Ready, Set, Move-the-Needle Monday!

Are you ready for week two of your Dream Big challenge? Let’s get serious about more pushups, less sugar, and better sleep, starting now.

Welcome back! If you joined our kickoff challenge last week and you’re ready for more action, we’re psyched to have you on our team. If you’re just joining the fun, you might want to click here first, to find out what all the hype is about (and get started at the beginning). Either way, welcome to the second round.

Week two of anything is hard. The honeymoon is over, the party is done, the guests have all taken their drooping face masks and gone home. Now, it’s just you—and seven more days of pushing that ball up the hill, even if the hilltop is still not in sight. It isn’t easy. But that’s what life is about: trying your hardest each day to be a little better than you were the day before. It’s when you stack your small wins on top of small wins that you begin to see the progress you’re making—and that’s what keeps all of us coming back for more.

There’s nothing neat and tidy about going after big goals. It’s less of a linear climb and more: two steps forward, one step back. We know, because we’ve taken those backwards steps ourselves, more times than we’d like to count. That’s why you need a plan, and this week’s version aims to keep you committed to the big picture while helping you break it down to bite-size chunks with moves you can make every day. Let’s get started!

Dream Big: 40 Pushups in 90 Seconds

40 Pushups in 90 Seconds

Week 2: Build your stamina

Here’s the science: It’s hard to think of a more complete way to build upper body strength than an old-fashioned pushup. In one movement, you’re developing shoulder stability, biceps and triceps strength, engaging your abdominal and back muscles, and getting a small dose of cardio to boot. If you need to perform a modified from-the-knees pushup, that’s totally fine: A study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that the modified version can work just as many muscles, while allowing you to control the level of difficulty.

Move-the-Needle Monday: HealthCentral’s editor and certified group fitness instructor Danielle Gamiz is back with more advice on working your way to 40 pushups in a row. “This week, we’re playing with stamina,” she says. To do that, you’ll dabble in what’s called Tabata—a high-intensity workout that lasts just four minutes (trust us, that’s long enough!)

The plan: “We’re increasing your pushup reps to 20,” says Gamiz. “You might not be ready to do 20 in a row, but with this week’s plan, you’ll do 20 in four minutes.” For this, you’ll need a timer. You’re going to be doing 20 seconds of work, followed by 10 seconds of rest, eight times. Ready? For 20 seconds, do as many pushups as you can. Rest 10 seconds. Go again for 20 seconds, trying to do the same number of pushups as you did the first time. Take another 10 seconds of rest. Repeat two more times. Each day, try to squeeze one more pushup into the 20 seconds of work—so if you started on Monday doing four pushups every 30 seconds, by Friday, you’re shooting for eight in a row. (Remember, it’s fine to do a modified version, especially as you get tired!)

Top tip: Don’t overthink things, says Gamiz—it’s just a pushup, after all. “Picture your body as a nice long plank,” she says. “Engage your abs, glutes, and quads so they support you, but don’t squeeze so hard you can’t move them!”

Dream Big: Quit Sugar

Quit Sugar

Week 2: Learn to read labels

Here’s the science: You might hit some hardcore cravings this week as your body attempts to keep you on the sauce (so to speak)—people who go off sugar have shown symptoms of withdrawal similar to that seen with drugs, according to a research review in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. But the rewards will be big: Once you get out on the other side, it will significantly help your mood (research links excessive sugar intake with depression). And the health benefits, including a decrease in liver fat, will start appearing in as little as nine days of slashing sugar intake, according to a study in Gastroenterology. Know that you’re already doing good for yourself if you’ve made it this far.

Move-the-Needle Monday: Your mission this week is to seek out hidden sources of sugar in your life (marinades, ketchup, dressings, tomato sauces…), as well as “healthy” foods that are really sugar bombs (looking at you, granola bars), and find alternatives. That means learning to read the ingredients list. “Get ready to be surprised,” says Carmen Roberts, M.S., a registered dietitian and adjunct faculty instructor for Excelsior College in Washington, D.C. Next, dream up swaps that don’t have sugar added. For example, grab a handful of nuts rather than a nut bar containing ingredients like brown rice syrup. (Not fooled: We see you, sugar).

