about physical change. The biggest improvements in my own health and well-being have come from inner fitness.

Inner fitness means focussing your energy on your emotional well-being and mental health rather than berating yourself about your diet, weight or not getting enough exercise. It can include mindfulness and meditation techniques, a gratitude routine or a variety of other practices.

This inside-out approach to health ultimately can lead to changes in your physical well-being, too. Research shows, for instance, that mindfulness can lower blood pressure, improve sleep, lead to better eating habits and reducechronic pain.

“Inner fitness means developing the mental, emotional and spiritual skills and practices that foster resilience,” said author of The Little Book of Big Lies: A Journey Into Inner Fitness Tina Lifford. “I’d like to see the idea of inner fitness become as ubiquitous, well understood and actionable as physical fitness.”

Lately, because I’ve decided it’s time for a change, I’ve been reflecting on the lessons I’ve learned about inner fitness since starting the Well section nearly 15 years ago.

As I depart The New York Times for a new opportunity, I’d like to leave you with some of the most memorable tips for inner fitness that I’ve collected in recent years.


The field of self-compassion has exploded since I first wrote about it in 2011. The concept is simple: Treat yourself as kindly as you would treat a friend who needs support.

About 75 per cent of people who find it easy to be supportive of others score very low on self-compassion tests and are not very nice to themselves, said associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin and an expert on self-compassion Kristin Neff.

If you often berate yourself for perceived failures, like not losing weight or not being a better parent or spouse, try taking a self-compassion break. Start by asking yourself: What do I need right now?


Our bodies and minds benefit in a variety of ways when we help others. Studies show that volunteering, donating money or sharing advice with friends can release the brain’s feel-good chemicals and activate its reward system.

Volunteers had lower stress hormones on days when they donated their time. “One of the best anti-anxiety medications available is generosity,” said organisational psychologist at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania Adam Grant, when I interviewed him for one of my favourite stories of the pandemic, called The Science of Helping Out.


Good things happen when we pay attention. We’re more able to manage negative thinking when we take a moment to notice negative thoughts. Watching for small wonders around us when we take an “awe” walk can amplify the mental health benefits of exercise.

Identifying your feelings and naming them – something scientists call “affect labelling” – can calm your brain and reduce stress.


Learning to quiet my mind and soothe my anxiety has been the greatest benefit I’ve gained from writing about health. I use meditation apps often – lately I’ve been listening to the teachers of the Unplug app, who helped us create Meditations for Uncertain Times.

I learned “five-finger meditation” from Director of Research and Innovation at Brown University’s Mindfulness Centre Dr Judson Brewer. I also like to find mindful moments in everyday activities, like brushing my teeth or savouring a morning cup of coffee.


What one- or two-hour period in each day do you feel your best? Your most energetic? Your most productive? Now ask yourself: Who gets those hours? Chances are you’re spending those highly productive hours on work demands, paying bills, sorting through emails or managing the needs of the household.

But now that you’ve identified the time of day when you’re feeling your best, try giving that time to yourself instead, advised executive coach and professor of exercise and sport science at Judson University in Elgin, Illinois Jack Groppel.

For me, this advice has been transformative. Giving yourself your best time each day to focus on your personal goals and values is the ultimate form of self-care.


Professor at Wharton and author of the book How to Change Katy Milkman has studied the science of new beginnings, which she called the fresh-start effect.

She and her colleagues have found that we’re most inclined to make meaningful changes in our lives around “temporal landmarks” – those points in time that we naturally associate with new beginnings.

New Year’s Day is the most obvious temporal landmark in our lives, but birthdays, the start of the school year or a new job are all temporal landmarks that create psychological opportunities for lasting change.