Dream Big—and Get There This Month

Welcome to our HealthCentral series, where we challenge you to a big goal every month—then help you get there through actionable steps on Move-the-Needle Mondays each week. Whether your dreams of self-improvement involve fitness, food, or feeling your emotional best, we’ve got something for you. Let’s get started!

Welcome to the second month of our Dream Big challenge, where we help you tackle some of the goals on your life to-do list. Those goals are probably ambitious, and maybe a little complex. Maybe they’re things you've wanted to do for a while, but haven't figured out exactly how to get started.

We know where you're coming from. Here at HealthCentral, setting goals and falling short is nothing to be embarrassed about. We believe wholeheartedly in that familiar maxim, "Better to try and fail, than to never try at all"—but we also believe, "Better still to try and succeed." And we know that the best chance for success comes from having the right tools to get you across the finish line.

This month we’re arming you with the tools to go after three big challenges related to your fitness, nutrition, and mental wellness. Each week, we'll kick things off with our Move-the-Needle Monday column, breaking down the details for each of these goals, to help you succeed in reaching them by the end of the month. You’re going to get there, and we’re getting there with you, one step at a time. (Don’t forget to share your progress on Instagram or Facebook at #DreamBigGetThere.)

Ready to get started? Keep reading for this month’s goals—plus your Week 1 Plan.

Dream Big: Hold a Plank for Two Minutes Straight

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Week 1: Focus on Form

Here’s the science: It’s undeniable: Doing planks does a body good. Research from Sports Health found that the simple-but-mighty plank recruits a legion of your trunk’s stabilizing muscles such as the rectus abdominis (your six-pack in the making), external obliques (slay muffin top forever), longissimus thoracis (if you want a long, lean back), lumbar multifidus (another spine strengthener), gluteus medius (for those aiming for snake-like hips), and gluteus maximus (‘cuz this challenge is a different kind of booty call).

Move-the-Needle Monday: For our plank challenge, we tapped two health experts on opposite coasts: Holly Roser, a certified personal trainer based in San Mateo, CA, and Abby Bales, D.P.T., owner of Reform Physical Therapy in New York City. Roser does a plank in every single one of her warmups—and recommends planking three to five times weekly when you’re training your body to hold one for two minutes straight. “Planks utilize your core more than any other type of abdominal move,” says Bales. However, she warns you not to push too hard. “In order to not strain an abdominal muscle, it’s important to not overdo it and take those rest days.” Recovery is essential, she adds, because it’s when exercised muscles have the time and freedom to build themselves up from the hard work you’ve put in.

The plan: As with any other exercise you’re first attempting, the goal this week is to learn how to hold the pose properly and not sweat the seconds you’re spending holding it. Start by getting down on all fours, then placing elbows on the floor shoulder-width apart. Step back one leg at a time until your body forms one long line from head to toes.

“Keep your back completely flat, spine neutral, and hips down,” says Roser. “Imagine your back has a glass of water on it.” Bales says the “hip hike” (when your hips are higher than the rest of your body) is an oft-seen mistake in plank. “Be careful not to hike your hips too high,” she warns. “Otherwise, you’ll end up looking like you’re in more of a downward dog than in plank.”

For perfect form, make sure to pull in your stomach toward your belly button, which will activate those deep inner-abdominal muscles that are often otherwise neglected. For your first attempt (on Monday), assume that 15 seconds is the goal starting point, but don’t pressure yourself. “If it doesn’t feel good, don’t do it,” Bales cautions.

When you’re ready to try your second attempt (on Wednesday), shoot for a 15- to 20-second plank. Work your way up to holding a 20-, 25- or 30-second plank (whatever feels best) for two consecutive sessions (Friday and Sunday). You’ll want to take a recovery day in between attempts, especially if your arms are sore. The goal by the end of the week is to hold a 30-second plank using proper form. Your arms might shake some, but we bet you can get there!

Need to modify? Bring your knees down to the floor. By engaging your abdominals near that belly button, you’ll get the same isolated core workout you would in full frontal plank, minus the shoulder or pelvic pain you may be experiencing in the full position.

Top tip: Don’t hold your breath! “When you hold your breath and bear down, it creates intraabdominal pressure,” explains Bales. This causes your body to recruit strength from other muscles that shouldn’t be involved in plank in the first place—potentially setting you up for bad form and even injury.

Dream Big: Eat the Entire Food Pyramid

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Week 1: Prioritize Produce

Here’s the science: Last month we put sugar in its place—firmly at the bottom of our nutrition priorities. This month, we’re focusing not on what to cut from our diets, but instead on what we should add in. Remember the Food Pyramid? It’s how we learned, in elementary school, about the food groups—fruits, vegetables, grains, protein, and diary—and how much we should eat each day.

Well, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has since given the food pyramid a makeover. In fact, it’s got a whole new shape: a plate. How appropriate! The idea is the same, though: Meet your food group needs with nutrient-dense meals and stay within calorie limits. But the truth is, hardly any of us do it. The USDA says more than 80% of Americans have dietary patterns that are low in vegetables, fruits, and dairy. And that sets us up for poor health and puts us at risk of becoming overweight or obese.

We could all use a nudge toward healthier choices. Where to start… You can take this USDA quiz to see where you’re meeting and falling short of the dietary guidelines. Already know your diet needs some work? Let’s set a small goal for this week and do it together!

