Winter 2022

What are Easy Ways to be Happier and Healthier?

We asked five University of Arizona experts.

Scott Going, Ph.D.
Professor and director: School of Nutritional Sciences and Wellness, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences | Co-director: Collaboratory for Metabolic Disease Prevention and Treatment | Director, Center for Physical Activity and Nutrition

There’s nothing, in my view, more important for good health than exercise and nutrition. Those two factors account for a majority of your risk for chronic disease such as diabetes, certain cancers, osteoporosis and heart disease. 

My background is in physiology; my whole career has been about exercise and physical activity. Even though I’m director of the School of Nutritional Sciences and Wellness, I’m an exercise guy. The benefits of exercise are very broad, and almost everybody can do it. It’s all about moving, and it’s low cost. You don’t have to wear the latest exercise gear, you don’t have to go to the gym or have the latest equipment. There are even benefits to standing rather than sitting down.

It’s very accessible to go for a walk or a hike, go dancing, ride your bike or take a swim. Pretty much everyone can find some way they like to move. Even if you don’t lose weight, exercise can make you healthier. 

When starting to exercise after taking time off from it, one mistake people make is that they get overzealous — like trying to run 10 miles on the first day, for instance — and then they get injured. You have to have planned progression to exercise safely. Get into a regular routine. And for those living in Tucson, be aware of the temperature and make sure you hydrate properly. 

With exercise, you don’t just reap the benefits of stronger muscles, stronger heart, and stronger bones — it’s also fun. I’m a social exerciser; I like to do it for the company and socializing with friends while running or walking. Getting together with friends has great mental health benefits. Plus, exercise helps with relaxation and stress reduction. If you ever see a young child, they never stop moving. They love to move and there’s a joy in moving. Some of us forget that. There’s a joy about moving in whatever form you prefer.

Esther Sternberg, M.D.
Research director, Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine | Founding director: Institute on Place, Wellbeing, & Performance | Andrew Weil Endowed Chair for Research in Integrative Medicine | Professor of architecture (joint appointment) and professor of landscape architecture and planning (joint appointment) 

It’s estimated that Americans spend 90% of their time indoors. That’s why well-being in the built environment is more important than ever. I’ve been working on this for more than 20 years, since I was at the National Institutes of Health. Our research shows that elements of the built environment impact your stress response even if you’re not consciously aware of it. If the built environment is modified to enhance aspects of integrative health, it will contribute to resilience and well-being. 

Activity and sleep: We have found that workers in open office bench seating were 32% more active than people in private offices and 20% more active than people in cubicles. People who were more active during the day were significantly less stressed at night and had better sleep quality. 

Circadian light: I’m sitting here looking at a window, but if you don’t have that luxury, you can use circadian LED lights that follow the light of the sun. Computers are better now, too. There’s a setting on the Mac for more blue light in the morning and a redder light in the evening. It’s said that if you look at a bright blue light at night, it’s equivalent to having a cup of coffee. 

Air circulation: The more people in a space, if poorly ventilated, the higher the carbon dioxide level. You start feeling tired, and cognitive abilities deteriorate. Using a small fan next to your computer dissipates carbon dioxide. 

Temperature: It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity: If your environment is too dry or too wet, our studies show that the stress response increases by 25%. 

Sound: The stress response is higher when it’s either too loud or too quiet. If it’s extremely quiet, a pin drop will disturb you. If it’s too loud, it’s not only going to disturb you, but possibly damage your ears. 

Green spaces: Views of nature enhance well-being. If you can’t be in nature, place plants around your workspace or add pictures. Photographs of nature are calming. 

Relationships and spirituality: Gathering spaces enhance social interactions, and meditation spaces invite spirituality and quiet contemplation. 

Jessica Andrews-Hanna, Ph.D.
Assistant professor: cognition and neural systems, College of Social and Behavioral Sciences | Recognized with the psychology department’s Galileo Circle Curie Award for rising stars among junior faculty

In our Neuroscience of Emotion and Thought Lab, we have been trying to help individuals harness the beneficial aspects of internally guided cognition and live happier, healthier lives. By internally guided cognition, I mean tuning our thoughts and attention inward. This includes reflecting on our emotions, remembering the past, considering the future and solving important problems. 

