Rethinking resolutions: VCU faculty share outside-the-box New Year’s resolutions that can help you get the most bang for your buck

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Illustrations by Ellie Erhart, Class of 2020, Communication Arts.
Illustrations by Ellie Erhart, Class of 2020, Communication Arts.

Lose weight. Exercise more. Save money. These are some of the most common New Year’s resolutions that make the list year after year. But are there other resolutions that can have an even bigger impact on your overall well-being? Or are there better, more specific ways to accomplish some of those typical resolutions that first spring to mind?

VCU News spoke with seven faculty experts who recommend valuable resolutions you may not have thought of.

Spend some quality time with a dog.

Nancy Gee, Ph.D.

Director, The Center for Human-Animal Interaction

Professor, Department of Psychiatry

From lowering blood pressure to helping owners feel less lonely, spending time in the company of a dog has many benefits to your overall health.

According to research at The Center for Human-Animal Interaction, interacting with a dog can lower your cortisol levels, making you less stressed, and increase oxytocin, often referred to as the “love” hormone. Additionally, because dog owners sit less often and take more steps in a day, they are more likely to maintain mobility into older age. 

Interactions with dogs also provide an emotional health benefit because they help reduce loneliness as owners are more likely to interact with others in their community. They also offer an increased sense of safety, especially for women dog owners.

There is even some evidence showing that after interacting with a therapy dog, college students at risk of academic failure had improved executive functioning, a cluster of processes that make us able to plan, adjust and remember.

While there are benefits of interacting with a dog, we encourage people to evaluate if their lifestyle is ideal for owning a pet.

Adding a dog to one’s family is a major decision and not one that should be taken lightly, and should never be a surprise.

If you are not in the position to own a pet — no worries! Volunteering with animals offers the same health benefits as owning one. You get your companion animal fix, and they get a little love and socialization that they desperately need.

The VCU community can meet and interact with a volunteer from Dogs On Call, VCU’s therapy dog program, or you can train your own pet to become a Dogs On Call dog. To learn more, visit The Richmond SPCA, Richmond Animal League and Richmond Animal Care and Control are also great places to volunteer.

Be more forgiving — of yourself. 

Everett Worthington, Ph.D.

Commonwealth Professor Emeritus, Department of Psychology

Sometimes we are unforgiving of ourselves because we just have trouble accepting ourselves with flaws as well as strengths. If we find that our unforgiveness is due to perfectionism, we can seek to find ways to acknowledge our own strengths and accomplishments. In addition, we can look to others and see that we all fall short of the best of human nature at times. But as Bryan Stevenson, author of “Just Mercy,” the VCU Common Book a few years ago, says, “I believe that each person is more than the worst thing they’ve ever done.” 

If we have truly done things to hurt others, we want to make things right with (1) whatever we hold to be sacred (whether God, other humans, or nature), (2) those we’ve harmed and (3) our own psyche.

If we do this, we will likely find benefits in terms of physical health (less cardio risk, less of the neurohormone cortisol), mental health (less rumination), relationships (more ability to accept others’ positive reactions to us and improvement to the relationship of the one we might have harmed), and perhaps even spiritual life (more connectedness with what we hold to be sacred).

If fitness is your focus, don’t forget about stretching.

Jacqueline Morgan, D.P.T.

Instructor, Department of Kinesiology and Health Sciences

It may not seem as glamorous as lifting weights or taking a spin class, but stretching is an important, and often overlooked, part of fitness. Stretching aids in maintaining muscles’ extensibility properties (stretchiness) as they cross joints to help create human movement. The greater the “permissiveness” of our muscles, the larger the movements we can use during fitness activities. In its guidelines for maintaining an active and healthy lifestyle, the American College of Sports Medicine recommends stretching all large muscle groups at least two to three times a week and preferably daily.

But first, you need to understand the differences between the two main types of stretching.

Static stretching involves moving a body segment across a joint to its end range of motion and holding that position for a period of time (at least 15-30 seconds and ideally for 60 seconds but no longer). Feelings of mild muscle tension should accompany static stretching, but stretching past that point could cause injury. The best time to perform static stretching is when the body’s core temperature is elevated, so stretch after your regular exercise routine or try doing light aerobic activities such as jogging or cycling for five to 10 minutes prior to stretching. You can use static stretching before a large workout as long as you warm up first.

However, the benefits of static stretching prior to your main exercise bout is minimal and dynamic stretching is preferred. You also can stretch during and after being in a warm or hot room (hot yoga often utilizes this technique) if improving flexibility is the main goal. Always avoid static stretching before high-intensity exercise bouts as it decreases muscle power and strength. 

Dynamic stretching involves controlled and continuous movement of a body segment or limb through the entire range of motion of the active joint with no holding period. It should be done before your main exercise routine and usually involves large joints such as hips and shoulders. Examples of dynamic stretches are multi-directional leg and arm swings, walking lunges, easy partial pushups or squats, and other low-intensity exercises using just body weight. These movements should be relatively slow, highly controlled and easy to perform. Most importantly, they should mimic the exercise you are about to undertake. 

If you’re interested in beginning or improving a stretching and flexibility program, try implementing a dynamic stretching routine that mimics your fitness activity prior to beginning exercise. It does not have to be long, a couple minutes is enough, and should include large joints and muscle groups. Remember slow and controlled is best.

Following exercise, some light static stretching to muscle groups that may have gotten tight is fine, however, setting aside two or three days just for static stretching segments, or even yoga, may show greater gains. No matter the particulars, finding a stretching routine that is easy to follow and sustain is most important because sporadic stretching of any form is not likely to lead to any improvements.

Use YouTube to learn for free.

