Raising your wellness game in 2023
It’s common knowledge that New Year’s resolutions are nearly impossible to keep. Factor in living in Louisiana — where Carnival season is almost always ushered in right on the new year’s heels — and it can feel pretty hopeless.
But, if your 2023 goal is to live a healthier lifestyle, don’t sweat it. There are ways to improve your mind, body and overall wellness without condemning yourself to a year in the gym and swapping out your rice for cauliflower.
Dr. Cassandra Pillette, a family medicine physician at Ochsner Lafayette General, said adults need 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity and two days of muscle strengthening activity every week. Her recommendation for getting that in is twofold: Break it up into chunks of time that work for you, and find ways to get your body moving that you enjoy.
For Caroline Helm, that means Cajun dancing.
Helm learned to dance alongside her father, who started taking lessons when she was 10. Now a licensed therapist and social worker, Helm said dancing is more than just a great workout.
“We’re so lucky to live in a place where couples dancing is an integral part of our culture,” she said. “Not only is it a full-body workout, it’s also a way to get out in your community, engage with your region’s culture and connect with other people.”
While Helm has been dancing most of her life, she promised you don’t have to be an expert before you start.
“I know it can be intimidating, but no one is going to judge you,” she said. “The musicians and other dancers want you there. They want the tradition to carry on.”
If you don’t know the steps, you can learn as you go, or take a few lessons before going to a dance. She said one of the best ways to really get into the scene is to gather a few friends, take lessons together and turn it into a group activity.
If Cajun dancing isn’t appealing, there are plenty of other fun, accessible ways to get active in Acadiana. According to Pillette, even just adding more walking to your routine can positively impact your health.
As for that strengthening work Pillette recommends, don’t worry – any activity you do that makes your muscles work harder than usual will usually do the trick. Walking, dancing, cycling, yoga and even gardening are all great options, she said.
Want to get into Cajun or Zydeco dancing but don’t know where to go? Caroline Helm recommends signing up for Lafayette Weekly, a newsletter written by local musician Philippe Billeaudeaux that features a rundown of live music and dance events happening in the region. Billeaudeaux also curates a playlist every week, so you can get your boogie on from the comfort of your home, if you aren’t quite ready to show your moves off on the dance floor yet.
Mental Health & Mindfulness
Meditation is an important part of Lafayette-based physical therapist Ari Dolegowski’s work. As a former professional soccer player, he believes true wellness must involve both mind and body, particularly when starting new goals.
Dolegowski uses meditation to slow down, recenter, and focus on what’s important. Practicing mindfulness can help you stay grounded “in your why,” he said, and avoid hyperfixating on results.
“I think in order to make sustainable lifestyle choices, you need to have the right reasons and goals,” he said. “If your only motivation is to lose weight, then you might only see weight loss as the one and only success measure.”
Most often, people give up on their health goals because they’ve been too hard on themselves or haven’t set realistic goals.
“Changing and adopting a healthy lifestyle and exercise plan is a process and doesn’t happen overnight,” Pillette said. “When you fall off course, don’t beat yourself up. Eliminate the triggers and distractions and get back on track,” she said.
Meditation, mindfulness, and prioritizing mental health can make that cycle easier, Dolegowski said, noting the importance of being kind to yourself, even when you feel like you’re failing.
“Incorporating mindfulness practice will help you strip everything else away and you can ask yourself, ‘Am I really happy; is this working for me?’ And if the answer is no, then try something else,” he said.
Ari Dolegowski recommends a three-pillar approach to wellness: time, variety, and honesty. Find the amount of time to dedicate your practice that works for you. Mix up your approach. And be honest with yourself about your needs, your feelings, and whether or not they are being met.
When Aly Schexnayder first started doing yoga in Lafayette 20 years ago, hardly anyone was offering classes in the area. Now, there’s no shortage of yoga studios and classes, including at Red’s gym, where Schexnayder teaches.
Depending on the practice, yoga can be more gentle and meditative, balance and muscle-strengthening and even a source for cardio. It’s a fantastic way to combine mind and movement, and to be gentle and kind to your body, all while getting a killer workout.