Although measuring people’s thoughts is challenging, especially in the confines of a lab, we are making progress with our free Mind Window app, which prompts users to enter their thoughts at random moments throughout the day and gives us the opportunity to look for patterns in thinking and feeling that relate to well-being.

Based on some of our results, I would recommend trying to think more about other people and less about ourselves. Being mindful is adopting a present-moment and nonjudgmental state of awareness. Often, people who are starting to practice mindfulness find it difficult, especially because we don’t necessarily see results right away. But slowly, over time, if you start to just be more attentive to your thoughts by checking in with yourself and giving yourself breaks throughout the day, you will notice an improvement in how you feel.

I recommend starting simple. Take three minutes to stop, breathe and ask yourself, “How am I feeling?” and “What is on my mind?” You can schedule calendar alerts to help you remember. We’ve also noticed that a lot of our app users report that the app has helped them to be more aware of their thoughts in their daily lives. This is not what the app is designed for, but we think the time people take to just pause and check in with their thoughts may help improve their mindfulness and well-being.

Michael Grandner, Ph.D.
Director: UArizona Sleep and Health Research Program and Behavioral Sleep Medicine Clinic, Banner – University Medical Center | Associate professor: psychiatry, psychology, medicine, clinical translational sciences | Assistant professor: neuroscience

Make a psychological shift to viewing sleep not as a cost of your time but as an investment. Research shows most health outcomes people care about are closely tied to sleep — recovery from illness, weight, mental health, safety, decision-making, you name it. 

First, if you have severe or chronic insomnia, simple tips might not be enough. If you need expert help, UArizona is one of the best places in the world to find it. We’re recognized worldwide for research and clinical care in this area.

If you’re not struggling at that level, I have three suggestions. The first is to create a wind-down routine before bed. Many people say they get into bed and their minds won’t stop churning. That’s like saying you can’t make your car stop in time for a stop sign. When did you start tapping the brakes? If you don’t give yourself time to think or plan until you get into bed, you train yourself to do it at that time every night. 

Maybe you need scheduled time to worry or make to-do lists, or perhaps meditation is more beneficial. Whatever you need to do, prioritize that time — even set an alarm if it helps you stay on schedule.

The second recommendation is the most important and relates to your time in bed. If sleep is not immediately imminent, get up until it is. Be religious about it. Again, this is about training yourself. Bed needs to equal sleep. If maybe 30 minutes has gone by without sleep, the opportunity has gone stale.

Finally, set a regular wake-up time and stick to it. As soon as you’re up, get some strong natural light. You could take a walk or stand by a window. It will give you more energy and help you sleep later, and studies show it’s also a powerful antidepressant.

Leslie Langbert, MSW, LCSW (FL)
Executive director: College of Social and Behavioral Sciences Center for Compassion Studies

At the Center for Compassion Studies, we want to welcome people into care for themselves as they train to widen their capacities to feel and act compassionately toward others. Too often, we find ourselves so busy we cannot care for ourselves as we do for others. This can lead to ignoring or even disconnecting from our own needs and negative effects on our overall health and well-being. 

There are many accessible methods for beginning to reconnect and drop into better care and attending to ourselves. One of the simplest ways is to carve out space and time to connect with the natural world. Try stepping into your backyard, or any bit of nature, and ask yourself: What scents do I smell? What do I see? What textures am I feeling? What do I hear? By allowing your awareness to attune to the sensory experience of being in a space, you are inviting yourself to slow down and breathe more fully and deeply. 

It’s also important to find time to connect with your needs. Sometimes we get so busy keeping up or taking care of others that we put off our basic needs like movement, hydration, food or breathing. Throughout the day, try to pause and ask: What am I feeling right now and what is my body asking for? Learning how to make room and recognize all parts of ourselves gives us the capacity to do the same for others. 

Connecting with others is also essential to our well-being. For those who aren’t ready to meet in person, online gatherings and communities can provide an opportunity to be with people and hear that you’re not alone. The Center for Compassion Studies offers free online resources such as Mindful Mondays, a gathering to explore mindfulness practices, and Field of Care, which focuses on strengthening the ability to hold ourselves and others in care.