Since I hit the big 4-0 back in January 2020, I’ve been reflecting a lot on my life. It’s actually become somewhat of a daily habit. While I can honestly say that I’ve been physically, mentally and spiritually tested and tried, I’ve learned some important life lessons and truths along the way, especially when it comes to self-care.
Coincidently, exactly 40 days before January 2021, I felt compelled to put pen to paper and start writing out some of those valuable insights. I did this every day leading up to December 31, 2020. Interestingly enough, by my first 10 or so reflections, the theme of “self-care” became clearly apparent. And, after 40 days of continuous reflection, I would have a collective total of 40 life lessons learned. These lessons have essentially enabled me to take better care of myself.
Given that September is “Self-Care Awareness Month,” it seemed only fitting for me to share them all. Indeed, taking care of yourself is critical for health, happiness and longevity. So, in no particular order, here are 40 life lessons in self-care I’ve learned in 40 years. I certainly hope you glean valuable insights from them.
Lesson 1: Eat at least one big salad a day.
Yeah, I know, I’m biased – but for good reason. Salads are a sneaky way to eat better, particularly when it comes to eating vegetables. It’s undeniable that veggies are an important part of a healthy, balanced diet. After all, they’re rich in disease-fighting vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Given all this goodness, not eating them isn’t really an option, especially if you’re trying to maintain good health and thrive throughout your life.
Personally, when it comes to boosting my intake of vegetables, I’ve always found a friend in salads. As little to no cooking is generally required, salads are one of the quickest, easiest and most effortless ways to get a ton of veggies and other whole foods into a single meal. Need ideas? You’re already in the right place. Check out our recipes and get started!
Lesson 2: Keep your fruits close.
For years, I’ve made it a practice to decorate my island with a big bowl of fresh fruits. In doing so, I basically entice myself and everyone else in my house to make healthier snack choices throughout the day. Naturally rich in antioxidants, fresh fruits make for nutritiously delicious anytime snacks and offer a laundry list of health benefits. When you keep a beautiful batch of fresh fruits at arm’s reach, you’re more likely to eat them. You can add them to salads too!
Lesson 3: When you feel like you need help, ask for it.
After giving birth to my youngest son back in 2019, there’s one statement I heard over and over again from family members, friends and even colleagues and clients: “Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help?” And, you know what, I did. And I still do. That’s the difference between my younger and my now more experienced self. At the end of the day, we could all use a helping hand from time to time. So, go ahead and take people up on those offers to help.
Lesson 4: No need to post everything on social media.
Not posting all the tidbits of your life on social media, doesn’t mean they didn’t happen. Truth is, each moment in life is precious and finite. And you can actually seize those precious moments without necessarily sharing all of them. Live life in real time by savoring all the meaningful moments you encounter each day. Live to be present in these moments, not just to share them. Over time, you’ll find that savoring those moments will prove a whole lot more satisfying than trying to relive the experiences through social media.
Lesson 5: Be thankful.
No matter what your circumstances may be, there’s always something to be thankful for. You’re here today. You’re breathing. You’re reading this. So, at the very least, be thankful for your life. Life is a wonderful journey. The world is a beautiful place. Just be thankful to be a part of it.
Lesson 6: There’s remarkable power in doing absolutely nothing.
No matter how resilient you are, your body needs sufficient time to rest. This is how the body repairs and refuels itself. When it comes to prioritizing rest, consider your time as a personal budget. Like money you get to spend it however you choose each day. Thinking this way, consider ‘rest’ as being very cheap and ‘busyness’ as being relatively expensive, as it comes with a high cost – your mental, physical and social health.
Just as you wouldn’t recklessly spend all your money on expensive things, you don’t want to spend all your time being ‘busy’ without incorporating adequate time for rest.
Lesson 7: Take hella pictures.
Always have a good camera handy so you can capture all of life’s perfectly imperfect moments. You’ll appreciate it one day. When I was 15 years old, I lost my home and everything I owned to a fire. Of all the things I lost, pictures – over all material things – were the most irreplaceable. There were no digital photos back then. So, I have no pictorial recollection of my life prior to 15 – no baby pictures, no precious milestones, nothing.
And so, these days, I take pictures of everything, every event and every moment in my life. I don’t necessarily take these pictures to share with others. I take them to have all the precious memories that can never again be recaptured.
Lesson 8: Go out for a hike at least once a week.
