Spring clean your life

Studies show that the rituals of cleaning and getting rid of what's no longer serving you—such as worn-out possessions, old habits, emotional ties, or unhealthy thoughts—can actually improve your physical and mental health.

Spring is a natural time for renewal. The weather warms, days lengthen, windows open. As clean air and light pour in, you may feel inspired to let that freshness into everything—your physical space, your mind, your body. And it turns out that doing so is intricately tied to your overall health and well-being. Studies show that the rituals of cleaning and getting rid of what's no longer serving you—such as worn-out possessions, old habits, emotional ties, or unhealthy thoughts—can actually improve your physical and mental health. So start by tackling the piles of old bills, the crumbs under the refrigerator, the much-neglected bathtub, and then apply some of those same principles to other areas of your life, such as your workout routine, diet, or relationships. We guarantee you’ll feel a whole lot better if you do.

Where do I start?

Choose the area of your life that needs the most attention or that feels the easiest to tackle, and then take one simple action to get started. "Our minds shut down when the goal is too big," says Jennifer Louden, author of The Life Organizer Book (New World Library, 2007). "Don't worry about finishing—just take that first step." As you notice the effects of the changes you've made—perhaps less stress due to the fact you don’t have to spend 15 minutes looking for your keys, or more energy because you've opted for a new workout routine—you'll feel inspired to keep going.

Declutter your physical space

Tackle stuff the smart way

Do you feel rotten when clutter levels rise past a certain point? Consider this research: Self-identified hoarders (who have a tendency to collect and an inability to dispose of things) and family members of hoarders are nearly three times more likely to be overweight and have more medical and mental health issues than their family members, according to a 2008 report in Psychiatry Research. Although hoarding is an extreme example, people with typical clutter problems report anxiety, guilt, and depression about the clutter in their homes.

Whether it's the garage, the trunk of your car, or the playroom, you probably have at least one spot that seems impossible to organize. Rather than rushing out to buy shelves or bins, it's better to start with the big-picture, says Peter Walsh, organizing expert for The Oprah Winfrey Show and author of Does This Clutter Make My Butt Look Fat? (Free Press, 2008). Ask yourself, "What do I want from this space?” For a bedroom, your goals might include serenity, rest, intimacy, or comfort. Then remove anything that doesn't contribute to those key words. "Once you've removed things that don't serve your vision—either by moving them to a more appropriate part of the house or getting rid of them altogether—you can focus on organizing the things that do."

What to donate, recycle, or discard

Clothes and toys: Anything torn, broken, or unused for over a year.
Paper: Newspapers more than two days old, magazines more than two months old, all junk mail, and even your child's excess artwork. (To remember artwork, take digital pictures, suggests Leeds.)
Sports equipment and hobby supplies: Anything you haven't used in a year. If you decide to get back into camping or knitting one day, that's what Craigslist is for.
Source: Regina Leeds, author of One Year to an Organized Life (Da Capo, 2007).

Commit to two basic tasks

1. Make your bed every morning. 2. Designate a spot for your keys and glasses if you wear them. "Getting organized is a project. Staying organized is a habit" says Regina Leeds, professional organizer and author of One Year to an Organized Life (Da Capo, 2007). In order to make the benefits of your spring purge last, make organization part of your daily ritual. Leeds recommends these two simple tasks for their ability to bring calm to your environment (making the bed) and saving you time and angst (designating a spot for your keys). "Once you see how these small actions have big benefits, you'll be inspired to bring a similar sense of serenity to other parts of your life."

Step 2: Renew your daily routine

Limit time wasters, such as email

E-mail, voicemail, and social media sites are great tools for staying in touch or doing business, but they also can be incredible time sinks. And overusing them may also impact your overall well-being: A 2009 study of college students found that those who scored highest on a screening test for Internet addiction also scored higher on an alcohol dependence test.

Reclaim your time by becoming clear about your intentions, says Louden. "Before you open Facebook, decide what you want to get out of it and how much time you'll devote to it." The goal isn't to become more regimented with your time, but more mindful. "When you immerse yourself in the full experience, you'll curb your hunger for constant diversions and you'll be better able to concentrate when those 20 minutes are up."

