Stay curious, walk more, and always wake at the same time: 10 habits for a better life

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Health and wellbeing experts share their one top tip for a small change that could improve your life

September is the season of good intentions, second only to the new year, as most of us return to routines after a summer break. No better time, then, to think about small positive changes we could turn into habits.

Here are 10 to consider, singled out by experts working in various aspects of health and wellbeing as the one beneficial habit they’d recommend.

1. Make it a cold shower

Turning the shower dial to blue gives a physiological kick to our bodies, with the cold water on our skin creating what’s called a “hormetic effect”, says Prof Rose Anne Kenny, head of medical gerontology at Trinity College Dublin and founder of the Longitudinal Study on Ageing (Tilda).

Cooling caused by the cold water stimulates the nerve and hormonal pathways to work extra hard to bring back the core, or inner-body, temperature to normal. The heart rate increases, as does cardiac output, ie the amount of blood that is pushed from the heart in a single beat, and there’s a release of chemicals such as endorphins, resulting in a sensation similar to the runner’s high. It’s also good for the immune system. A randomised trial showed participants who had cold water stimulus were 54 per cent less likely in the 12-month follow-up to take any sick leave for infections and nearly all reported higher energy levels.


There’s no clear evidence on necessary duration but “it appears you get the same benefit up to one minute and possibly two minutes. I would say anything from 30 seconds to a minute, there is evidence for,” says Kenny, author of Age Proof: The New Science of Living a Longer and Healthier Life. Start with just five seconds, she suggests, and increase gradually.

A sauna offers similar benefits, as it stimulates the body to counteract the warming effect. A Finnish study that followed people for up to 21 years found those who had about five saunas a week were significantly less likely to suffer Alzheimer’s disease or heart attacks.

2. Hit your dietary fibre targets

This is a “no brainer”, says registered dietitian Sarah Keogh of, yet four out of five of us are not eating enough fibre. Roughage is not fashionable, with people fixated instead on protein content, avoiding carbohydrates and taking vitamin pills. Yet it’s very important, and not only for gut health; it also reduces the risk of cancer, heart disease and diabetes, and aids weight control. Aim to consume at least 25g of fibre a day: for that you’re looking at 2-3g per piece of fruit or portion of vegetables; a high-fibre breakfast cereal provides about 3-4g but you will still need the “brown” versions of bread, rice or pasta; and, to top up the deficit, scatter a dessert spoon of seeds (2-3g) over, say, porridge, salads or soup. Beans and lentils are a “spectacular” source too, she says.

“You need to look at every meal and say, ‘where’s the fibre?’” But one word of warning: don’t try to adopt this habit from scratch in one day. Take about three weeks to work up to the daily target.

3. Wake at the same time seven days a week

A consistent wake time and a “reasonably consistent” bed time is the most important habit to optimise your sleep, says physiologist Motty Varghese of the Sleep Therapy Clinic in Dublin . You can be a little flexible about bed time if you’re not feeling sleepy.

The rationale behind the need for consistency is that every hour we stay awake, we build up our “sleep drive”, through a chemical accumulating in our brain. If we have had been awake long enough during the day, we will be sufficiently sleepy at bedtime.

After a later than normal night, it’s best not to compensate for lost sleep by lying on in the morning. The brain has its own way of adjusting after a late night, altering the time it spends in different stages of sleep.

While sleep debt should be avoided, he acknowledges that people rising particularly early on weekdays for, say, a long commute, “should consider paying off that sleep debt, within reason, at the weekend”. But generally, stick to your wake time and “if you’re very tired during the day, we have a period between 2pm and 5pm where we feel that slump and we can consider a 15- to 20-minute nap”.

4. Be curious for brain health

Develop the habit of curiosity to feed your brain. Curiosity is one of the most nourishing of brain foods because a curious mind manufactures its own novelty, explains neuroscientist and author Prof Ian Robertson, co-director of the Global Brain Health Institute .

“A sense of ‘new’ – seen, heard or experienced for the first time – causes the brain to generate enriching levels of the neurotransmitter noradrenaline, which has remarkably beneficial effects on the networks of your brain. Curious people live longer because of these positive brain effects; they do not become jaded by the grey predictability and over-familiarity of the worlds we create for ourselves.”

Instead of reaching for your phone to scroll mindlessly, say out loud to yourself, “I wonder if… or why…”, he suggests. “Other words and phrases are just as good: ‘What if…’, ‘Supposing…’ ‘How does…’ The habit of curiosity,” he adds, “is a power-tool for the mind that opens up vistas, perceptions, thoughts and opportunities that are closed to the uncurious mind”.

5. Take a daily walk

An easy way to achieve regular exercise, which is critical to health, healthy ageing and quality of life, is by walking daily, says Dr Noel McCaffrey, founder of ExWell Medical . The benefits are huge, irrespective of your age and body shape.

Build up to walking for one hour and spend the time relaxing, contemplating, problem-solving, being creative or connecting with a walking partner. To improve your cardiovascular health, it is better to walk briskly, to the point where you feel a little breathless, he says. Many people, especially those with any form of long-term illness, fear becoming breathless. But being breathless occasionally is perfectly normal.

