On Getting Older and Going (Prematurely) Gray: 13 Lessons From My First 31 Years

“It is not true that people stop pursuing dreams because they grow old, they grow old because they stop pursuing dreams.”
~ Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez

Two weeks ago, I celebrated my 31st birthday. And although my birthday was on Saturday, I actually allowed the celebrating to begin on Friday evening and extend through Monday afternoon because, hey, why the eff not? (Am I right?) But seriously, I’d been working hard in the weeks leading up to my birthday and needed some time off. Badly. But also, 30 was a rad year, full of so many changes and unexpected turns and heartbreak and love and lessons in resilience and courage and letting go. This year brought me into a more intimate, loving, nurturing relationship with myself and, more than anything, I wanted to celebrate that this past weekend. So I did.

With all the change and transformation I have encountered and undergone and worked damn hard to facilitate, my birthday this year had me taking a good look at some of the most important lessons I’ve learned up to this point – and especially those I learned (or relearned) during the last year. What follows are a few of my favorites, 13 pieces of wisdom from the first 31 years of my life.

1.  Move Your Body Often

Moving your body – preferably on a daily basis – is essential to good health. I relearn this lesson all the time, constantly amazed by just how profound a little exercise can be in its ability to clear the mind of clutter, ease anxiety, aid sleep, promote healthy digestive function, and bolster confidence.

I encourage you to incorporate some amount of movement every day (10 minutes is better than no minutes) and focus on quality not necessarily quantity. I advocate for diversifying your routine, combining cardio with strength and flexibility training, or alternating these various types of exercise from day-to-day throughout the week. Your body – like your brain – loves and responds well to novelty. And, if possible, get outside at least few times a week instead of spending all your time in the gym.

Also:  Find what works for you. We are all different and no one activity or schedule of exercise will be right for all of us. Experiment. Listen to your body. Do what makes it thrive.

Want to read more about the latest research in fitness, sports nutrition, training, and performance? Check out Gretchen Reynolds’ The First 20 Minutes:  Surprising Science Reveals How We Can Exercise Better, Train Smarter, and Live Longer.

2. Feed Your Body Premium Fuel

In other words, eat real food. Food is medicine. If it’s not medicine, it’s not actually food. A healthy diet is absolutely imperative to physical and mental well-being. Moving your body regularly without providing it the right kind of fuel is neglecting an essential ingredient in the recipe for health.

“You can’t exercise your way out of a bad diet.”  ~ Mark Hyman, MD

Talking about food is more complicated and nuanced and specific to the individual than I have space to adequately discuss in this post. A few good and simple guidelines, however, are:

       Eat whole foods, avoid packaged foods. If you must eat something from a package, make sure you can pronounce, identify, and picture in your head everything in the list of ingredients. For the most part, your diet should revolve around whole fruits and vegetables, organic if possible.

       Listen to your body. Seriously. Your body is smart. Everyone responds differently to different foods, so pay attention to how things affect you both mentally and physically. Fatigue, brain fog, constipation, or insomnia (among other things) might all have a link to something in your diet that you’d be better off avoiding.

       The old notion of “calorie in, calorie out” is outdated and inaccurate. A calorie is a calorie is a calorie? I think not. Different foods affect your body differently. The way your body metabolizes a tomato, for example, is vastly different from the way it metabolizes a piece of white bread or an energy bar (which is mostly likely packed with chemicals and sugar), even if the calorie counts in the two items are identical. For more information on this topic, check out this article from Dr. Robert Lustig and this New York Times piece by Dr. Mark Bittman.

       Eliminate (if possible) or greatly reduce your intake of refined sugar, processed carbohydrates, and dairy.

       If you eat meat, pay attention to your source. Go for organic meats from grass-fed animals. The environment and your body will both thank you.

3. Make Sleep a Priority

I went through my 20s not worried at all about whether or not I got enough hours of sleep on any given night, frequently skimping on rest to stay up late studying, reading, working, or (admittedly) tossing back a few drinks with friends. And while I still occasionally stay out late dancing or sacrifice an hour of sleep now and then for work, regular and adequate sleep is an absolute must for me most of the time these days.

Inadequate sleep has been linked to depression, obesity and weight gain, decreased immune function, cancer, diabetes, hormonal imbalances, and impaired concentration and focus. To read more about these risks, check out this article from the New York Times, this list from the Huffington Post, or this study about the relationship between sleep and the brain’s ability to repair itself.