You can improve your immunity and even hasten recovery time from illness or injury by regularly going for hikes (or even long walks) amidst scenic trails, state parks, forest preserves and other forest environments. In fact, the Japanese have a concept called “Shinrin-yoku” that translates to “forest bathing”, an interesting method of immersing yourself in a forest environment for better health.
Trees and plants within natural forest environments emit specialized health-promoting compounds called phytonicides. Remarkably, the simple act of breathing in phytonicides helps lower production of the potent stress hormone cortisol. When your cortisol levels are low, you’ll naturally feel better, function better and even sleep better.
Lesson 9: Balance, moderation and variety are the keys to healthy living.
Healthy living doesn’t require an overly structured exercise routine or a tightly regulated diet. You don’t have to engage in boot camp sessions or run daily, nor do you have to stop eating meat or carbs. Healthy living is all about making subtle changes to your lifestyle and just sticking with them. This includes things like eating a sensible diet that’s well-balanced in whole foods, controlling your overall alcohol intake, performing a wide variety of activities, in addition to keeping your stress levels in check.
Above all though, it’s about doing the stuff you actually want to do. These days, I’ve personally found solace in combining a more moderate running regimen with long walks and hikes, indoor cycling and lifting weights at home. When it comes to nutrition, I simply focus on eating healthy most of the time. And, most important of all, I get in plenty of rest, relaxation and meditation, because stress alone can wreak havoc on the mind and body.
Lesson 10: Change is a good thing.
Over the years, I’ve learned to fully embrace change – even the uncertainty that often comes with it. If you’re not changing, you’re not growing.
Lesson 11: There’s a time for silence.
Silence is golden. We can learn so much in silence. We can reflect, dream and hope. We can learn, plan and create. Silence is restful and therapeutic. Sometimes you just have to quiet down the noise around you. So, give yourself a little quiet time every day. It will completely transform your life. And that’s all I’ll say about that.
Lesson 12: Alone time is the best time.
Honestly, as a natural introvert, this one’s kind of a no brainer to me. But the 40-something me is absolutely unapologetic about the fact that I enjoy and prefer solitude – whether in life or in work. Alone time is the perfect time to get in touch with yourself and catch up on what you’re feeling day-to-day. Even for my extroverted counterparts, having some level of alone time can be golden. Believe it or not, as little as 20 minutes a day can make a world of difference.
Lesson 13: Celebrate your body for where it’s at right now.
Let me confess that I love the body I see in the mirror every day. It represents a lot of hard work, dedication and acceptance on my part. I gained a ton of weight in my second pregnancy, as it was extremely high-risk. Thanks to my intermittent fasting regimen and exercise efforts, I’m almost back to where I started. In the interim, however, I’m fully embracing my body – today, tomorrow and indefinitely.
It took me some time to get here. Truth is, I’ve spent a lot of time striving to maintain the perfect figure. But, over the years, I’ve learned that having a healthy body image is not about how I look – it’s about how I feel. Our bodies are complicated. Still, we only have one. Accept it and love it at each and every moment of your life’s journey.
Lesson 14: Enjoy a drink if you want to, occasionally or even daily.
For me, drinking alcohol is nothing more than a pleasant way to relax. This is classified as moderate alcohol use and is relatively harmless and could actually be beneficial for health. The key is not to self-medicate, as no benefits come with doing that. And so, I’ve personally trained myself to refrain from drinking whenever I’m out of balance emotionally.
I also err on the moderate side. That’s up to one drink a day for women and up to two drinks a day for men. Cheers to that!
Lesson 15: Always be open to friendship.
Friendships can enrich your life and improve your health. As I mentioned before, I’m a real introvert and tend to be very cautious when it comes to letting others in my circle. But over the years I’ve learned that it’s okay to let my guard down. I’ve formed a lot of new friendships since moving from Chicago to Atlanta. Two very special ladies would ultimately become my very best friends. And we’re all in our 40s.
We show up for each other. We laugh together and cry together. We share our good times and support each other through the bad. No matter how busy I am, I work hard at maintaining our friendship because each of them brings something special to my life. That’s the real essence of friendship.
Lesson 16: Set aside time to breathe.
This is something I’ve learned to do whenever I feel stressed, anxious or overwhelmed. Taking just a minute out of every waking hour to breathe can do wonders for your mental health and mental fitness. Believe it or not, that 60 seconds of stillness can help calm your mind, clear your head, reduce tension, relieve stress and even help you fall asleep. Simply focus on taking slow, deep, even breaths and, almost immediately, you’ll experience the difference in your mood.
