Like many women my age, I fall into regrettable “cool girl” traps at the expense of my health. It’s not uncommon for me to order a cheeseburger at 2 a.m. while simultaneously telling a joke about my inability to run a mile. I eat like trash, I never exercise, and I don’t prioritize my health. When you stop to think about it though, these choices aren’t funny; they're pretty terrible. And however seemingly harmless they may look to a 24-year-old, the decisions I make now are affecting the longevity of my life.
In order to combat all my bad habits, I was challenged to live one week with no regrets. And by "no regrets," this didn't mean going skydiving or getting a piercing. According to the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association, 80% of heart disease and stroke in adults may be preventable. EIGHTY. This experiment would be all about making choices that could improve my brain and heart health now so I don’t regret the consequences later. And while one week might not be enough time to see any significant improvements, it should be enough time to start normalizing better behaviors I can maintain forever.
Knock on wood.
1. Plan out meals and grocery-shop for the week.
Find recipes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
2. Stay active.
Figure out a workout plan that works within my schedule.
3. Get real, adult sleep.
Get seven hours per night minimum.
4. Limit alcohol consumption.
No drinking during the workweek.
5. Take time for myself.
Start writing in a journal.
Megan, meet kitchen. Kitchen, meet Megan. You two are going to be friends...maybe.
I've lived in New York City for two and a half years and can count the number of times I've been to the grocery store on my fingers and toes. Woof.
Despite this sad fact, it's the first day of my no-regrets challenge, and I'm ready to get cookin'. Much to my surprise, finding recipes that meet my new nutritional guidelines is a piece of cake (metaphorically, not literally). I make a pit stop at the grocery store on the way home from work and stock up on ingredients for a week's worth of heart-healthy meals.
Confession: I love breakfast food, but I hardly ever eat it at breakfast time. This is about to change. At the very end of my workday, I whip up the oats, stick them in the fridge overnight, and they're ready to eat in the morning. All I have to do is slice a banana and take it to my desk! Get the recipe here.
This dinner pushes me a little more than the others. I have to cut the tops off the peppers, clear out the innards, cook the ground beef, mix that with tomatoes, add seasoning, and voilà! I cry my eyes out briefly trying to dice the onions, but I think the additional saltiness of my tears adds to the overall flavor. Get the recipe here (crying optional).
BBQ Chicken Sliders
The recipe calls for pork, but I go rogue and try it with chicken instead. I like that part of cooking — you don't have to follow the instructions if you don't want to. Get the (real) slider recipe here. You can also pair this with asparagus spears (not pictured because I ate them all and forgot to take a pic — oops?).
Mushroom Mac 'n' Cheese
There is Greek yogurt in this pasta. And turkey bacon. No, I'm not kidding. Yes, my mind is still blown. If this yummy deliciousness qualifies as "healthy" then sign me up. Mushroom mac 'n' cheese is by far my favorite recipe of the week, and thankfully I have enough for leftovers. Get the recipe here.
Apple "Nacho" Snack
My midday snack is normally three bags of chips and a handful of M&M's, so fruit and nuts is a serious upgrade. Get the recipe here.
My takeaway? Well, I didn't burn the house down, and nothing went awry. I did have to call my mom once or twice for some light kitchen coaching. (Whatever, I'm new to this.)
In the end, the meals I cooked were pretty tasty, and I had a fun time doing it. The recipes are easy enough for a novice to follow, and I received two thumbs up from my roommate. Double win.
Something I didn't take into consideration before this process was the impact on my after-work plans. I was far more likely to cheat on my health pact when I was eating out or if I was hanging out with friends. In a weird turn of events, cooking at home was more comforting than eating out at restaurants because I worried about what I was "allowed" to order. Is any of this good for me?!
Education is key, folks. When in doubt, look for foods that are steamed, broiled, baked, grilled, poached, or roasted. Choose entrées that feature seafood, chicken, or lean meat. And peruse the menu for any labels that might indicate certain items are better than others! Most importantly, if you have questions, ASK!