TyRuben Ellingson

Chair and associate professor, Department of Communication Arts 

Interim director, Department of Cinema

Folks should take advantage of all the amazing resources available on YouTube for personal growth and development. Most people are aware of Ted Talks; however, if you go digging there are lectures by all kinds of experts in a wide range of fields. 

When I was young and wanted to learn more about something, I often had to plan a morning or afternoon around doing so. I would have to go to the university library, look through card catalogs for books — most of which were a few years old — then hoof it up multiple flights of stairs, locate the book, and then spend 15 or 20 minutes just to see if it contained information relevant to my interests.

The same is true with periodicals — perhaps even more so, because the library didn’t have in-depth reporting on the content of the magazine or newspaper, just the title of the story and the name of the author. In short, learning cost me a great deal of time. 

Now with YouTube it’s searchable. You can look for something and in 30 seconds be reviewing materials. Also there is user data in the form of “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” rankings, which is helpful in quickly assessing the value of a video. 

YouTube also connects videos based on content. If you are looking for a lecture by writer/philosopher Alan Watts, as soon as you find it there are links to other lectures — and then lectures by his contemporaries or experts on his philosophy of life, his books or his life — all gathered for you.  

This kind of connectivity expands the research possibilities and the researcher’s “mind” — new thoughts are inspired by the web of connections.  

“You,” singular, becomes a collective of interested researchers. 

And YouTube is a visual media, so you get to see the person and pick up on the subtleties and nuance of what they are saying. 

I listen to a lot of audiobooks on my drive to school, but this year I added YouTube content into that mix. If there was mention of something in one of my audiobooks that I didn’t have a rich understanding of, I would dig around for free content relevant to that topic. 

Often you can find interviews with authors of books that support or expand the themes of any given book.

Get better sleep.

Natalie Dautovich, Ph.D.

Assistant professor, Department of Psychology

Sleep is a vital indicator and predictor of health. Improving sleep has benefits for every area of well-being including immune functioning, cardiovascular health, cognitive performance and mood. 

There are various ways to increase your sleep health. Between seven and nine hours of sleep is ideal for most adults. To meet this goal, try maintaining a regular bed and wake time to help your body anticipate and prepare for sleep. Enhance the power of your natural circadian rhythm by dimming lights and limiting electronic use before bed (or at least use light filters on devices). Also, going outside or sitting by a window when you first wake up will cue your system to feel alert.

Finally, take a look around your sleeping environment. Is it dark, quiet and cool? These are the best conditions for creating satisfying, efficient and effective sleep.

When it comes to eating, focus on the do’s rather than the don’ts.

Mary-Jo Sawyer

VCU Health registered dietitian

“Lose weight” and “eat healthier” are the most frequent New Year’s resolutions I hear each year. They’re vague goals, and most people don’t know how exactly to lose weight and what it really means to eat healthier. Instead of immediately cutting out foods or worrying about what you shouldn’t be eating, be mindful of your habits, make a specific plan and take some of these tangible actions:

  • Pay attention to the foods you’re tracking. You can’t know where you’re going until you notice where you’ve been. Take inventory of your typical eating habits by tracking what you eat for a week — then look at what you ate. Pay attention to what you consume, when and what types of foods. You can track with a pen and paper or a free online or smartphone tracking program (like MyFitnessPal or Noom).
  • Check your calorie consumption and don’t skip meals. Make note of how many calories you eat. Notice the high-calorie foods and beverages you consume, and then start cutting back on those. When eating out, the calories listed on the menu can be a useful guide. And if you feel hungry all the time, pay attention to whether you’re skipping meals, or if you’re filling up on junk food.
  • Try something new. Try one new vegetable or fruit each week. They can be fresh, frozen or canned, and can be steamed, roasted or enjoyed raw in a salad. Making a concerted effort to plan a new food item each week makes for a more interesting and mindful eating experience.
  • Try having a night in. Cooking up healthier food choices at home can help your budget as much as your waistline. Don’t know how to cook? Take a class, watch a video for a specific recipe or purchase some kitchen equipment to help, such as slow cookers or instant pots. But only purchase something if you really plan to use it.
  • Plan, and cooking will be less intimidating. To prepare for cooking at home, make a menu and grocery list ahead of shopping. Commit to cooking X times per week and allow leftovers for lunch and other meals.
  • Sign up for a home meal delivery kit. Feel you have no time to shop? With many home meal delivery kits, you can specify the number and type of meals, and they will send you all of the ingredients in appropriate portion sizes. Many have meal plans that allow for allergies and other food preferences. But remember, you still have to cook it.

Meeting with a registered dietitian can help in your journey to a healthier diet. We give specific, individual recommendations to help people reach goals. If you’re curious about nutrition counseling, give the VCU Health Nutrition Clinic a call at (804) 828-0970.

Embrace mindfulness.

Kirk Brown, Ph.D.

Associate professor, Department of Psychology

Director, Contemplative Science and Education Core at the VCU College Behavioral and Emotional Health Institute

There have never been more opportunities to learn to bring mindfulness into one’s daily life. Many smartphone apps are designed for just this, including Insight Timer, which has thousands of guided mindfulness and other kinds of meditations. Richmond also hosts a variety of meditation groups, many of which offer free introductory instruction. On campus, The Well offers mindfulness resources as well as free Mindful Monday meditation sessions at noon each week. 

Finally, if you want a more immersive learning experience, consider taking a course. The eight-week, secular Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program is offered multiple times a year for Richmond community members and provides a solid grounding in this practice and way of being. However you learn it, practice in mindfulness develops inner resources and skills that can be applied to everyday situations to cope more effectively with stress and to find greater health and balance, ease and peace of mind over a lifetime.

Illustrations by Ellie Erhart, Class of 2020, Communication Arts