Get Ready for Move-the-Needle Monday

Because good things come in threes, it's time for the third week of your Dream Big challenge. We've got all the details (and the science) to help you take your health to the next level.

Welcome back for the third installment in our month-long quest to help you get stronger, healthier, and calmer. (If you’re new to this program, click here first to learn about all the fun you’ve been missing).

So, here’s the deal with going after big health goals: Life (a.k.a. adulting) sometimes tries to get in the way. It’s inevitable. It's unavoidable. Our job is to figure out how to maneuver around the obstacles of life (while still being a responsible adult)—whether they’re external or internal—and make it to the finish line.

As we round the corner into week three of this Dream Big challenge, maybe progress has been slower than you’d like. Maybe work has been crazy. Maybe you're stressed about the state of the world. Maybe your kids' things come first. But, it's okay; take these challenges one step at a time and you'll be guaranteed to hit the markers for holding a plank, eating a versatile diet, and meditating this month. In our book, every inch of progress counts—so long as you’re moving the needle forward.

Feeling like you could use some company? Join the #DBGT (Dream Big and Get There) community and show us what you've got on Facebook (make sure to tag us @healthcentral) and Instagram (@healthcentraldotcom) and we’ll reshare and cheer you on! Let’s do this—together.

Dream Big: Eat the Entire Food Pyramid

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Week 3: Pick Lean Proteins

Here’s the science: Sticking to a nutrient-dense diet can be a constant exercise in willpower. When hunger strikes mid-day, we may not have access to healthy options so…off to the vending machine we go! The key to staving off the munchies is packing high-protein foods into our meals. In a study published in the journal Molecular Psychology, scientists found that the products of digested protein—peptides—send signals to the brain that are transmitted back to the gut. The gut is then stimulated to release glucose, which suppresses your desire to eat. Most Americans get their recommended daily amount of protein, but it often comes in the form of the high-fat, high-cholesterol, high-sodium type, such as processed meats. Consuming too much of that stuff can lead to health complications like heart disease, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). This week let’s talk turkey about eating more lean protein. (See what we did there?)

Move-the-Needle Monday: Whether you’re a vegetarian, pescatarian, vegan, or a self-proclaimed carnivore, our focus this week is on making leaner, more varied selections in the protein department. Here’s how much daily protein the USDA recommends: Women: age 19 to 30 years need 5 to 6½ oz.; women 31 and older need 5 to 6 oz. Men: age 19 to 30 years need 6 ½ to 7 oz.; age 31 to 50 need 6 to 7 oz.; age 51 and older need 5 ½ to 6 ½ oz. People who are very physically active may need more. The USDA “My Plate” quiz can help you figure out your ideal protein intake.

The plan: We're making it easy for you by laying out a week's worth of healthy eating.

Monday: It’s meatless Monday! Hear us out: Subbing in plant-based protein sources (beans, nuts and seeds, lentils) for some of your go-to animal-based protein sources (meats) can help ensure your protein choices are lean, says nutritionist Tiffany Ricci, R.D., co-owner of Fueling Life Nutrition in Billings, MT. “Beans and lentils are comparable to meat in protein content, but they are almost fat-free,” Ricci says. Try adding a cup of lentils to your favorite chili recipe instead of ground beef. One cup of cooked lentils has almost the same amount of protein as 3 oz. of 90%-lean ground beef and 13 fewer grams of fat.

Tuesday: Nix the sausage and bacon. Instead, get your lean protein at breakfast via eggs your favorite way (three egg whites equal 2 oz. of your daily intake and three yolks equal 1 oz. of protein), or top a bowl of oatmeal with a handful of nuts and seeds (a 1-oz. portion contains 2 oz. toward your daily protein total).

Wednesday: A can of salmon or tuna can be a quick, inexpensive source of lean protein for lunch, but the fishy flavor can trend toward overpowering. That’s why we reach for the mayo jar to mellow out tuna before spreading it over bread for a sandwich, Ricci says, which can add unnecessary saturated fat. Instead, mix in leaner ingredients like plain yogurt and a squirt of grainy brown mustard. Other options: hummus with lemon juice or mashed avocado with lime juice.

Thursday: It’s fish night. Ricci recommends splurging on flavorful cold-water fish such as halibut, salmon, or tuna for grilling or baking. These cuts can be pricey, but you’ll save in calories because they’re so flavorful you’ll only need salt, a squeeze of lemon, or a dollop of pesto to make them tastebud-ready. For a budget-friendly version, though, try tilapia.

Weekend: After a week of diligently selecting lean proteins, you may feel like rewarding yourself with a juicy burger. We say go for it! But you don’t have to give up on your goals to indulge. Ricci recommends opting for lean—but not the leanest—ground beef at your supermarket to keep your burgers tender and juicy. Look for “85% lean / 15% fat” on the package. “If you are having a burger, get the 85/15 because it’s the main star of the meal. If you’re putting ground beef in the sauce for spaghetti get the leaner 90% / 10%.” You’re less likely to note any textural differences when the leaner beef is swimming in a delicious sauce.