Once I learned the basics, ordering was a breeze. For the first time in my life, I was giving nutrition the spotlight instead of convenience, and that felt incredibly important. Dare I say...adult?
Eating right is only half the battle. In order to improve my overall cardiovascular health, the American Heart Association suggests at least 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise or 75 minutes per week of vigorous exercise or a combination of the two.
From door to door, I live about 19 minutes away from my office. Old Megan took the bus. New, fit, healthy Megan is walking! And while this doesn't technically qualify as "vigorous exercise," the additional 180 minutes (!!) of activity is making a huge difference in my mood. It might be a placebo situation or just my blind positivity, but I feel better after a stroll in the fresh air. These boots are, quite literally, made for walking.
My transformation into a health goddess wouldn't be complete without also addressing my exercise routine (or lack thereof). I wasn't a runner before, but I sure was gonna try to be one now. I pictured myself waking up and starting my day with a quick jog — my hair is braided, it's 68 degrees outside, and the sun rising as I run alongside my perfectly trained dog.
Spoiler: That never happened. Not once. The impulse to hit the snooze button overpowered my desire to be a morning person, and my dog is quite possibly the worst running partner of all time. I did make time after work, though! Not far (usually two miles max), not fast (my average was 10ish minutes per mile), and not without a few intermittent breaks to catch my breath. BUT at least I was doing it, which is much better than what I was doing before (i.e., absolutely nothing).
Every day, I ran a little bit farther, got a little bit faster, and stopped a little bit less. Don't get me wrong, I'm not signing up for a marathon anytime soon, but this whole exercise thing was definitely making me feel some type of way. That whole endorphins thing is no joke.
Raise your hand if you're a people-pleaser who has a hard time saying "no" to literally anything that sounds remotely fun? In a city like New York, not knowing when to turn down invitations can really mess with your sleep.
On top of that, I'm a low-key introvert, so this lifestyle often acts as an emotional barricade. Being around friends and family can reduce stress, but taking nights to decompress independently is equally, if not more, important. Mental sharpness and independent living are factors in stroke prevention and improving overall vascular health. Many people forget to look at their brain as an organ, but what’s good for your body is also good for your mind, and vice versa.
So, I gave myself some ground rules:
- Drink less. I know you want that second glass of wine, but it's a Tuesday and you really don't need it.
- Go to bed early.
- Don't go out every night; two nights at home per week won't kill you.
- Start writing in a journal.
That last rule quickly became my favorite part of this week. At its simplest, there's something oddly satisfying about putting pen to paper rather than fingers to keys. But on a more serious note, it feels really empowering to revisit my thoughts, even from a few days prior. Most of the problems I'd written down on Monday have since been resolved, and I can focus my attention on other issues I may have accidentally swept under my emotional rug.
I am also getting to work earlier than everyone in my department (#humblebrag) thanks to my new sleep schedule. I haven't been this productive or energized before 10 a.m. since high school.
Real talk? I still have weaknesses. My eyes don't light up when I see a kale salad, and it takes some serious self-control to put on running shoes instead of pajama pants. That said, I've felt growth this week. I'm more conscious about my choices and how they can have a positive impact on my future.
Maintaining this lifestyle is the real challenge though, and it's up to me to stay focused on the long-term benefits. I've realized that it's totally OK for my workouts to be "less intense" than those of my marathon-running friends, and I don't need to cut out meat and dairy and grains to care about my health. Slow and steady is great! Doing too much too soon can be discouraging; focus on the small wins and learn to build upon them.
There are plenty of regrets in life. Getting a lower back tattoo, your prom pictures, texting an ex-boyfriend... We've all been there. But one choice you won’t regret is taking care of your brain health. Eighty percent of strokes may be preventable, so it’s important to make good choices now. Visit the American Heart Association, The American Stroke Association, or Life's Simple 7 to learn how you can start making positive changes!