Lesson 17: Never stop lifting weights.
As an exercise scientist and avid athlete, I know firsthand the importance of regularly training with resistance, otherwise known as lifting weights. A lot of people think this type of training is optional. That it isn’t as necessary as performing cardio. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
Resistance training is actually the only way to build and maintain muscular strength and endurance, which is critical for good balance, stability, posture and overall physical functioning.
When performed consistently, this type of training also helps boost heart function, regulate blood sugar and heightens metabolism in ways that support long-term weight management and overall good health. It’s also a hell of a stress reliever. You can reap the benefits of resistance with as little as 2-3 days a week of whole-body training with free weights, machines, rubber tubing or your own bodyweight.
Lesson 18: Make your own rules for healthy eating.
Personally, I don’t eat breakfast, I often eat late and I generally eat just two meals a day. Yet, I clock in a minimum of 10-12 daily servings of vegetables and fruits along with healthy amounts of protein and fat and I’m the healthiest I’ve ever been. Contrary to popular belief, it really doesn’t matter how many meals you eat in one day, what time of day you eat them, or even how small or large your meals are. Everyone has different food preferences, schedules and lifestyles.
At the end of the day, what matters most is your total nutrient intake and the overall quality of your diet. That’s why I always recommend focusing on the actual nutrients housed in your foods and then eating them the way you want to eat them.
Lesson 19: Taking social media breaks is a necessity.
Totally doing away with social media is next to impossible these days, especially if you’re regularly engaging for professional or business purposes. But it is possible to take frequent mini breaks. This could include anything from restricting your engagement to certain times of the day or certain days of the week, to turning off push notifications, which themselves can trigger use, to powering off your phone, tablet or computer a few hours before bedtime to give your brain a break.
Years ago, I personally started putting each of these strategies to practice – and, to this day, I follow them to a tee. Doing so has greatly boosted my productivity, enhanced my overall mood and improved my ability to fall and stay asleep each night.
Lesson 20: Family is everything!
I honestly don’t know what I’d do without my family. Not just my husband and kids. But also, my mother in the absence of my late father, my siblings and my nieces and nephews. Cherish and appreciate the family you have – whatever you define as family. Family fuels ambition and purpose. Family brings love and life. Family understands and forgives. Family is all that!
Lesson 21: Be your authentic self.
Took me close to 20 years to learn how to be unapologetically authentic – both in work and in life. You can’t control how people respond to your authenticity. They’ll either like you or they won’t. However, by people pleasing and being someone you’re authentically not, you’re essentially telling yourself and others, you’re not good enough. And that’s like living in a mental prison. There’s freedom in being your authentic self. So be who you are, say how you feel, care less about what others think and master your own thoughts.
Lesson 22: Take pride in saying NO.
The word “no” often has a negative connotation. If you tell someone ‘no’ – unless you’re answering a “yes” or “no” question – it’s generally perceived as being rude, selfish, unkind and even insensitive. Saying ‘no’ doesn’t mean you’re being mean. It simply means that you actually have the audacity to prioritize yourself and your own needs over those of others. There’s some real power in that. While saying ‘yes’ may temporarily allay some of the guilt, you’ll end up trading that feeling of guilt for overwhelm or resentment.
Learn to say ‘yes’ when you can or want to and ‘no’ when you can’t or don’t want to. Period. It’s as simple as that. And, when you say ‘no’, say it with confidence, compassion and, most important of all, without guilt.
Lesson 23: Seize and savor your moments.
All too often we let precious moments pass without truly celebrating them. Such moments, large and small, can cultivate and improve happiness and overall satisfaction with life. Whether it’s a marriage proposal, a new job, another birthday, a good laugh, or an opportunity to kick back, relax and enjoy a bonfire, seize and savor each and every moment as if it’ll be your last.
Lesson 24: Seek therapy when you need it.
Whether you’re feeling stressed or anxious, coping with grief or loss, or just lonely and in need of an unbiased listening ear, speaking to a mental health professional can really help. We often rely too much on family, friends and clergy for emotional support and guidance. While doing so may temporarily allay some worries and concerns, unless those networks are licensed and trained, they don’t necessarily have the tools and resources needed to recognize, prevent and help treat real mental and emotional disorders.