“It is both enjoyable and good for your heart and lungs, once it is not extreme,” he advises. “The simple guideline to use is the ‘talk test’. If you can talk to your walking partner despite being a little breathless, you are at exactly the right intensity for health improvement. If you could sing a song, you need to speed up. If you are gasping, slow down a bit.”

Leaf Illustration: Fuchsia MacAree

6. Start your day with gratitude

Habitual expression of gratitude is an antidote to toxic stress and feelings of anxiety, according to Waterford GP Dr Mark Rowe , an advocate of lifestyle medicine and author of The Vitality Mark. Gratitude boosts positive emotions, supports relationships and “acts like a glue to build health-enhancing habits”. It’s not a matter of pretending everything is perfect, rather a conscious choice to focus more on what is going well.

Rowe uses the mnemonic GLAD to start his day, in a written or reflective exercise that takes only a few minutes. The answers can be brief as just a few words can make a difference, he says.

G: Gratitude: what or who are you grateful for today?

L: Let go: what can you let go of today? Little niggles, petty resentments, old ideas that no longer serve you?

A: Appreciation: who can you appreciate today and show them that through gratitude or kindness?

D: Dedicated focus: what’s most important for dedicating your time and energy to today?

7. Flick the parenting strength switch

Daily life is full of stressors, and if you find you’re forever giving out to your children, be it for lollygagging over homework, fighting with siblings, answering back or being slow to eat their dinner, it might be time to change your approach.

“Flick the strength switch instead,” says Dr Jolanta Burke, senior lecturer at the RCSI Centre for Positive Psychology and Health. Strength-based parenting is associated with higher levels of children’s wellbeing, more academic success, higher self-esteem and improvement in children-parent relations. Instead of criticising children, help them tap into their strengths and use them effectively in their daily lives.

To develop the habit of strength-based parenting, firstly, reflect on what small situations cause you anger and frustration. Then, catch yourself experiencing them, name the emotions you experience and imagine flicking a strength switch, consciously thinking of one of your child’s strengths they could use in this testing situation.

Are they eating too slow? Praise them on mindful eating and encourage them to use their strength of flexibility to practise mindfulness selectively so that their dinner doesn’t go cold. Are they not doing their homework? Ask them to practise their creativity strength and devise an innovative way to do the usual maths homework. Speaking back to you? Praise them on their negotiation skills and ask them to use their strength of kindness when speaking to you. Fighting with their siblings? Ask them to practise forgiveness or co-operation. Strength-based parenting is a small habitual change, she adds, that can improve the whole family’s wellbeing.

8. Carry out regular financial health checks

Drafting an accurate and realistic budget and reviewing it from time to time is an important habit for your overall wellbeing, says Karl Cronin, a national spokesperson for the State’s Money Advice and Budgeting Service (Mabs).

“A well-planned budget will help you to organise the money coming in and going out, and to plan for bills, unexpected expenses and to save for special events. It also ensures you are in control of your finances and not overspending, and that you have a good relationship with, and a positive attitude towards, money.”

There’s a household budget tool on to help you establish this habit. If your budget doesn’t balance, he recommends contacting the Mabs helpline on 0818 07 2000 for advice and support.

“Remember, a well-balanced budget should include some treats and things to look forward to,” he adds. “A budget is a tool, not a punishment.”

9. Let it go

It’s the one habit that declutter therapist Breda Stack believes is essential for freedom and peace of mind.

“Although there’s more talk than ever about decluttering, there’s still an emphasis on the practicalities of fashion, storage and organisation over gently looking at and overcoming the limiting values, beliefs, behaviours and feelings that keep so many of us stuck in our clutter and disorganisation,” she says. “Change is inevitable, and without the ability to let go of what’s no longer serving us, physically as well as mentally, emotionally, spiritually, we don’t honour our potential.”

When we learn to let go by making peace with the past, accepting the present and embracing the future, decluttering is the ultimate “healing”, suggests Stack, who is based in Limerick and founded the online Declutter Academy to offer certified professional training. “I continually witness the mind-blowing benefits of decluttering in all areas of life including self-image, relationships, careers and finances, as well as our wardrobes and homes. It really is a most wonderful and underrated form of personal development.”

10. Revel in the details

This final recommendation for a new habit comes from psychologist, broadcaster and writer Maureen Gaffney, author of Your One Wild and Precious Life. “Look at someone or something you care about deeply – but observe them like it is your first, or potentially last time, doing so. Take in every precious detail and your heart will flood with a special kind of happiness.”

How to form new habits

Neuroscientist Prof Ian Robertson outlines the steps to make it stick

a) Define a trigger for the habit – something that happens inside you or in the outside world sufficiently often that it will act as a reminder. For example, whenever you stand up from your seat, or whenever you feel sleepy, or whenever you feel that gloomy feeling coming over you.

b) Get the new habit clearly in your mind and practise it. For example, if it is a 30-second stretch routine, then do that routine 10 times over the next three hours, so that you get clear in your mind what the habit is.

c) Now start to do the habit whenever the trigger appears. You will miss a few, but try to be as consistent as you can. Do this at least 60-70 times, because research shows that simple habits require this number of repetitions before they become automatic and not requiring conscious will power.

Sheila Wayman

Sheila Wayman

Sheila Wayman, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about health, family and parenting