Bust a Rut, Lose Your Gut

Completely You: Health

By Karen Cicero for Completely You

Do you go to the same vacation spot every year? Have pizza for dinner almost every Friday night? Always hit the stationary bike or treadmill at the gym? While it can be comforting to stick to the familiar, being more adventurous can improve your relationships, health and mental well-being, says Dr. Frank Farley, a psychologist at Temple University in Philadelphia who travels to far-flung destinations studying thrill-seeking travelers. “It’s easy to get comfortable with your usual way of behavior,” says Farley. “But research shows that people who embrace change -- not run from it -- are the happiest.”

Shaking things up will also prepare you for the unexpected, adds Farley. “If you’re entrenched in your daily routine and something unfortunate happens -- for example, you’re laid off -- you might feel crippled by it,” he says. “But if you’re not stuck in your ways, you’ll be better able to adapt and find a new company -- or even a new career” (Who Moved My Cheese? anyone?). Here’s how to break out of your routine without feeling the least bit anxious:

Same Old: You and your spouse eat at your favorite restaurant almost every Friday night.
Change It up:
Try going to a comedy club instead, then grab a bite at a new place afterward.
Why:
You’ll be more satisfied with your relationship. In one study at the State University of New York, researchers gave married couples surveys about their relationship and then divided them into three groups. The first group spent 90 minutes a week doing an unfamiliar activity, the second group spent the same amount of time doing one of their typical activities, and the third did whatever they wanted. After 10 weeks, the participants re-took the surveys. The result: Couples that had done something new and fresh had a much greater increase in their relationship satisfaction than either of the other groups.

Same Old: You watch TV after dinner.
Change It up:
Take a short walk when supper’s done.
Why:
You’ll lose weight. Research from East Carolina State University shows that you don’t have to make drastic changes in your diet and exercise routine to melt away the pounds. In fact, baby steps are best. The study found that participants who made one small tweak in the food or fitness routine each week lost four times more weight in four months than those who followed calorie-restricted and physical activity guidelines -- perhaps because it’s easier to stick with small changes in the long run.

Same Old: You go out for a drink with your friends.
Change It up:
Take a class together.
Why:
You’ll improve your brain. Whether it’s cooking, knitting or speaking another language, learning new skills may help protect your brain from Alzheimer’s disease, according to research from the University of Kentucky. The researchers found that being a lifelong learner helps your brain create new, extra connections between neurons, staying healthier.

Same Old: You go to Florida on vacation every year.
Change It up:
Skip the beach for a city or mountain adventure.
Why:
You’ll find it more pleasurable. British researchers found that when you make adventurous choices, your brain releases feel-good neurotransmitters (such as dopamine) that improve your mood. “Doing something different is also important for family bonding and memories,” says Farley. When you try something more daring -- like camping under the stars or taking a rafting trip -- it can turn a vacation into an unforgettable experience that you all talk about for years to come.

Karen Cicero is Completely You’s Need to Know blogger. A health journalist and magazine editor with more than 15 years of experience, she has contributed to such publications as Prevention, SELF and Health, and she has edited the dental column for Heart & Soul magazine.