Dream Big—and Get There This Month

Welcome to our new series, where we challenge you to a big goal each month—then help you achieve it with actionable steps on Move-the-Needle Mondays. From fitness to food to feeling your emotional best, get ready to reach the next level.

If you’re reading this column, odds are, you’ve got some dreams in life. Those dreams are probably on the ambitious side, and they likely did not come with an instruction manual. Maybe they’ve been on your wish list for a while, or maybe they’re part of a pact you made on January 1 that is starting to crumble—not from lack of will, but from lack of guidance to get you where you want to go.

We feel you. Here at HealthCentral, every single one of us has set goals and fallen short—and we know how important it is not only to dream big, but to arm yourself with the tools that get you across the finish line. So, each month we’re going to set three big challenges related to your fitness, nutrition, and mental wellness. Then we’re going to kick off each week with our Move-the-Needle Monday column, breaking down the details to help you create the habits, mindset, and technical know-how to be successful in reaching your monthly goal. You’re going to get there, but you’re not going there alone. We’ve got your hand and your back, and we’re getting after our dreams—together.

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

Dream Big: 40 Pushups in 90 Seconds

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Week 1: Start with 10

Here’s the science: Pushups are easy, said no one ever. But mastering them doesn’t just give you water cooler bragging rights, it’s a veritable health boon, as well. A study of more than 1,100 people published in the Journal of the America Medical Association found that those who could perform 40 pushups in a row were an impressive 96% less likely to develop cardiovascular disease over a 10-year period than those who could do less than 10 in the same timeframe. Given that one in two Americans has some form of heart disease, this is one move you want to master. Plus, did we mention buff arms?

Move-the-Needle Monday: For our inaugural column kickoff, we went to the best of the best: our very own HealthCentral editor Danielle Gamiz, who also happens to be a certified group fitness instructor. (Holler!) “The great thing about pushups as a goal is that you’re not just getting stronger, you feel like a total badass when you do them,” she says. Here’s what you’ll be working on, courtesy of Coach Gamiz, this week.

The plan: “This week is all about your form,” says Gamiz. “To start, see how many pushups you can do in the traditional style (weight on your hands and toes).” Focus on keeping your back flat (no sagging in the middle!), hands directly below and slightly wider than your shoulders. As you bend your elbows, imagine your collarbone aiming for the floor; stop about two inches before your torso makes contact and straighten again. Maybe you can do 10… or one. Or none. It’s all good. If you find yourself struggling, either of these modifications can make it easier, but still count toward building the necessary strength:

  • Wall pushup: Stand two to three feet away from a wall, facing it. Stretch your arms out until they touch the wall, then back your feet away until your body forms a straight, diagonal line. Bend elbows until your chest nears the wall. Straighten. Repeat.

  • Bench pushup: Bend over and rest your hands on a bench or sturdy chair, arms straight. Back your feet away until your body forms a long straight line from head to toe. Bend elbows and lower as far as you can control. Straighten. Repeat.

Your goal this week is to complete 10 pushups in 90 seconds, in whatever form feels doable, every day. If you can do more than 10, great—keep going! “You’re figuring out where you’re at with your strength, so we can build on this going forward,” says Gamiz.

Top tip: Right before you do a pushup, breathe in deeply and exhale. “You’re preparing your body to do the work,” says Gamiz. “Pushups are hard!”

Dream Big: Quit Sugar

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Week 1: Cut it in half

Here’s the science: We don’t need to tell you—excessive sugar intake rocks your insulin levels, can trigger type 2 diabetes, and may even give you heart disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And, now a new study in Evolution and Human Behavior suggests that sugar also plays a role in behavioral disorders like bipolar and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and can lead to general aggression (road rage, anyone?). Save your heart and stabilize your mood by cutting back on the sweet stuff? You can do it—here’s how.

Move-the-Needle Monday: Giving up sugar cold turkey is hard. The stuff is literally addictive (so says a 2018 research review in the British Journal of Sports Medicine)—and it’s in virtually everything that comes in a pre-sealed bag or box. That’s why we turned to Carmen Roberts, M.S., a registered dietitian and adjunct faculty instructor for Excelsior College in Washington, D.C., to find out the easiest way to get there. She suggests beginning by simply lowering the amount of sweetener in your food. The goal is to cut just enough to notice, but not to care. “It’s like going from whole milk to skim milk,” says Roberts. “Doing it gradually really helps your taste buds acclimate.” That’ll make the coming weeks easier and less jarring—and you won’t be as tempted to fall off the wagon due to cravings. PSA: Always check with your doctor before making big dietary shifts, especially if you’re diabetic.