There are many options at your disposal, including mental health clinics, therapy apps, crisis hotlines and local support groups. For more information, visit the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) website.
Lesson 25: Define your own success, don’t let someone else define it for you.
Throughout my life and career people have always told me what I “should” be doing to be successful. At times, this actually influenced my decision making. I’m sure you can relate to that.
One of the most difficult decisions I’ve ever made was deciding not to stay in academia and pursue a tenure-track faculty position. Everyone had something to say. But, honestly, I was not happy or even mentally well in that environment. And so, I ultimately decided to do what I wanted to do and leave. I carved out my own path to success outside of academia and I’m happy I did.
The reality is that success looks different for different people. Your success is your success. So, define it, take action and own it!
Lesson 26: Food is pleasurable and should be enjoyed.
I was once a very picky eater. I especially hated eating vegetables and beans. But over the years I’ve learned to enjoy the taste and unique flavors of all types of vegetables and beans along with many other different foods. Personally, I eat for pleasure versus hunger, as doing so makes it easier to explore and embrace a wide variety of healthy foods. I find the most pleasure in foods that taste good and make my body feel good.
These days, it’s almost unheard of to make food a pleasurable experience. In my opinion, this is why so many people have unhealthy relationships with food. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with enjoying a little bread, a glass of wine or even a piece of chocolate from time to time. Because that’s living!
Lesson 27: Exercise is medicine, in its purest form.
Yes, exercise is indeed medicine. It comes with very few side effects and a laundry list of benefits ranging from heart health, metabolic control and cancer prevention, to immune health, hormonal balance and healthy weight management, to emotional health, stress relief and even improved sex drive. But regularity is key.
Medicine is meant to be taken regularly to ensure that you have an effective amount of ‘drug’ in your body at all times. The same holds true with exercise. So, figure out what you like, do it and do it often. Just as you would take medicine.
Lesson 28: Water is the elixir of life.
Water is vital for every single bodily function. It’s actually more important than food. As a major constituent of blood, water supports the transport of oxygen, nutrients, electrolytes and hormones as well as the removal of wastes through circulation. It also plays a key role in regulating body temperature, functions as a lubricant for joints, helps to prevent eye, nose and mouth dryness and supports healthy digestive, liver and kidney function.
Water is the fountain of youth too, as it promotes radiant, glowing skin and helps delay signs of aging such as wrinkles, dark circles or fine lines. To reap all these benefits, make it a practice to drink at least 80 ounces of water each and every day – as much as 100 ounces on workout days.
Lesson 29: Pets, especially dogs and cats, can be huge mental health boosters.
I’ve had a cat for as long as I can remember. I truly believe that having several as a child helped instill in me responsibility, kindness and empathy for others. I believe the same is true for my oldest son who’s had a cat since he was born. Remarkably, the presence of our cat has tempered the emotional impact of many day-to-day stressors and even tragic life events. Indeed, science has confirmed that being a pet owner can boost mood and relieve stress and anxiety.
Lesson 30: Getting feels good, but giving feels GREAT!
No matter what your current circumstances are, financial or otherwise, you each have something special to give. Even if it’s just positive vibes, love and kindness.
Lesson 31: Never miss a check-up.
Checkups are essential for understanding your general state of health. As we age this is increasingly important. At a minimum this should include: A fasting blood lipid profile to assess your cholesterol levels and risk of heart disease; blood pressure measurements to assess your risk of hypertension; a fasting blood glucose test to assess your risk of diabetes; and, for women, a gynecological exam to check your ovaries, breasts and other body parts, for masses, growths or other abnormalities. Things can change fast so it’s important to stay on top of them.
Lesson 32: Mondays are what you make of them.
With a little planning, preparation and positivity you can make every single Monday feel like a Friday. I personally make it a practice to plan out my week ahead of time, as doing so helps boost my overall productivity on Monday and usually throughout the new week. I also make it a practice to get to sleep a little earlier on Sunday night. This reboots my energy levels for the day ahead. In addition, I never, I mean NEVER miss a Monday workout. If my week goes south, at least I know I got one in.
And, most important, it’s all about mindset. I simply psych myself up, saying that “It’s going to be the best Monday EVER!” It generally is.
Lesson 33: Accepting death is an important part of living well.
Death is an inevitable part of life. It’s the normal cycle of nature, of all living things – and we as human beings are no exception. I firmly believe that accepting the inevitability of death rather than fearing it can help teach us to live more fully in the here and now and cherish every moment of the life we have.
