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We've reached our final week of health challenges for a positive start to spring. Recently, I asked you to take inventory of your health habits, clean up your sleep routine and make small changes in your eating patterns. The focus of this last challenge will be to improve your exercise and reduce stress.

Whether it's due to work, family or personal commitments, life can be full of stressful moments. When we're overwhelmed, our body releases the hormone cortisol, which helps us cope and react to stress. However, an excess of cortisol can increase our appetite and storage of fat, disrupt our sleep patterns, and impair our immune function, making us more prone to infections or illness.

Research has shown that cortisol levels are lower in people who are regularly active as opposed to those who are inactive. Not only does exercise have a positive effect on managing cortisol levels, it also reduces symptoms of depression and anxiety, increases self-esteem, and releases stress reducing chemicals known as endorphins. In terms of physical health, exercise can help with not only weight management, but can also reduce your blood pressure and decrease your risk of diabetes and heart disease.

With the longer and warmer days of summer just around the corner, this is the ideal time to take on some of these challenges to improve both your physical and mental health as well.

Challenge 1: Schedule your exercise time

Just like you schedule work meetings, dates or your kids' sports games, why not do the same with your exercise? Start by setting a goal to exercise three to five times a week for 30 minutes. Look at your calendar, find an opening and block off the appropriate time for getting active. By scheduling it in, you are prioritizing exercise in your life and are more likely to stick to it.

Challenge 2: Declutter your life

We all know how it feels to come home to find piles of old clothes, paper and things that we have held onto but haven't had the heart to let go of. Find a weekend or put in 10 to 15 minutes every night for a week to get rid of the things that you no longer need. You will find that the decluttering of your physical space will lighten your spirits and help create a calmer home environment. If you find it hard to do this on your own recruit a friend or family member to help you. Also, you may consider having a clothing swap with your friends or donate the items to a local shelter or community centre.

Challenge 3: Get active together

You're more likely to start and maintain an exercise routine if you find someone to do it with because you will be accountable to each other. Consider starting a lunch time walking group with your colleagues, or encourage your child or partner to go for a family walk after dinner. Not only will you be getting active together but it's an opportunity to catch up, work through some of the day's stresses and build your relationships.

Challenge 4: Reduce screen time

We are surrounded by smartphones, laptops and televisions, and constantly distracted by the sounds of incoming messages and texts. This constant connectedness to our screens makes it difficult to be present and active. Try to cut back on watching TV and use the extra time to get exercise. The added bonus: by cutting down on screen time (as discussed in week two and three) you will improve your sleep quality and reduce your food intake by paying attention to what you're eating.

Challenge 5: Just do it

Not only is it a form of exercise, but sex can improve your health in other ways too. Research has found that having sex twice a week can increase energy, immune function, sleep quality and is a great stress buster.

Challenge 6: Mix it up

Don't stop what you're doing, but add some variety into your exercise routine to challenge your body and improve your level of fitness. You can achieve this by including interval or weight training in between your regular exercise regimen.

Challenge 7: Find time to be silent and reflect

Give yourself a few quiet minutes every day. With the flurry of activity that many of us face in our lives, having this moment of stillness will allow you to breathe, calm the mind and become more focused. If you have the opportunity to do so, look for a meditation class in your neighbourhood as there are often many available. There is growing evidence that meditation can help not only with calming your mind but is also effective in helping symptoms of depression, anxiety, chronic pain, high blood pressure and insomnia.

Thank you for participating in this four-week challenge. I hope you've had the opportunity to incorporate a few of these tips into your life either on your own or with your friends and family. Here's to a healthy spring!

Dr. Sheila Wijayasinghe is the medical director at the Immigrant Womens' Health Centre, works as a staff physician at St. Michael's Hospital in their Family Practice Unit and at Hassle Free Clinic, and established and runs an on-site clinic at Women's Habitat Shelter in Etobicoke.

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