If It’s Monday, It’s Time to Move the Needle

This is it—the final step forward in this month's Dream Big challenge. Ready to cross the finish line? Get your week four plan, here.

Setting a goal is like getting into a rowboat: You can’t just sit there. You’ve got to move those oars to get where you want to go. Well, friends, you have rowed your boat for three weeks straight and have nearly reached your goal—to eat from all of the food groups, meditate daily, or hold a two-minute plank.

Sure, you still have one week to go, but we think you should pause right here and give yourself a high five (or a big ol’ hug). You’ve come a long way, and that progress is worth celebrating.

Then, at the end of the week, bring out the confetti and blowhorns because you did it! To document your successful finish, join the #DreamBigGetThere community and show us what you did on Facebook (be sure to tag @healthcentral) and Instagram (@healthcentraldotcom), and we’ll reshare. We’re so proud of you!

Dream Big: Eat the Entire Food Pyramid

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Week 4: Double Down on Dairy

Here’s the science: The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) says a full 90% of Americans don’t get the recommended amount of dairy and could benefit from upping their low-fat dairy intake. Dairy products contain vital nutrients such as calcium and vitamin D for strong teeth and bones (important as we age and lose bone mass), as well as potassium—key in helping us maintain a healthy blood pressure.

Now, if you can’t have dairy for any reason, you’ll have to look for these nutrients from other foods (and we offer some suggestions, below), but if dairy is a food group you can get on board with, we’ve got a plan to help you make some healthy choices (pulls out cheese board).

Move-the-Needle Monday: Both men and women need three cups of dairy every day, according to the USDA. The agency recommends getting that in the form of nutrient-rich choices such as milk (including lactose-free milk), yogurt, and cheese. Not included under the “healthy dairy choices” category: any food made from milk that has little calcium and a high-fat content, such as cream cheese, sour cream, and butter (sorry!). If dairy is off the menu for you, consider getting your calcium from these foods: calcium-fortified juices, cereals, breads, and plant-based milk alternatives such as rice and/or almond milk; canned fish (sardines, salmon with bones), soybeans, soy products (tofu made with calcium sulfate, soy yogurt, tempeh), and some leafy greens (collard and turnip greens, kale, bok choy).

The plan: Consume three cups of dairy or calcium every day this week. In addition to the options we just mentioned, think outside the (ahem) carton. Have you tried fermented dairy? Hear us out. Yogurt and its tangier, more sippable cousin, kefir, can be great dairy options that also pack a probiotic punch, which boost your gut’s colony of healthy bacteria, says Tiffany Ricci, R.D., nutritionist, and co-owner of Fueling Life Nutrition, a nutrition-coaching company, in Billings, MT.

And, fermented dairy may even prevent heart disease, according to one study published by the British Journal of Nutrition. Of the 2,000 men who participated in the study, those who ate plenty of fermented dairy products (including yogurt and some types of cheese) had a smaller risk of coronary artery disease than the men who ate less.

But be careful when choosing low-fat yogurts, Ricci says. “Sometimes when it’s low-fat, they’ll add in other stuff.” This includes sugar or sweeteners that can turn a healthy serving of dairy into a not-so-healthy dessert!

Top tip: The USDA has some great tools to help you set daily nutrition goals that are right for you and your body. You can check how many calories you need each day for your body type and lifestyle via the Personal Plan tool at myplate.gov/myplate-plan. And if you’re into tracking things, you can even download the widget to your phone to help you meet your daily goals for weeks and months to come. How’s that for lasting change?

Dream Big: Meditate Daily

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Week 4: Incorporate More Meditation Throughout Your Day

Here’s the science: You may start to feel a much-welcome side effect this week: the quality of your sleep is better. A study in JAMA Internal Medicine found that mindfulness practices were more effective at reducing insomnia and fatigue than sleep education. The study's authors theorized that this could have a major impact in the overall quality of life in people struggling with sleeping issues ... which feels like everyone these days.

Move-the-Needle Monday: This is the week that you’ll make meditation a daily practice, with two longer sessions sprinkled in to up your benefits even more. Another goal this week: Start to bring that mindfulness outside of your actual mediation time by adding in mid-day check-ins. Liv Bowser, a meditation expert and the founder of Liberate, an L.A.-based mental fitness studio that blends physical movement, mindfulness, and community, says the overall idea is to bring mindfulness into all corners of your life, and to help tap into a feeling of calm anytime, anywhere.

The plan: On Monday, schedule a long 15- to 20-minute session. Might as well start your week off in a relaxed and dialed-in state. Tuesday through Friday, schedule at least 10 minutes of your day doing some meditation of your choosing. On Friday, you’ll also want to start setting an alarm at noon every day to spend one minute giving yourself a quick “What am I feeling in this moment?” check-in—and keep that going forward. On Saturday or Sunday, do a long session (at least 20 minutes). Sandwiching every few days with extended meditations is one of Bowser’s secrets to staying on track: ”It’s just a nice way to begin and end your week.”

Top tip: For the days when you just can’t squeeze in even a full minute, Bowser says you can still get in some mindfulness by taking a quick 30 to 45 seconds to focus on something you’re thankful for. “You can use a talisman of some kind if it helps—I use my necklace. Interact with that item [twirl it or tap it] and just take a breath to think of one thing you're grateful for.” It may not seem like a lot but, she says, “these little moments allow you to connect with yourself anytime, anywhere, so you don’t end up with those days where it's 7 p.m., and you find yourself thinking, “I haven't breathed today!”

Dream Big: Hold a Plank for Two Minutes Straight

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Week 4: Prolong Your Plank

Here’s the science: Planking isn’t just a short-term fad worthy of a TikTok video or Instagram Reel supercut—when done correctly and consistently, the exercise is a bona fide remedy for poor posture and lower back pain. Research from Georgetown University’s Health Policy Institute confirms (and our experts agree) that it’s a genuine panacea to a pervasive and chronic problem, since some 16 million Americans—8% of all adults—report persistent or chronic back pain, and as a result are limited in certain everyday activities.

Move-the-Needle-Monday: Now that you’ve notched three weeks’ worth of our plank challenge (and created a proven habit, since science confirms that it takes just 18 days to establish and cement a new routine), this week is focused on getting you to the two-minute finish line. But, hang on!

Take a moment and pat yourself on your (toned) back first—you did it! And, seriously, forget the two-minute goal for a second: You just spent a month perfecting your plank. Go ahead and draw yourself a hot bath with Epsom salts ... you’ve earned it!

The plan: Going full-out for the 120 seconds? Keep tacking on the time, entertaining yourself with whatever tune necessary. And once you hit that INCREDIBLE goal? It’s no time to back down now—you’re THERE!

Incorporate just two minutes of planking time into your regular workout routine a few times each week for a stronger spine, sleek obliques, and a tighter core. No reason to toss a month’s worth of work out the window just because our challenge is “over,” right? Come swimsuit season, your abs will thank you.

Top tip: Protect your spine by keeping your eyes on the prize—or in this case, your gaze toward the tip of your nose. This small adjustment keeps your neck straight and your cervical spine free from injury.