The plan: This week, every other day, try to find one thing in your routine where you cut the amount of sugar in half—and then keep it that way. For example, on Monday, use one sugar instead of two in your coffee or tea; on Wednesday, replace your afternoon cookie treat or after-dinner dessert with a piece of your favorite fruit and a cup of herbal tea; on Friday, blend ½ a cup of your usual sweetened yogurt with ½ a cup unsweetened yogurt. On Sunday, if you’re a soda drinker—especially if you love those artificial sweeteners which have been shown to trigger cravings—start to wean yourself off by swapping in soda water with lemon or lime slices. Soda water is also a clutch substitute for alcoholic bevvies that can monkey with your willpower (and are also loaded with sugar). By the end of the week, as your body adjusts, you should start to notice all foods taste a little sweeter and you don’t need as much to feel a sugar high. Virtual high-five.

Top tip: To help distract from the lack of sweet, “find some other flavor alternatives to help you feel satisfied,” says Roberts. “For example, a few drops of an extract like cinnamon or cardamom can really help you when it comes to coffee. Or, adding vanilla to a lower-sugar yogurt can help make it more pleasurable.” These little add-ins make cutting sugar feel less like a chore and more like a fancy treat.

Dream Big: Sleep 7 Hours (or More) Every Night

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Week 1: Power down in 30

Here’s the science: If we’re being honest about how we handle the three pillars of healthy living—nutrition, exercise, and sleep—sleep often gets left in the dust. Who has time? We’re super busy and it’s hard to shut our brains off at night. At minimum, adults need seven hours, but a full third of people aren’t meeting that mark, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Walking around sleep-deprived affects our ability to think clearly and make good decisions when we’re, say, driving a car. Newsflash: Being awake for at least 18 hours results in the same cognitive slowdown as someone who has a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.05% (that’s one to two drinks you didn’t even have!). Over time, lack of regular quality sleep can also raise your risk for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity. Our goal this month? To get us back to sleep!

Move-the-Needle Monday: First things first. We have to get a handle on pre-bedtime screen use, says Kannan Ramar, M.D., president of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, and sleep medicine physician and professor at the Center for Sleep Medicine at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN. Yeah, Dr. Ramar hit us right where it hurts—our phones. It’s hard to put them down and that’s harming our sleep. “The blue light from the electronics tends to disrupt our natural ability to fall asleep in the evening,” Dr. Ramar says. (Why? It is similar in wavelength to sunlight, messing with our circadian rhythms.)

The plan: Shut off your devices at least 30 minutes before bedtime. This includes the TV, your tablet, and of course, your phone. Also, mute your phone notifications—all but the emergency ones—to help you resist the temptation to pick it up again. “The reason is, if you get an alert five minutes before you were to fall asleep, it mentally arouses you to the point that you have difficulty slowing down your mind before trying to go to sleep,” says Dr. Ramar. Those pings are like an alarm clock on snooze, and we all know how comforting that is… not!

  • Monday night: Start by turning everything off before you slip under the covers (no scrolling in bed!).

  • Tuesday night: Turn off the TV and your phone 10 minutes before bed.

  • Wednesday night: Power down devices 20 minutes before bed.

  • Thursday night: Power down devices 30 minutes before bed. If you wind up grabbing your phone once or twice out of habit, it’s OK. Give yourself some grace while you’re learning this new routine!

  • Friday to Sunday: Keep doing what you’re doing (powering down all electronics 30 minutes before sleep). It will feel awkward at first to give up your toys so soon before bed, but practice makes perfect. Make the habit stick by committing to it, even on weekends.

Top tip: Stop reading in bed (especially on your tablet—hello, blue light!). There are two reasons for this, says Dr. Ramar. First: “Most books keep us excited, and that’s not helpful when you’re trying to fall asleep.” OK. Good point. And second: Leaving your book outside the bedroom is a way to train your mind that you’re going to bed to sleep, not read. Instead, use your reading time to wind down before you hit the sack.

That's a wrap on this week, folks. Keeping getting after your dreams and giving these goals your best shot. We'll see you back here next Monday as we move the needle forward!

Contributors: Julia Savacool, Beth Shapouri, Danielle Gamiz