My father openly talked about death for as long as I can remember. He accepted the inevitable and lived his life to the fullest. He was adamant about the way he wanted to go – drug and disease free. Determined to die of natural causes, he even had a DNR order in place. While I still grieve the loss of my father at 73, I remain proud of him. He lived life exactly the way he wanted to live it and died the way he wanted to die.
Grief comes with any death of a loved one, especially those sudden, unexpected and untimely deaths. But we must learn to accept it, look ahead and, most important, live and love every day as if it were our last.
Lesson 34: Managing stress is critical for health and well-being.
The presence of stress can trigger a cascade of events that generally begin in the brain and lead to a well-orchestrated release of stress hormones, primarily cortisol. Under normal circumstances, cortisol functions in providing the body with enough energy to cope with life’s day-to-day challenges. Health problems arise when you’re stressed out every day, all the time.
Cortisol has a specific role in physically preparing the body for any and all situations perceived as dangerous, whether life-threatening or not. This essentially means that cortisol levels can increase from something as simple as sitting in a traffic jam to something as life changing as a death in the family.
It’s important to acknowledge that you might in fact be stressed, embrace the reality and then find productive ways of coping with it. Things like weightlifting, yoga, Tai Chi, meditation and even rest are all highly effective for stress management.
Lesson 35: Save, save, save!
Having been raised in a family who lived well below the poverty line, I know firsthand the importance of financial stability when it comes to overall wellness. What I’ve learned is that you don’t have to have a lot of money to save. Understand your financial situation, tackle your debt and don’t spend money you don’t have. Just something to consider as the new year approaches.
Lesson 36: Laugh a lot!
Laughter is essential to healthy living and just plain ole good for you. Remarkably, laughter naturally helps lower blood cortisol levels. Again, cortisol is that potent stress hormone that can cause many health problems when at high levels. In addition, laughter is a huge mood booster. It specifically triggers the release of endorphins, which are the body’s natural feel-good chemicals. Endorphins also help stimulate the immune system in ways that protect against disease.
In times like these, laughter can be medicine. So, watch comedies, surround yourself with funny people, join silly and pointless groups on social media – do whatever you need to do to get in a good laugh every day.
Lesson 37: Forty is not the new twenty.
When I turned 40, everyone kept telling me it’s “the new 20!” No, it isn’t. And I don’t need or want it to be. Despite all of life’s ups and downs, the years have been pretty damn good to me. I’ve been very productive – both personally and professionally. I also feel fortunate to have a wonderful family, great friends and an adventurous career with ever-changing endeavors. I’ve fully embraced my 40s. I actually wouldn’t change a thing.
Lesson 38: Treat every new month like January.
January is always a time for new beginnings as it marks the start of the new year. During the first several weeks of the month, we’re generally very motivated, inspired and laser focused on our goals. But by February things tend to cool down. Now, think about what would happen if we treated every month of every year like January. Think about all the personal achievements, accomplishments and successes we’d accumulate over time.
Over the years, I’ve personally gotten better at maintaining the January mindset throughout the year. And it’s done wonders for my health, happiness and productivity.
Lesson 39: Everything happens for a reason.
Whether a breakup, a layoff, or even diagnosis, I wholeheartedly believe that every single life event happens for a reason. These events shape who we are now and who we will be in the future – even if we can’t see it that way right away. Reflect on these life events, learn whatever you can learn from them and appreciate them in hindsight. This is how you grow as a person.
Lesson 40: Saying goodbye to the past makes space for the present and the future.
The year 2020 undoubtedly did a number on us all, whether mentally, emotionally, physically, spiritually or financially. While 2021 hasn’t been much better, it was a hell of a lot better than 2020. So, now’s the time to move on and be HAPPY. Amazing things are on the way. Be optimistic. Claim it!
And that’s my 40 days of reflection on 40 things I’ve learned in 40 years.
I certainly hope you’ll consider these lessons and reflect on your own life in order in order to uncover your unique path to health, happiness and longevity. Learning to take care of yourself is indeed a process that is oftentimes challenging but undoubtedly rewarding.
Wow, this was powerful. I read it slowly and took it all in. You are 30 years younger than myself, but the lessons are not age related. I want to share each lesson with family and friends. Be blessed.
Thanks so much Virginia and many for sharing your thoughts. So glad to hear you got some nuggets of wisdom from the read. All the best to you 😍