Pause and reflect

"When you are constantly reacting to whatever's happening, you can't slow down enough to think clearly, and you end up making choices that only contribute to wasting time and feeling depleted," says Louden. To return to yourself, try this: Put your hand on your heart. Recall a time when you felt very relaxed. Hold this memory in your mind for 10–20 seconds. "This calms your heart rate and helps you be more intelligent and creative and resourceful when you return to the task at hand," Louden says. Research suggests that the more you practice this mini-relaxation technique, the more benefit it will provide: A Japanese study of healthy subjects found that women who had used guided imagery once a day for more than six months experienced more positive moods and lower stress levels than those who didn't.

Step 3: Clean out your fridge—and your diet

Eliminate hidden sugars

Indulging in dessert from time to time can be part of a healthy diet, but eating excess sugar can dramatically increase your risk for obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and lowered immunity. Sugar also plays a suspected role in depression, premenstrual syndrome, hypertension, and osteoporosis. The American Heart Association’s latest daily recommended sugar intake for adults is just six teaspoons for women and nine teaspoons for men (not including the naturally occurring sugars found in fruits, vegetables, and dairy products).

Even if you shun all forms of soda and choose your food with care, you likely have foods with high levels of added sugar lurking on your shelves. To weed out secret sugar sources, pay attention to even the healthy-seeming packaged foods, such as fruit juices, iced tea, condiments, crackers, breads, cereals, energy bars, and granola bars. Get rid of those that contain significant amounts of any form of refined sugar. Aliases include caramel, sorbitol, evaporated cane juice, barley malt, and anything that ends in -ose (such as fructose, sucrose, and dextrose) or that contains the word syrup. (Check out Sugar Debate complete list).

Consider a cleanse

Help your body get rid of unwanted toxins by always trying to eat foods as close to their natural state as possible. "By eating only whole foods, you stop forcing your body to deal with refined ingredients—such as white flour, trans fats, and refined sugar—that lack fiber and nutrients," says Jillian Michaels, wellness expert and life coach on the NBC’s The Biggest Loser and star of the upcoming Losing It With Jillian. These clean, real foods give your body the necessary building blocks for a full-throttle metabolism, a strong immune system, and the ability to fend off the effects of aging, explains Michaels. (For complete detox and cleansing tips, check out Everyday Detox.)

Step 4: Find a new fitness groove

Revamp your routine

"The more you do a particular physical routine, the more your body adapts to it and the less challenging it becomes, so you stop seeing results," Michaels says. In order to keep building new muscle and improving your cardiovascular fitness, give your body new challenges. Research suggests that engaging in a variety of physical activities is also good for your mental health: A study by The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that seniors who regularly engaged in a wide variety of physical activities had a significantly lower risk of developing dementia than those who only did one type of activity. Swap a yoga class for an aerobics class, or trade fitness DVDs with a friend so you get new-to-you workouts.

Revitalize your workout with music

According to a 2008 study published in the Journal of Sports & Exercise Psychology, listening to upbeat music can increase endurance by as much as 15 percent and improve positive feelings about working out (meaning you'll be more likely to keep doing it).

Step 5: Get clear on relationships

Reinvigorate old friendships

To renew a connection that's grown stale, Los Angeles–based life coach Julie Zeff suggests bringing something new to the table. "Introduce your old friend to a new side of you by inviting him or her to join you in doing something you love—whether it's watching a movie, participating in a hobby, or reading a particular book." And don't forget the importance of simply sharing what's happening in your life and asking your friend to do the same; it keeps your friendship up to date and let's you focus on what you have in common.

Know when it’s time to move on

If you've tried to improve a relationship and you're still feeling unfulfilled, it may be time to part ways. Although it seems callous, if the relationship is a source of frequent or intense stress, your health may be paying the price: A 2009 study of healthy young women found that those with the most relationship-related stress had the highest concentrations of pro-inflammatory immune cells in their bloodstreams—an indication that they were more susceptible than their peers to the long-term detrimental effects of inflammation (which has been linked to heart disease, diabetes, and cancer).

If you're wondering whether a relationship is worth saving, Louden suggests asking yourself these questions: Do you feel drained after spending time with this person? When you're interacting, does the conversation center on criticisms and complaints? Are your muscles physically tense, or do you experience symptoms such as an upset stomach or headache when you're together? Answering yes to any of these questions means it’s time to move on.

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