Top tip: OK. We’re going to make one exception to our rule of choosing low-fat meat options. If you are prone to overeating at dinner (we’re all guilty from time to time) swap out your usual skinless chicken breast for skinless chicken thighs to help you reach your protein goal without the risk of overeating. Why? Chicken thigh meat naturally has more fat than breast meat, says Ricci, and that extra fat leaves you more satiated after you eat, so you’re less likely to overeat. Still, keep portion size in mind: a 3 oz. piece of chicken (breast or thigh) counts as a 3-oz. serving of protein.

Dream Big: Meditate Daily

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Week 3: Stay Still... Longer

Here’s the science: You might start to notice your focus sharpening this week at work. That’s because mindfulness has been proven to help with attention span. In fact, a 2018 longitudinal study in the Journal of Cognitive Enhancement spanning seven years found that the practice not only helped to enhance focus but it off-set age-related declines in response time. A simple, free practice that keeps your brain young and razor sharp? Sign us up.

Move-the-Needle Monday: This week your goal is to do something meditative at least five days, including one longer session over the weekend. Somewhere along the way, don’t be surprised if you start craving your meditation—meditation expert Liv Bowser, the founder of Liberate, an L.A.-based mental fitness studio, says this is around the time when she begins to see the magic of the body understanding the importance of stillness. “You'll start to really look forward to the time because you’ll realize ‘this makes me feel good. This is taking care of myself.’” But, she warns, “Your mind may actually start wandering more as you increase your time!” Just notice the thoughts and try to turn your attention back to your breath.

The plan: Your mission in week three is to deepen your practice by adding time to your favorite forms of mediation. A sample schedule: Monday, start the day with a 15-minute meditation walk, Tuesday try a six-minute gratitude meditation, Wednesday do an eight-minute guided meditation, and Friday add in a 10-minute before-bed sleep meditation. A challenge for the weekend: Add in a one 20-minute session now that you’re getting the hang of it.

Top tip: If you’re a parent finding your kids are having trouble leaving you alone during your mediation sessions, try getting them involved by asking them to do a body scan. “We find this works in kids six and up—we have them focus on the sensation of their bodies from their head to their toe,” says Bowser. By getting them to understand what you’re doing they might not only respect your quiet time, they just might join you for a portion of it!

Dream Big: Hold a Plank for Two Minutes Straight

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Week 3: Push Yourself to the Minute

Here’s the science: Turns out, working on core strength pays off in more than just sculpted abs (but, hey, we’ll take those, too!). In a 2019 study published in the journal Plos One, researchers spent eight weeks examining the differences between collegiate runners who added in three core strengthening sessions per week versus a control group.

What they found was that the extra ab work paid off by improving the runners’ core endurance (the ability to maintain a low level of support the entire time you exercise to stabilize the spine), static balance (the ability to hold the body in a fixed posture), and running economy (the energy needed for a given speed of running that can be determined by measuring the amount of oxygen consumed) for a triple-crown worthy win.

Move-the-Needle-Monday: Whether you’re a college athlete, weekend warrior, or total newbie is irrelevant—with regular practice, you’re building the necessary neuroplasticity (that’s fancy trainer lingo for the mind-muscle connection) to hold a more refined, technically perfect plank for longer periods of time. And, yep, just like any winning college athlete, that means you’ll need to practice, practice, practice.

The plan: Push yourself! We’re going for a full, uninterrupted minute (three to five times this week).

Remember to adjust and amend to your own personal skill level—and frankly, how you’re feeling that day. (It’s better to drop onto your knees and hold a modified plank in proper form than struggle with a full plank when you’re just not feeling it. Because those days happen.)

Top tip: If you find that holding a plank for a full-minute came easier than you expected, add an extra challenge by going into side plank (a popular yoga move) to extend your hold and increase strength (not to mention enviable muscle tone).

Here’s how to do one: While still in full-frontal plank, shimmy your feet together and “walk” one straightened arm more toward your middle so that it’s directly below your left shoulder. Now, pull your belly into your spine and raise your right hip until your body turns to your right side, with your left arm still straight and strong as your right arm points straight up to the ceiling. (Your gaze can follow suit.) Allow your feet to spin toward the right, too, so they stack on top of each other.

Hold side plank for up to 30 seconds, if you can, before allowing your free arm to drop down to the mat, which will spin you back into a regular plank position. Collapse to the mat and rest if you need to—but if you’re feeling good, repeat on the opposite side!

Bonus tip: Going into side plank can also save you if you can’t quite make it to 60 seconds yet, and your shaking arms need a change of position. But, don’t worry—we’ll definitely count any side plank add-ons toward week three’s full-minute planking goal.

Contributors: Rachel Jacoby Zoldan, Danielle Gamiz, Beth Shapouri