How we take care of our bodies, minds and health evolves over time for a number of reasons. While some of those changes get forgotten (like low-fat everything and shake weights, thank goodness), some health trends gain attention because there’s science behind them and we’re better off for adopting them.
Here are a few such wellness trends that came into vogue in the 2010s that experts say we should keep up in the 2020s.
1. Prioritizing self-care
Americans (and those from other countries that struggle with overwork) have tried for several decades to define success as tireless busyness and personal accomplishment, explains Emiliana Simon-Thomas, Ph.D., Science Director at the Greater Good Science Center at University of California, Berkeley. It requires individuals to devote a huge amount of their time and energy to work and other activities that might impress someone else, she says. “People are realizing the weakness of this approach.”
That’s why self-care — particularly the well-informed type that prioritizes activities and experiences that reliably contribute to overall happiness in life — is a very important cultural trend, she says. It’s not about pampering ourselves, it’s devoting time to things like eating healthy, exercising, sleeping and taking emotional respites when we need them, she explains. “It means investing a portion of our day-to-day efforts into [building the] skills of social and emotional intelligence that enable us to form and maintain supportive, meaningful relationships with others. It means carving out time to invest in our communities and collective resources.”
And it’s recognizing that those things are just as important as our academic and professional success, she adds.
2. The rebranding of sleep
Let the 2010s be remembered as the decade we (as a society) grew out of the “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” mentality. You can point to increased attention from health and wellness media or the influx of sleep trackers and other tech as reasons for the shift. But sleep medicine doctors point to an influx of science highlighting the many important ways consistently sleeping long enough and well enough is linked to better health.
“There is overwhelming scientific evidence that sleep quality and proper timing of sleep are essential for brain, immune, cardiovascular and metabolic health,” says Phyllis Zee, MD, Ph.D., a sleep medicine specialist at Northwestern Medicine. “Sleep deficiency and irregular sleep and wake timing have been shown to increase the risk for diabetes, heart disease, impaired ability to fight infections, and even Alzheimer’s disease. … And it can improve our overall quality of life and public safety.”
We now know that deep sleep (the phase of sleep you’re only reaching if you’re getting good, high-quality sleep) is essential for learning and memory because this is when the brain clears out brain “waste” that builds up when we’re awake. We better understand that sleep apnea, a common sleep disorder, can increase risk for dementia, Zee says. And we’ve also learned that the genetic mechanisms for circadian rhythms exist in nearly all cells, which explains why sleep and sleep timing have such broad effects on our health, Zee explains. (The 2017 Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology was awarded for the discovery of circadian clock genes.)
3. Strength training goes mainstream
Gone are the days when weight rooms were the territory of bodybuilders alone. Thank the birth of CrossFit or the rise of fitness influencers like Kayla Itsines, Michelle Lewin and Joe Wicks. Thin is out; sculpted and strong is in.
It’s a trend to definitely take into the next decade because there is so much research demonstrating the benefits (from reduced risk of disease to reduced risk of injury to improved functioning later in life) linked to strength training, explains Todd Schroeder, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Clinical Physical Therapy at the University of Southern California. “Strength training improves bone mass, which helps attenuate the development of osteoporosis as we age. Additionally we all lose muscle mass as we get older (sarcopenia), so building muscle through a strength training program is important to help maintain activities of daily living, which often decline with age.”
Schroeder’s team is currently researching how strength training might even be linked to improved cognitive function, he says. “The results look impressive.”
4. Muscle recovery tools show up everywhere
Another fitness trend that’s taken root in the past few years (and should continue) is the increased attention to post-workout muscle recovery. Foam rolling is increasingly popular. Research shows its benefits include increased joint range of motion and muscle length. It may also help break up scar tissue and reduce post-exercise muscle soreness because it increases blood flow to the affected area, Schroeder says. It’s not a cure-all, he adds, but for tight muscles, a lot of people find it feels really good.
Along with foam rolling comes the advent of percussive and massage therapy devices (like the Hypervolt and Theragun). “These devices feel good, so athletes and non-athletes use them as personal masseuses,” Schroeder says. There’s limited evidence to prove the extent of their potential benefits, he adds. But they’re thought to work for the same reasons foam rolling works; they’re meant to increase blood flow to the tissue to help reduce inflammation, improve healing and boost post-workout recovery. There’s little risk to using these devices, so if they make you feel better or help your workouts, use them, Schroeder recommends.