Move-the-Needle Monday: This week we are putting the spotlight on fruits and veggies. On average, women need 1½ cups of fruit and 2½ cups of vegetables each day. Men need 2 cups of fruit and 3 cups of veggies. Fruits are easy because you can grab an apple or banana any time of day, says Billings, MT-based registered dietitian nutritionist Tiffany Ricci, co-owner of Fueling Life Nutrition.

On the other hand, vegetables can be trickier to work in. They may take time to peel, slice, and cook, and the USDA says a whopping 90% of us aren’t meeting the daily vegetable goal. Ricci’s target for you this week: Fill half your lunch and dinner plates with vegetables every day.

The plan: For lunch, your whole plate can be veggie-fied with what Ricci calls a “chunky salad.” Consider it a level-up for your standard lettuce with tomatoes and carrots. The chunky version has loads of texture plus protein via ingredients like canned beans, cooked grains, olives, canned tuna or salmon, or leftover chicken. Up the vegetable ante by topping it with pre-chopped cabbage, canned corn, and even a scoop of fresh chunky salsa (that scoop alone could contain a whole serving of vegetables). “You could knock out the entire day’s allotment of veggies in one meal,” Ricci says. How good would that feel?

For dinner, load your plate with your favorite roasted veggies. This takes a little prep work but it pays dividends with big flavor. Roast two large sheet-pans-full on Sunday and tuck them into containers in the fridge for the whole week. Throw them on your chunky salads or warm them up for quick dinner sides.

Here’s how to make them: Preheat your oven to 425 degrees, then cut your veggies of choice into bite-size pieces (or buy a pre-cut bag). Toss them with ¼ cup olive oil and some salt and pepper, then scatter them over a parchment-paper-lined baking sheet. Bake, checking on them every 10 minutes until they are tender and crispy around the edges. Asparagus, green beans, peppers, and zucchini take 10 to 20 minutes; broccoli and cauliflower take 15 to 25 minutes. Potatoes and carrots take 30 to 45 minutes.

Top tip: Embracing that veggie-lovin’ life but need more flavor? Ricci says dried herbs such as thyme, rosemary, or a spice blend like Morraccan ras el hanout can take roasted veggies up several notches. Add fresh herbs like dill, parsley, or cilantro into your salads to boost taste. And toss fresh or cooked vegetables with a tangy dressing by combining a little oil with something sour (tahini, Dijon, balsamic, or lemon and lime juice).

Dream Big: Meditate Daily

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Week 1: Set the Tone

Here’s the science: By now you know meditation, the practice of being fully, mindfully in the moment, is a good idea—according to a research review in the Journal of Religion and Health, it’s shown to help everything from sleep quality to cognitive function to the physical and emotional effects of cancer treatment. But, for many, the idea of sitting for minutes at a time with nothing but our thoughts can be intimidating.

However, experts insist that once you get started you may realize that you actually look forward to the quiet time. In fact, it’s something meditation expert Liv Bowser, the founder of Liberate, an L.A.-based mental fitness studio that blends physical movement, mindfulness, and community, has seen in her clients. With her guidance we’ll take mindfulness sessions from “I wish I did it” to a daily practice—and love every step of the way.

Move-the-Needle Monday: Your first step is simply to set yourself up for success by preparing yourself for mindfulness without diving—head-first—into the deep end. Mini-breathing episodes will help you start to embrace doing nothing in a very easy way. Says Bowser, “For new meditators it can feel like such a daunting practice, so whatever it takes for you to get to that one minute to start—if you want to do it with your eyes open or while you’re still in bed, there's no wrong way to meditate.”

Also on your to-do list this week? Setting up a meditation space in your house so you’ve got a place all carved out for future sessions.

The plan: Start the week off by staying in bed and focusing on the in-and-out rhythm of your breath for one minute before getting up. Don’t worry about doing it right or wrong; just do it. It’s one moment of mindfulness that will set the tone for the whole day without sucking you into a full meditation session … yet.

On Tuesday, start scouting out a place in your house to set up as a meditation corner. On Wednesday and Thursday, your task is to move anything out of that area that may cause distraction (photos, electronics, books, games, etc.) and warn your family about your upcoming quiet time. On Friday, try starting the day with another one-minute breathing session.

Then, over the weekend, schedule one three-minute meditation—you can simply set a timer and breathe or use a guided session via an app of your choice (such as Headspace). You may feel your thoughts drift, and that’s normal! “The idea is just to notice your thoughts—don’t try to stop them. Meditation is the ability to note your wandering mind, and then focusing back on the present,” explains Bowser.

Top tip: Bowser’s shortcut to creating a meditation zone that helps you feel centered: “Bring in something to activate each of your five senses. I might use a candle in the space for smell, a soft blanket for touch, tea for taste, a plant to bring nature in with your sight, and meditation music for sound.” Spending a few seconds on each one can help you become present in the space and set the right tone.

And that's all we've got for week one of your April Dream Big challenge! Dip your toes into the water and give these goals a test drive. Try one or go for all three—either way, meet us back here next Monday for more fun.

Contributors: Rachel Jacoby Zoldan, Danielle Gamiz, Beth Shapouri

Impacts of One Session: Michigan Technological University. (2018.) "Meditation could help anxiety and cardiovascular health." plan.core-apps.com/eb2018/abstract/8bf13c01-6090-4bc8-827f-779d9e1991a4