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New Year resolutions: kindness, meditation and chocolate

Many health-related New Year’s resolutions focus on exercise and diet, and most go by the wayside before the end of January. This year, consider maximizing your physical and mental health with one of these scientifically backed activities.

Spreading kindness

The health benefits of spreading kindness are plentiful. Performing acts of kindness causes the brain to release endorphins, which are hormones that relieve stress and pain, and produce a feeling of well-being. Watching the joy caused by the kindness you share can result in personal happiness as well.

Studies show acts of kindness lower blood pressure, most likely due to the release of oxytocin. Showing this type of compassion can also stimulate the release of serotonin, which produces feelings of well-being, calms nerves, and helps wounds heal faster.

“The feelings of well-being that individuals experience when they are kind to someone is known as a ‘helper’s high,’” said Kirsten Suarez, a member of Greenwich Hospital’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Council, which marks World Kindness Day each year. She cites studies showing people over the age of 55 who volunteer for two or more organizations have over a 40 percent chance of living longer than those who don’t volunteer at all. Another study suggested people who are kind on a regular basis have a higher level of endurance than those who aren’t.

Take a deep breath

Practicing meditation and mindfulness can help you manage stress and high blood pressure, sleep better, feel more connected, improve concentration and lower your risk of heart disease.

Mental and physical stress typically cause increased levels of the hormone cortisol, which leads to the release of inflammatory chemicals called cytokines that disrupt sleep, promote depression, and increase blood pressure, fatigue and unfocused thinking. In one study, a type of meditation called “mindfulness meditation” reduced the inflammation response caused by stress in eight weeks. Other types of meditation, such as the loving kindness meditation practice, can generate kindness by increasing positive feelings and actions toward yourself and others.

Meditation doesn’t require any special equipment and can be done just about anywhere, anytime. Just taking 60 seconds to stop and focus on your breathing can provide a sense of tranquility and well-being.

Enjoy chocolate without guilt

This Valentine’s Day reach for the dark chocolate, a nutritious treat that studies show may improve blood flow, decrease blood pressure, reduce the risk of heart disease and maximize brain health.

Made from the seed of the cacao tree, quality dark chocolate with a high cacao content is packed with nutrients. It’s rich in copper, fiber, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, potassium, selenium, zinc and other minerals. It also contains antioxidants such as polyphenols, flavanols and catechins. Studies found flavanols can improve memory. In one study, older adults who drank two cups of high-quality cocoa every day for a month had improved blood flow to the brain.

There’s one caveat, though. Chocolate is high in sugar and calories (600 calories for 100 grams), so consume in moderation. It also contains stimulants like caffeine and theobromine, but in very small amounts compared with coffee.