If you’re uncomfortable taking a class, there are tons of online options to build your confidence before going into a studio. But, Schexnayder said she prefers to recommend in-person classes to avoid injuries or straining your body.
For beginners, Schexnayder recommends finding a “gentile, beginners yoga,” to warm your body up and find comfort in your peers.
Meditation in Movement Ari Dolegowski utilizes meditative movement, which he said is perfect for beginners. “It gives you something to focus on,” he said. Similar to tai chi, the practice combines meditation with gentile, intentional movements. “Sitting in silence to meditate is really hard. Adding movements removes some of the pressure, especially in a class setting, where it’s easy to get distracted thinking about the other people in the room.” Dolegowski teaches meditative movement at Basin Arts in Lafayette on Wednesday nights and works with clients at their homes or in his studio by appointment. He also practices massage and physical therapy at Lafayette’s Ascend Wellness.
Louisiana culture is food culture, and Louisiana food isn’t exactly what you’d call “health food.” Thankfully, Yvette Quantz believes in finding manageable modifications that have big impacts, which means you can still enjoy your favorite regional cuisines.
Quantz is a registered dietitian with Eat Fit Acadiana and New Orleans native, and she knows how important food is to Louisiana life. With more than 20 years experience working in health and wellness, Quantz emphasizes the importance of balance.
“It doesn’t have to be all or nothing,” she said. “And really, I think having that mindset can be the downfall for a lot of people when they try to change their diet.”
Quantz recommends focusing on how you feel when you eat certain foods and to remember that “small choices and small changes matter.”
A good way to start is to slow down and savor the food you’re eating.
“If you’re eating too fast, or eating out of guilt, there’s a good chance you’re not really tasting it,” she said. “But, studies have found our pleasure actually goes down after the first few bites. So, what if you were really present during those first few, deeply satisfying bites to really enjoy them? Then, when the pleasure diminishes, you move on with no guilt.”
At its core, Quantz said eating healthy is rooted in removing shame from eating, and finding what works for you.
“If you don’t like your diet, you aren’t going to stick to it. It’s important that you’re enjoying the food you eat, while also hitting your nutrition marks,” she said.
In her opinion, the best way to do that is to work with a nutritionist, dietitian or food counselor.
“They will help you figure out what’s really in your food, teach you productive ways to measure your progress, and work with you to find a diet you love,” Quantz said.
Like Dolegowski, she cautions against focusing on results.
“The benefits beyond the numbers on the scale, are the ones that I think are the most important,” Quantz said. “Things like mental clarity, energy levels, anxiety and depression, brain function.”
Ultimately, perhaps the best way to keep a New Year’s resolution is not to make one at all. The concept itself invites pressure, guilt, and a deadline to an already complicated journey.
Instead, focus on finding positive elements to add into your life — a hobby that gets you up and moving on a regular basis, peaceful ways to destress, and delicious food that makes you feel good. After all, as Dolegowski says, “happiness and love are the real success measures,” to living a healthful life.
“If you don’t love what you’re doing, you’re not going to keep doing it,” he said.
Dr. Pillette recommends substituting foods with high calorie, high fat and high carbohydrate content with low calorie, low fat, and low carbohydrate content. “In Louisiana, food is in the center of the culture, and much of it is not the healthiest. We can keep food in the center, but make it healthier, so that we can continue to do what we love, but healthily,” she said.
Healthy Cajun Cooking Lately, Yvette Quantz has been excited by the number of authentic-tasting Cajun cooking staples that use healthier alternatives. One of her personal favorites is Skinny Roux, which is made with almond flour and avocado oil, instead of the traditional butter or oil and flour. The Eat Fit Acadiana app is an easy-to-use way to find restaurants that offer delicious and healthy menu options, nutrition facts for Eat Fit dishes, grocery guides, recipes, and more. “I love the Eat Fit apps. They really just remove the guesswork, so you can stop stressing or feeling shame, and just enjoy your meal,” Quantz said.