At the start of a New Year it seems that everyone is looking for the magic exercise, food or supplement for optimal health, beauty, wellness and performance. Unfortunately, there is no magic bullet, but if you make small tweaks to several lifestyle factors, which I call the “Four Big Rocks” you will end the year healthier, slimmer and with enhanced productivity. Here are my guidelines for learning to manage your stress, sleep soundly, eat a diet that’s right for you and exercise regularly.
It’s become cliché to moan about how “busy” we are. And it’s true that over the past few years many companies have been demanding ever higher productivity; entrepreneurs strive for continued growth; and even those who don’t have traditional jobs, are always on call because of kids, parents and/or volunteer obligations. Everyone can be contacted 24/7 and even when not “on the job”, they’ll be excessively checking their electronic devices for messages, texts and going down the social media rabbit hole. Therefore, my number one tip for managing stress is to limit looking at your electronic devices after a certain evening hour, e.g. 7 pm. In addition to reducing stress, staying off your electronic devices at night will help you sleep better (more on that below).
Here are a few other tips:
- Practice gratitude: There have been a number of studies showing that practicing gratitude helps with mental resiliency. If you’re feeling stressed, take a moment to be grateful about something. For example, my father has Alzheimer’s, and I spend a lot of time worrying about his well-being. Every now and then, I just have to remind myself to be thankful that he is still alive and generally recognizes me. Changing my mindset changes my stress level.
- Meditate: I know it’s hard and you don’t have to be perfect!! If you have a hard time clearing your mind, find a free guided mediation on YouTube and listen to that for five to ten minutes.
Closely associated with stress, and often pushed to the side as an important element of wellness, is sleep. Unfortunately, as you get older, sleep quality declines. Researchers hypothesis this might have something to do with the pineal gland (which produces the sleep regulation hormone melatonin) shrinking as we age. Some folks supplement with melatonin, but your body will build up a resistance, so I limit my use to helping me overcome jetlag. Most sleep experts recommend prescription sleep aids as temporary measures. For example, to be used after the death of a loved one. However, I have many clients who have been medicating themselves for years and the process of getting off drugs can be extremely difficult. If you are struggling to sleep, here are a few tips:
- Get as much natural light as you can during the day, especially the morning hours.
- Avoid stimulants in the afternoons/evenings.
- Avoid blue light from electronic devices once the sun goes down. Note: you can buy blue light blocking sunglasses, but it’s still best to avoid your being on your phone or computer an hour before bed.
- Keep the bedroom cool and dark.
- Don’t watch TV or eat in bed.
- If you can’t sleep, get out of bed and sit in a chair and stare out the window or at painting. Go back to bed and repeat as necessary. Do not turn on the TV or look at your phone.
- If you have a swing or night shift, focus on getting thirty-five, ninety-minute sleep cycles a week. This would correspond to about eight hours sleep a night. For more information on this strategy, check out the book, Sleep, by Nick Littlehales. I follow this protocol as my schedule rarely allows me to get eight hours in a night, so I incorporate naps into my daily routine.
Everyone’s optimal diet is different. We all have distinct genetics, ancestry, activity levels, health issues and schedules. There are blood, poop, urine and saliva tests that will help you to determine your ideal diet, but be prepared to pay up to $5,000 for a gold standard recommendation. That said, we can take a look at what are called the “Blue Zones”, areas of the world where the population tends to live to a ripe old age while remaining vibrant, for several nutritional takeaways:
- Avoid processed foods. Just because you paid $60 for that “Green Powder Super Food”, don’t make that a substitute for real Kale and Spinach. For example, I love my morning smoothie, and “yes” I incorporate an expensive Green powder for its ashwaganda, moringa and other items I’m unlikely to find at my local grocery store, but I put in lots of fresh organic greens, Kefir for probiotics, and homemade almond milk. Eat. Real. Food.
- Only one of the blue zones, the Seventh Day Adventist in Loma Linda, California, are vegetarian. I can understand not eating meat for ethical reasons, and lord knows the way factory farmed animals are treated is appalling, but that said virtually all indigenous societies ate at least some animal protein. Look for grass feed beef, wild salmon, etc. If possible find a local source.
- Most of these blue zone societies also incorporate some forms of intermittent fasting. Virtually all religions practice some forms of fasting. Most folks don’t think twice about fasting for blood work or a colonoscopy. Science is coming around to the idea that it might be a good idea to occasionally give your digestive system a break.
- Avoid blood sugar spikes. Eating real foods and a combination of protein, fat and carbs will help stave off a blood sugar rollercoaster ride.
- Don’t overconsume calories.
Unfortunately many folks look at exercise primarily as a way to lose weight. In all truth, managing your diet is a much better strategy for weight loss, but exercise is EXTREMELY important for health and longevity. We are meant to move! Just look at the joy in a child’s face as they run around a playground! On a cellular level our body will decay with stagnation and renew with exercise. The more deconditioned you are, the bigger the benefits of adding exercise into your daily routine. Researchers have shown that mitochondria density increases after an exercise session, and the increase was greatest among frail senior citizens.
Just like diet, there is no perfect form of exercise for everyone. If we look at epidemiological studies of folks who live the longest, they are generally moderately active and have never had a weight problem. That said, elite athletes do live longer than the general population so fears of “over-exercising” are largely misplaced unless someone becomes obsessive compulsive. So what’s the best exercise strategy?
- Move throughout the day. Get in your 10,000 steps.
- Treat your gym time as a workout! Don’t do active relaxation on the elliptical. Get in there and get your heart rate up, imagine your ancestor running from a wild animal. Lift some heavy weights, imagine your forefathers building their dwelling by hand with heavy rocks.
- Mix things up.
There is no such thing as a perfect exercise. I teach multiple formats, everything from
Aqua to Yoga, here’s some of the benefits and drawbacks of different
- Zumba is great for cardio and coordination, but ineffective at building muscle.
- Pilates is wonderful for strengthening core muscles and range of motion, but too much is done lying down, which doesn’t translate to real life.
- Yoga is great for fluid movement and breath-work, but most of the population lacks the balance and flexibility to maximize work under load.
- Running is great for the cardiovascular system, but can be too catabolic and breakdown muscle tissue if not done in conjunction with strength training.
- Strength training is probably the most undervalued exercise modality, and probably my favorite. However, lifters will definitely benefit from incorporating brief bouts of intense cardio and regular flexibility or mobility work.
Have a wonderful 2019 my friends. Strive to manage stress, eating unprocessed homemade foods, sleeping soundly and exercising for health. A slimmer waistline and a glowing complexion will be the happy by-products of a healthy lifestyle.