Self-care is in!

2020 was a rough year for a lot of us. Between time indoors, the absence of in-person social functions, and restrictions on places like gyms, many of us saw a decline in our emotional, mental, and physical health. 

Self-care was a term used a lot throughout last year, and it's just as topical today as it was during the initial surreality and confusion of the pandemic's first lockdowns. However, self-care doesn't just mean doing whatever you need to in order to get through the week—it also means being accountable to yourself by acting in your own long-term interests.

Starting your self-care journey can be daunting, especially if you feel like last year still has you wired into survival mode. Thankfully, you don't need to change everything overnight. In fact, a huge component of accountable, sustainable self-care is working at a pace that allows you to commit to mindful, constructive changes. To that end, let's take a look at five ways that you can start practicing self-care TODAY, starting with: 

Wake Up Early (with a purpose)

No matter how much excitement you hear from that one friend who gets up to do yoga at 5:30 a.m., setting your alarm clock for any earlier than necessary can seem like a miserable idea. Although you may consider yourself a night owl, there are a ton of benefits to waking up early that aren't present in pushing your late-night Netflix an additional hour into the a.m. 

Waking up in order to take some time for yourself gives you an opportunity to set the tone for the day: both physically and emotionally. By taking some time to stretch, jog, or do yoga in the mornings, you're setting yourself up for a more energized and aware day that you'll get from repeatedly hitting snooze. Incorporating physical activity into your morning routine is also a great way to commit to something. You don't need to set aside an extra hour for some pre-sunrise powerlifting—getting as little as 15 minutes of yoga a day can have a noticeable impact on your energy, health, and mood if you stick with it. 

There's also a growing consensus about the mental health benefits of taking some time for yourself in the morning. Getting up before the bustle of the day begins can afford you some precious free time to be alone with your thoughts, whether that manifests in journaling, meditating, or just zeroing in on brewing that perfect batch of coffee. If you're having trouble finding the focus, willpower, or energy to set aside some time in the morning, start small. Try setting your alarm for just five minutes earlier than you would normally, and roll it back an additional five minutes after a week or two. Over time, you'll unlock an entirely new part of the day that you can use to reflect, prepare, and focus for the day ahead of you. 

Be Active In a Way That Works for You!

We get it. Being told to "exercise more" doesn't usually feel like constructive advice, especially if you're feeling too overwhelmed to commit to a routine. At the same time, getting enough exercise is a vital part of sustainable, accountable self-care. 

If starting CrossFit or registering for a marathon doesn't sound like something you're interested in, that's okay! Working out doesn't have to exclusively be the domain of gym rats and long-distance runners, it's something that you can likely sneak into your day without making too many changes! You don't have to jump into a hardcore lifting routine, start by looking for opportunities to get more steps in during the day. This could come from ducking away from your desk for the occasional 15-minute walk, or even just taking the stairs instead of the elevator in the morning! 

If you stick with it, you'll naturally start to notice the benefits in your mood, stamina, and energy. Take this as an opportunity to look for another area where you can sneak in some more exercise! Self-care through exercise starts by being accountable for the movement that your body needs, and you'll thank yourself later for starting there. 

Be Mindful About Your Eating

This is another piece of advice that can feel condescending (or even useless) when you're feeling overwhelmed. As with exercise, the best kind of commitment is the kind that you can maintain. Oftentimes, that means starting somewhere manageable and identifying more ways where you can practice sustainable self-care! 

This can fly in the face of a lot of pop culture self-care on the internet, especially after last year's pandemic. A lot of us gained weight during the pandemic, and there's no shame in that. However, long-term self-care means pivoting away from short-term survival mode, and a common area to start is with food. While smashing an entire pint of ice cream can feel gratifying—or at least numbing—at the time, it's hard not to feel the drawbacks the next day. Over time, this can compound into a lower self-image or a tendency to use food as a painkiller, which is both options that aren't caring for yourself at all! 

Start by just keeping track of the food that you eat. Maintain a food log where you track (or at least approximate) the number of calories that you have in a day. If you're still navigating 2020 eating habits, you may identify things that you want to change immediately--or at least areas where you want to be more mindful about what you consume. That should help you get started, both by giving you a sense of how your diet impacts your activity while also empowering you to start making changes. From there, consider learning more about how tracking macros work or even meet with a nutritionist to get a sense of what your nutritional priorities are and what dietary patterns support them. 

Remember, holding yourself accountable when eating or seeing a nutritionist isn't a sign that you're "bad" at managing your food; it's a sign that you love yourself enough to be accountable for the things you eat! 

Consistent Sleep Goes a Long Way

Getting the right amount of sleep can feel like a downright mythical concept at times. We've all had weeks where we've been randomly exhausted during the day, only to be wired awake at night, as if our bodies are attempting to switch us to a vampire schedule. Finding that line between too much sleep and too little can feel challenging, especially if you're a night owl.

While everybody's exact sleep needs vary, the consensus among the American Academy of Sleep Medicine is that adults need at least seven hours per night. Your individual needs might vary, and there's no shame in experimenting with different sleeping hours until you find the amount that best energizes you. 

Once you've got an idea of how many hours of sleep you respond best to, however, comes the difficult part: consistency. As much as setting a bedtime for yourself can feel like a drag, being consistent on your sleep-wake cycle has been shown to make a massive difference in your energy, mood, and overall mental state. If you feel like you've been consistently waking up feeling more tired than you were the night before, consider making a sleep log. Just like with food, simply tracking something is a valuable first step in holding yourself accountable to it, and a game-changer for your self-care. 

You deserve to wake up feeling rested. After all, it makes everything else on this list that much more manageable!

Start Working Out! (Again!)

It can be easy to feel self-conscious returning to the gym after such a long time away, especially if it was a part of your routine before social distancing rules went into effect. That said, when you feel the desire to return, jump on it! Beyond the physical benefits of getting more exercise, being a part of a gym can be an awesome social AND emotional tool for constructively holding yourself accountable. 

There's a lot of people feeling self-conscious after the lockdowns, so there are good odds that your fear of being judged is being shared by the people around you. You might as well allow that fact to push the doubt from your mind--or at least quiet it enough to start working out with a group! Small group training classes are a great way to immerse yourself into the fitness world in an engaging, flexible way WITHOUT feeling like you're shackled to a brutal lifting schedule. If you want strength training and cardio in the same workout, consider BODYPUMP classes! Meanwhile, Zumba is a great way to disguise an awesome workout routine as a dance party! 

We've personally been going crazy for the group fitness classes at Club Greenwood. Their barre, yoga, and indoor cycling classes in particular have been a lifesaver after a year of feeling crummy from being sedentary. 

At the end of the day, the best form of self-care is the kind that you can sustain. It can be easy to get lost in overeating, weeknight happy hours, or idle 2 a.m. Netflix binges, but it's worth being honest with yourself about how much better those numbing activities actually make you feel. Loving something also means holding it accountable, and this is especially true when it comes to loving yourself. 

Just remember to breathe easy: you don't have to fix everything overnight. You just have to remind yourself that YOU'RE awesome and worth making positive changes for, and care for yourself accordingly.