Kind of makes you want to take a nap, huh?

4. Schedule Time with Yourself

Seriously. Put yourself on your calendar like you would any other appointment. Treat that time like it’s sacred – because it is. If others ask you to do something else during that time, politely decline by telling them you already have plans (unless it is an absolute emergency or an opportunity you just can’t pass up). They don’t need to know details, they just need to know that you’re busy. I started scheduling and honoring my me-time this year and it has changed my life in a big way. For reals.

Also:  Don’t feel guilty about saying no to an invitation about which you are not totally excited. Spending time with yourself is a perfectly legitimate reason to turn down a request for your presence elsewhere. Even if all you plan on doing is eating Coconut Bliss and watching True Blood.

5. Release Attachments and Go With the Flow

Focus on the journey, not the outcome. If you become overly attached to a certain result, you miss out on the beauty and the awesomeness and the myriad opportunities for growth along the way. This is true in relationships as well as business, and even applies to individual workouts or creative endeavors. Do not allow a specific outcome or relationship or person or creation to determine your happiness or your self-worth.

Remain open to the unexpected joys life delivers to you, to the possibility of traveling a path you could never have imagined but along which you feel complete and contented.

And have faith there is a reason for every heartbreak and loss, that on the other side of your sorrow – or, perhaps, buried deep within it – lies an immense softness and strength and the chance to be forever transformed in the most profound of ways.

“The most important reason for going from one place to another is to see what’s in between, and they took great pleasure in doing just that.”  ~ Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth

6. Slow Down

We live in a fast paced society, one in which we often feel compelled to get as much done as possible in as little time as possible, never taking a moment to stop and breathe and just be. We could all benefit from a little more stillness and quietude, periods of relaxation to counterbalance the extreme hustle that seems to dominate much of our lives.

For me, yoga and meditation have become my primary means of pumping the brakes and settling into ten or twenty or even sixty minutes of slowness and introspection. But there are many ways to make this happen. Read a book for pleasure. Drink a glass of tea or wine (or bourbon, if you’re like me). Go for a walk. Do some writing.  Take a bath.

Taking an intentional timeout can be essential for reducing stress, relaxing the nervous system, clearing out mental clutter, relieving anxiety, and helping you tune into your own intuition.

7. You Are The Expert On You

Speaking of intuition, remember that when it comes to you, YOU are the authority. Other people (friends, family members, teachers, partners) might have a variety of opinions about you and your life – opinions to which they are entitled – but the final word is always yours. Never let someone else’s opinion of you determine how you feel about yourself. And never let another person’s viewpoint overshadow what you know in your heart to be true.

“At times you have to leave the city of your comfort and go into the wilderness of your intuition. What you’ll discover will be wonderful. What you’ll discover is yourself.”   ~ Alan Alda

Check in with yourself often to identify how you’re really feeling about any given situation and then own the hell out of those feelings. Trust your instincts, have confidence in your inherent awesomeness, and listen to your intuitive sense – which grows stronger and louder the more you slow down and give it the opportunity to be heard.

8. Practice Gratitude

In this post, I wrote about how I wake up every morning and express gratitude for at least one thing before starting my day. This practice has changed my life for the better, helping me appreciate all the loveliness that has come my way over the past several months, keeping me plugged into the present moment, alerting me to the awesomeness (especially of the small, seemingly insignificant variety) I often take for granted, and making any negativity seem minor by comparison most of the time.

Gratitude is rad. It’s also something you have to consciously practice on a regular basis. Make gratitude a habit – a daily habit, if possible – and I promise you you’ll be happier and healthier as a result.

9. Lean Into Your Fear

Life is full of opportunities to either take a risk and face your fear or give into your fears and play it safe. Sometimes, fear is your intuition alerting you to the possibility of danger, but usually, it’s a sign you’re going in the right direction, on the brink of something amazing or cathartic or profoundly life-changing.

“Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth.”   ~ Pema Chödrön

I have learned this lesson over and over this year, in both my personal and my professional life. Starting my own business was definitely a risk and an endeavor about which I still feel fear on a regular basis. Facing this fear – and continuing to do so almost daily – however, has been possibly the most personally transformative decision of my life.

Love is like this, too. And by that I mean it’s terrifying. You have to risk getting your heart broken in order to find the love you seek. What I’ve learned this year is that it is ALWAYS worth the risk. I still haven’t found the love I desire, but opening myself up to that possibility a few times over the past twelve months – even when it ended in heartbreak – was absolutely worthwhile for the knowledge I gained in the process and the intimacy and connection I enjoyed along the way.