The plan: Start the week off by going through your cabinet and putting a sticky note on anything you don’t think of as a treat that contains sugar as one of the first four ingredients (including white sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and brown rice syrup). Starting Tuesday, we’re tasking you with finding alternative recipes or ready-made options you can swap instead. Pinterest is full of great ideas.

Later in the week (when your sweet tooth starts to kick in), stash a fruit salad in the fridge or grapes in the freezer (pop ’em in your mouth like you would hard candy). Also, frozen bananas in the freezer blend easily into “nice cream” as an after-dinner snack. (Literally drop the bananas into a blender with plain low-fat or Greek yogurt and a splash of vanilla.) By Saturday, you could be feeling a little cranky (that’s normal), so plan a few chill activities like meditation, shown to enhance mood, according to a study in Behavior Brain Research. (Plus, if you’re meditating, you can’t really be snacking on sugar, now, can you?)

Top tip: Wrestling with visions of cake? It’s time to look at your H2O consumption. “Make sure you’re keeping your water intake up—I’ve found with my clients that dehydration can actually trigger sugar cravings,” says Roberts.

Dream Big: Sleep Seven Hours (or More) Each Night

Sleep 7 Hours (or More) a Night

Week 2: Size up your sleep space

Here’s the science: Have you heard of the circadian clock? It’s how your brain knows when to be awake and when to be at rest. Your brain performs this helpful function by using light and dark to help it predict when to cue “active you” and when to call in “sleepy you.” Your circadian clock is most sensitive to light from about two hours before your usual bedtime and throughout the night, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This means that something as simple as introducing a little after-dinner mood lighting to your routine can help you fall asleep faster when it’s time for bed. This week, you’re making environmental changes to maximize your body’s full sleep potential.

Move-the-Needle Monday: Repeat after us: “My bedroom is only for sleeping.” OK, and sex. But it’s certainly not a hangout for TV viewing or after-hours work, and how it looks and feels should reflect that. “The bedroom environment has a big impact on how we sleep,” says Kannan Ramar, M.D., president of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, and sleep medicine physician and professor at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN.

The plan: Revamp your sleep environment. Since many of us are currently working from home (your bedroom might double as an office during the day), it’s especially important to shift gears at night by making small changes in your room to cue sleep. This will be different for everyone, so use your senses to lead the way here, keeping optimal comfort in mind.

  • Monday: Pull the curtains and turn your light off after nightfall. How much light pollution is still filtering into your bedroom? Significant? Consider purchasing thick light-blocking curtains or use an eye mask to remind your brain that it’s dark and that equals sleepy time.

  • Tuesday: Sudden noises might be jarring you awake more than you realize. Try using a white noise machine or app to cancel out the din. If the source of noise is wakeful small children, sorry… that’s the topic for another column!

  • Wednesday: Turn your thermostat down. Your body naturally cools itself to start the process of falling asleep. Dr. Ramar says you can encourage this process by setting your bedroom temperature a little cooler than you’d have it during the day, but not too cold. Around 65 is good.

  • Thursday: Wash your bedding—all of it. The National Sleep Foundation (NSF) recommends washing sheets once a week to keep dirt, oil, and sweat from making you uncomfortable. And throw the blankets and comforter in frequently, too.

  • Friday: If you are routinely too hot or too cold, it might be time to invest in new bedding. This guide from the NSF can help you find the right type for your body. Pillows and mattress are a whole other thing, but the NSF has tips on those, too.

Top tip: Exposure to natural light during the day can make it easier to fall asleep at night. That’s because outdoor light is brighter than what we’re exposed to indoors, so it trips the trigger for sleep-time once you come back inside. One more reason to get out the door for that afternoon walk.

And just like that, you’ve got your plan nailed down for this second week of March. Remember, it’s only natural that it starts to feel a little hard to stick with the program. If it were easy, everyone would do it and all that (fill in your favorite cliché here). But the truth is that self-improvement takes grit and grind, and you’ve got plenty of both, even if you’re just starting to find that out. Eventually, these healthy moves will start to feel more like a habit. Keep after it, and we’ll see you back here next Monday!

Contributors: Julia Savacool, Beth Shapouri, Danielle Gamiz