5. Paying more attention to mental health
The 2010s have been a decade of great progress in recognizing the role of our mental and emotional health in overall wellbeing, Simon-Thomas says. “Society-wide challenges like incredibly high stress amongst adolescents and the opioid crisis have presented the opportunity to question the status quo,” she says. “Simply letting mental health emerge in a passive and often stigmatized manner is not working.”
Decades ago meditation and mindfulness were too spiritual to be talked about in schools, says Robin Stern, Ph.D., Associate Director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. But in the last decade we’re seeing a proliferation of programs on mindfulness for students of all ages (from kindergarten upward). “And now we have research supporting that our physical health and physical health behaviors are linked to mental health,” Stern adds.
The stigma about needing help is decreasing, and more and more people are willing to say they are struggling and seek help.
There’s been a rise in mindfulness and meditation apps. There are more instances of social media users being transparent about their struggles with mental health (and garnering support as a result). Celebrities (from the British royal family to Olympian Michael Phelps) have championed the cause. “The stigma about needing help is decreasing, and more and more people are willing to say they are struggling and seek help,” Stern says.
6. Remembering that a quiet night in is actually great
A number of foreign wellness trends have gone mainstream in the past handful of years. The Danish tradition of “hygge” is one with a valuable message, Simon-Thomas notes. “It’s the idea that happiness is not related to being entertained or consuming material goods,” she says. It’s the people you’re with and the quality of time shared that supports sustained happiness, she explains.
Biologically, we’re wired so that for whatever objects bring us pleasure, the reward diminishes the more we’re exposed to it. Social pleasure, however, works differently, Simon-Thomas explains. The effect of being around others and enjoying one another’s company grows the more it happens. The bottom line: This focus on creating warm, cozy shared experiences based on playful interactions and contentment are really good for us and our wellbeing.
7. Plant-based eating becoming cool
Plant-based ways of eating have been around for decades, explains Raquel Garzon, Ph.D., RDN, President of the Revitalize Project, a health and wellness coaching and training organization for individuals, communities and companies. But there are both environmental factors and health factors that have pointed to its utility (and helped lead to its growing popularity) over the past decade, she says.
“Eating a plant-based diet has a much smaller carbon footprint than eating animal-derived foods,” she says. And there’s evidence that these ways of eating may have benefits when it comes to decreasing inflammation, preventing autoimmune disease, cancers and other chronic disease. “I believe the plant-based trend will continue over the next decade, especially as climate change concerns and environmental protection movements continue,” she says.
8. Better understanding what’s going on in our guts
“Research on the gut microbiome has exploded over the last five years,” Garzon adds. There are 10 times more microbial cells than human cells in our body -- with the genes in our gut microbiomes outnumbering the human genes in our bodies about 150 to one. So far there’s evidence that shows our gut bacteria play important roles in maintenance of the immune system, serotonin production, anti-inflammatory activity and synthesis of essential vitamins, among others. And an imbalance of gut bacteria has been linked to several diseases, like type 2 diabetes, obesity, high cholesterol, thyroid issues, autism, mood disorders, digestive conditions, asthma and nearly all autoimmune disorders.
“Although many lifestyle and environmental factors impact the type of bacteria we have in our gut, we know that the diet is another important factor,” Garzon says. Currently we know having many different types of bacteria in the gut is important, and having a diet rich in fiber, fruits, vegetables and nuts promotes that diversity. Going ahead, research will point to more precise dietary recommendations for individuals to specifically improve their own gut microbiomes to optimize outcomes for their specific genes and their current gut bacteria profiles, she says.
9. Getting better at disagreeing
Tough to say that we’ve really gotten good at this one in the 2010s, but we’ve at least started to recognize that it’s something (in pretty much all aspects of our lives) that we need to get better at in the decade ahead.
“Conflict is a crucial step in the course of making the kinds of change that amount to human progress, and being able to manage, and constructively negotiate conflict is the only way that that progress can occur,” Simon-Thomas says. “I think people are very frustrated and disheartened by the stagnant nature of disagreement we are currently ensconced in both in the U.S. and internationally.”
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