You will never regret facing your fear. I guarantee it.

10. Wake Up Early

As a teenager, I frequently stayed up past midnight, sleeping in until 11am or noon given any opportunity to do so. At 19, however, I began working at coffee shops and was forced to trade my late nights for early mornings – a habit that has stuck with me ever since. I absolutely relish my mornings, savor the silence and the stillness inherent in the hour or two before dawn, using this time to read or meditate or slip in a run or yoga before work.

Waking early allows you to enjoy a little restorative time alone before heading off to work or taking care of children. It gives you a chance to ease into your day, prioritize exercise, fuel your body with a proper breakfast, sit in meditation or actually enjoy your cup of coffee or tea mindfully (gasp!).

According to a recent Australian study, early risers are less likely to be overweight, while a recent Texas University study showed that being a morning person correlates with better performance in school. Research has also shown that waking early contributes to emotional stability, better coping skills, and higher energy levels.

Want some easy tips on becoming an early riser if you’re currently a bit of a night owl? Head over to this article for some good places to start. One tip from my own personal repertoire:  Make your bed soon after waking to prevent yourself from climbing right back in. Try it. It works wonders.

11. Keep It Simple

In our culture, there is certainly a tendency towards accumulation, an oft-present practice of acquiring more “stuff” as a symbol of status, a reaction to an increase in income (i.e. buying more because you can afford to do so), or as a perpetuation of familial patterns, perhaps. It’s also difficult to stop accumulating and consuming when everyone around you appears to be doing just that. Acquisition without aforethought or awareness runs rampant these days.

I encourage you to simplify by seeking to acquire only those things that are either necessary in your life or which actually enhance the quality of that life in a meaningful way. I guarantee you can get by with a lot less than you think you can. Chances are, simplifying your life in this way will lead to less stress and result in more freedom – of time, money, and energy. This has definitely been the case for me.

Cleaning out your closet and getting rid of items you haven’t worn in six months or more (preferably by donating them) is a great place to start. I have been maintaining a very simple, pared down wardrobe for years and I absolutely love it! Getting dressed in the morning is so much simpler and less stressful with fewer options from which to choose.

12. Be Kind to Yourself

What you say to and about yourself matters. A lot. Be mindful of your thoughts and your words; self-directed negativity is more powerful than you realize and can have a lasting impact. The more you consciously think a certain thought, the better your brain gets at thinking that thought on its own. Thus, if you continue to tell yourself you’re not good enough, smart enough, or worthy enough to achieve the dreams to which you aspire, those thoughts will become your beliefs and those beliefs will become your reality.

“As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives.”  ~ Henry David Thoreau

The good news is, your brain is equally as good at thinking positive thoughts, if you make doing so a priority and a conscious choice. Many of us have negative beliefs about ourselves left over from childhood, but we can override these beliefs if we’re willing to put in the work. I am living proof that it’s possible – and worthwhile – to do so.

For more information on changing your thoughts – and thought patterns – to enhance your life and free yourself from negative beliefs, check out Dr. Dan Siegel’s Mindsight or Evolve Your Brain by Dr. Joe Dispenza.

13. PLAY

Over the past couple of weeks, I have been spending a lot of time with my nephew, who celebrated his six month birthday yesterday. If there is anyone who understands the benefits of play, it is a six month old who just figured out how to crawl. I will admit to not being the best at detaching myself from responsibility in order to embrace the freedom of recreation. Hanging with this little guy, however, has forced me to completely let go of any outside obligations in order to be present in the moment with him. And it has been amazing.

We should all schedule in some more play time – and not just on the weekends, but periodically throughout the work week. Play stimulates creativity, eases anxiety and depression, reduces stress, improves relationships, boosts immunity, and makes us happier overall in our lives.

To learn more about what play can do for you, head over here for a list of some of its greatest benefits or visit the National Institute of Play for more online resources.

Bonus Lesson:  Embrace those gray hairs, if you have them. You worked damn hard to get them. (Admittedly, I’m still working on coming to terms with the ever-increasing number of grays in this mop of mine, but I’m getting there. It’s been at least a week since I pulled one out. Baby steps, people. Baby steps.)

Have a health or happiness tip you’d like to add? Feel free to leave it in the comments!