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You know the old story of the tortoise and the hare – every new year I fancy myself the hare – come January 1, my life is destined for drastic change. Out go the sweets, the coffee, the alcoholic beverages, the wasteful purchases I made in the previous year and in comes the fruit smoothies, the fitness gear, ardent recycling and loads of veggies – all the tools I need to excel at living an enthusiastically healthy, green and virtuous year.

Big changes like the big, fast start the hare had in the famous race, are hard to maintain. If you want proof check out that expensive exercise equipment sitting in the corner and collecting dust since last January. When I look back at my life, I find that the most lasting changes have been the slow and steady ones – not the radical changes I vowed to make overnight.

So below I list seven slow and simple changes that can improve your health, and fitness while contributing to greening our planet. Happy New Year!

  1. Add more laughter. Physiological changes take place when we laugh. We stretch muscles throughout our face and body, our pulse and blood pressure go up, and we breathe faster, sending more oxygen to our tissues. Some researchers believe that laughter may offer some of the same advantages as a workout. Maciej Buchowski, a researcher from Vanderbilt University, conducted a small study in which he measured the amount of calories burned in laughing — 50 calories burned in only 10-15 minutes of laughter.
  2. Drink green tea. Tea contains antioxidants that can help slow down aging and help your cells to regenerate and repair. Teas of all varieties contain high levels of antioxidant polyphenols that can help keep your body healthier and some studies suggest even ward of some cancers. Tea has less caffeine than coffee, and drinking lots of caffeine is hard on your heart and other organs. Tea can provide the pick-me-up of coffee with less caffeine, making you less jittery and helping you get to sleep when you want. Personally, I like to drink tea in the morning – I feel that my breath feels fresher after a cup of tea than it would after a cup of coffee!
  3. Drink more tap water.  Most North Americans walk around somewhat dehydrated – and often mistake thirst for hunger. Hydration, through drinking more water is a positive change that can improve your health; and choosing tap water can have a positive impact on the environment. The energy required to produce and transport plastic bottles could fuel an estimated 1.5 million cars for a year! More often than not, plastic water bottles are not recycled—they end up in landfills, litter roadsides, and pollute waterways and oceans. The bottled water industry sold 8.8 billion gallons of water in 2010, generating nearly $11 billion in profits. Yet the industry is not required to report testing results for its products. Independent studies have shown that some of the most popular brands of bottled water contain pollutants like pharmaceuticals, fertilizer residue and arsenic. Public tap water, on the other hand, is subject to strict safety regulations, and you are paying for it anyway –so drink more! If you have any concerns about your tap water, install a water filter.
  4. Buy local! Instead of relying exclusively on large supermarkets, consider farmers markets and local farms for your produce, eggs, dairy, and meat. Food from these sources is usually fresher and more flavorful, and your money will be going directly to these food producers. Author and consumer advocate Michael Shuman argues that local small businesses are more sustainable because they are often more accountable for their actions, have smaller environmental footprints, and innovate to meet local conditions—providing models for others to learn from.
  5. Go for a ride. Carpooling and using public transportation helps cut down on greenhouse gas emissions, and your gasoline usage. This year I renewed my membership to City Bikes in Washington D.C., a bike sharing programs that allows me to rent a cool red bike for short trips. As long as I keep the bike for under 30 minutes, my one-time a year membership fee pays for it. More time comes at extremely affordable rates. Similar programs exist in other cities, and are in the planning stages in other places. This is a great baby step for my health and for the planet. It takes me about the same time to ride the bike from one stop to the next as it does to ride the metro – it saves me the metro fare and gets me moving at the same time!
  6. Reduce your meat consumption. You don’t have to become a vegetarian or vegan, but the small baby step of substituting one meal day with a vegetarian option can go a long way toward improving your health and that of the planet. In general, meat consumption is higher than the daily recommended amount, so cutting back one meal a week is a great baby step. Meat lacks fiber and other nutrients that have been shown to have cancer-protective properties; it is also high in saturated fat –which contributes to a number of preventable diseases. Livestock production accounts for about 18 percent of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions and accounts for about 23 percent of all global water used in agriculture. Websites such as Meatless Monday  offer numerous vegetarian recipes that are healthy for you and the environment. 
  7. Take 20 minute walks. It turns out that simple, regular walking may provide all the mental and physical health benefits you need. Walking has been proven to lower “bad” cholesterol, raise “good” cholesterol, lower blood pressure, reduce risk of type 2 diabetes, manage weight, and improve mood and energy. And what’s more, walking is convenient and cheap – you don’t need a gym membership or any fancy equipment. It’s good for the environment as well – cutting down on the greenhouse gas emissions your car would be making. Try walking to work, and if you work miles from your home try other strategies – short walks through your neighborhood, parking in the last row of the parking lot when shopping or parking at work. Remember it’s about small steps and every step helps!
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